The Hero’s Journey

The hero’s journey is a framework that identifies the various stages a hero passes through as he/she goes on their adventure. It sees the hero achieve their goal, and in the process of winning that, gain new friends, and become the person they have to be in order to transform from an ordinary person into a heroic figure. The hero’s journey originates from various notions about a great epic story, an ‘original’ story that transcends cultures: the monomyth.

Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) was the first analysis to coherently rationalise, and popularise, the classical myth form as the hero’s journey. A number of storytelling experts, academics, writing coaches, screenwriting gurus, have built on Campbell’s work, adapting aspects of it, and emphasising specific areas to suit contemporary genres.

In Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers (2007), a popular screenwriting textbook, the essence of Campbell’s work is simplified for contemporary writers. These, and other, archetypes tend to be highly symbolic, influenced by Jungian notions of the subconscious, internal conflicts, and the persona.

Christopher Vogler’s archetypes

  • Hero (sacrifices his needs for others)

  • Mentor (teaches and protects the hero, may offer a useful gift)

  • Threshold Guardian (the hero’s first big test, initially menacing, overcome by ingenuity, warns of danger, confirms hero’s commitment to the journey)

  • Herald (brings news of the challenge, which the hero must solve)

  • Shapeshifter (pursues their own agenda, sometimes useful, sometimes a traitor, not trustworthy, can be amiable and misdirected, or intentionally evil)

  • Shadow (the villain, the flip side to the hero, a force for bad)

  • Ally (friend, companion, helps the hero)

  • Trickster (joker, provides light relief, challenges the status quo)

The hero may initially appear to be a fool, but will eventually develop his skills and behaviour, to become the respected hero. Alternatively, the hero may be marked out from birth as being a ‘cut above the rest’, destined to take on the role.

The second in charge, will often act as a foil, or contrast with the leader: he or she may initially fight the leader, before joining him or her on the quest. They may have the same common enemy. The magician is the wise one, often a professor or a thinker who has previous experience of the enemy, or monster, and can provide useful advice. The muscle man sees the world simplistically, but has incredible physical strength. The love interest, usually acts to encourage group harmony.

The hero will often have allies with special powers, skills or gifts. These may initially appear pointless, or ineffective, but they turn out to be invaluable to the hero’s success. Along the way, the hero’s allies will also be transformed into heroes of a kind — the coward learns to be brave, the mysterious one reveals himself, the unskilled fighter becomes a warrior. These transformations are akin (but different) to mini coming-of-age stories, which involve self-discovery, but they are not age related.

Christopher Vogler’s stages of the hero’s journey

  • The Ordinary World (the hero in his/her everyday life)

  • The Call to Adventure (the call to action)

  • Refusal of the Call (the hero’s hesitation, doubt, fear)

  • Meeting with the Mentor (the hero gains the material resources, information, and confidence to start the adventure)

  • Crossing the First Threshold (the hero commits to the adventure)

  • Tests, Allies and Enemies (the hero discovers the journey-world, comes up against challenges, and makes friends and enemies)

  • Approach to the Innermost Cave (the hero nears the middle of the story, which is the cave: a place for reflection and planning)

  • The Ordeal (the hero faces the greatest challenge yet and experiences death and rebirth, literal or symbolic)

  • Reward (the hero experiences the consequences of surviving death / enduring suffering)

  • The Road Back (going home, or onto another destination / quest)

  • The Resurrection (the hero’s symbolic death and rebirth, his/ her magical purification as he / she returns to the ordinary world)

  • Return with the Elixir (the hero possesses a ‘magical’ power that will benefit the world)

Adaptations of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey tend to simplify his structure, highlight a specific perspective (like the spiritual journey), or adapt it to a specific genre.