What is a hero’s journey?
Is the hero’s journey right for your story?
How can you apply the hero’s journey to your life adventure?
The Hero’s Journey: Classic Storytelling
If you’re getting ready to write your life story or tell the narrative of a loved one’s life, you may want to consider using the hero’s journey to write your story.
Every adventure ever written—whether fiction or nonfiction, biography or autobiography—has a beginning, a middle, and an end. This framework is also referred to as the three-act structure, including the setup, the conflict and the resolution. And every story structure has character archetypes: a hero or heroine (protagonist) as well as a villain (which can be human, alien/monster or a situation/thought/ideal) as well as other story characters. Adventure subject matter and plots can be endless. And although it’s best for stories to take their own course, many stories— either by intent or by nature—fall under a narrative structure often referred to as a hero’s journey, or monomyth.
The hero’s journey consists of twelve stages, a popular form of structure derived from Joseph Campbell's Monomyth from his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces and adapted by Christopher Vogler. Essentially, the hero’s journey tracks the path of a story’s hero or heroine through ordeals, obstacles, emotional ups and downs, and challenges until they arrive at the reward and, at the same time, their changed self.
What Are the Steps to a Hero’s Journey?
Many Hollywood movies, such as Star Wars and The Wizard of Oz, appear to follow this popular story arc or trajectory. The hero’s journey takes place in two worlds: the world of everyday reality and the world of fantasy or unreality. The hero’s journey typically follows a certain order, though variations are possible. Let’s take a deeper look as we break down the traditional, twelve-step structure of the hero’s journey.
An adventure usually starts on a day where everything changes, but at first it starts out in the hero’s normal life, an otherwise ordinary day. Think about the movie Independence Day. The movie opens with everyday scenes: Captain Steven Hiller getting ready to leave for work and saying goodbye to his family… all mundane, typical morning activities and banter. You learn about the hero’s personality, true nature, and capabilities. It’s easy to relate to the hero in this way. He’s just like you and me.
Call to Adventure
The plot really starts getting good when the hero or heroine receives a call to action: a personal threat or a threat to family, friends, community, and way of life. The call to adventure can be a small occurrence or problem, which snowballs into something larger or it can be something life shattering.
In the movie Independence Day, Captain Hiller and Jasmine step outside and there’s a city-sized spaceship hovering overhead. Bam! Everything changes. This normal day is not so normal any more. And there is a quest that must be taken. You know the protagonist is about to encounter things they never dreamed of doing. You know the hero will be challenged, become frustrated, and nearly lose everything. And you know that there’s no way the hero will face all of these experiences without experiencing undergoing monumental change.
Refusal of The Call
The hero may accept or refuse the challenge. But either way, the hero will have his/her own fears, doubts or shortcomings that need to be conquered. The road ahead may seem scary, which would be no different than our own response. This inner struggle gives the reader or movie watcher an opportunity to further bond with the main character—before some difficult choices must be made.
Meeting the Mentor
There will be several turning points throughout the story. But at one crucial turning point, the hero will meet a mentor (sometimes an unlikely person) who will provide the guidance the hero so desperately needs.
In the Harry Potter series, Harry is met with challenges at nearly every turn. And there is always a mentor nearby, usually Albus Dumbledore, Hagrid, Lupin, Sirius Black, Professor McGonagall, a Weasley or even Severus Snape.
Crossing the Threshold
Whether willing or forced, the hero or heroine steps out on his/her journey. The hero dives into the unfamiliar, never to return the same. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy runs away from home just before a big storm hits—all for her beloved Toto.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
Now fully on their adventure, the main character is confronted with trials and tribulations of increasing difficulty. Obstacles are thrown in his/her path, including people, or powerful foes, who intend to thwart the main character’s progress. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is met up with trees that throw apples and a witch that throws fire. She makes it to the Emerald City and is turned away by the Wizard with the challenge of retrieving the broom of the Wicked Witch of the West. The hero must overcome each challenge in order to progress toward the final goal.
The hero learns who to trust and who not to trust, who their enemies and allies are. The hero’s skills are challenged at every turn. This helps the reader or viewer gain deeper insight into the character and form a deeper bond.
Approach to the Innermost Cave
The innermost cave can be an actual place or a metaphysical challenge… the deepest fear or danger that the hero will face. It’s crossing the threshold and getting past the threshold guardian—past the point of no return. In the case of The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is taken prisoner in the Wicked Witch of the West’s castle. Her life is in danger, and she is told that she will die when the hourglass runs out. Toto escapes in order to lead Dorothy’s friends (also the heroes in this plot) to her place of captivity.
This is the greatest test of the main character. It can be a physical test or one of deep, inner crisis. The protagonist must draw upon all of his/her skills and experience to overcome and conquer the challenge. The hero is reborn through some form of ‘death,’ gaining greater power than ever before and the necessary insight to fulfill his/her destiny and reach the journey’s end. It’s truly ‘do or die.’ In the movie, Armageddon, A.J. must go down and activate the nuclear bomb by hand in order to save planet Earth, then Harry Stamper takes the duty for him as a loving gift to his daughter. In The Wizard of Oz, the scarecrow, tin man, lion, and Toto must enter the witch’s castle to save Dorothy.
Reward (Seizing the Sword)
The moment of truth! The enemy has been defeated. The greatest personal challenge has been overcome, and the hero becomes a new person, stronger and wiser than ever before. In The Wizard of Oz, the wicked witch dies by melting and Dorothy asks the witch’s henchmen for her broom. In Independence Day, the bomb is planted in the mother ship and Steven and David escape.
The Road Back
This road back is when the hero begins his/her return to the place where the plot began, forever changed, and perhaps feeling elation, vindication, acclaim or exoneration. But sometimes the journey is not over yet. This is where the surprise ending comes into play. Perhaps the villain/enemy/monster is thought to be dead, but they rise one more time for the hero to finally conquer them. Think of the Terminator movies and probably every horror movie ever made. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy returns to the Emerald City with the broom only to find out that the Wizard is only an ordinary man and has no power to get her home.
Now the hero must face that final challenge and overcome his/her last bit of fear. It’s the final battle with the most far-reaching consequences. Consider the final battle in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 2. Harry Potter faces Voldemort for the final time and must extinguish him forever. As a reader or viewer, you feel as if you are part of the conflict and fighting right beside the heroic main character. In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is told that she has had the power within her to return home at will. And she must say goodbye to her new mentors—all of them now having the tools they needed to be fully transformed.
Return with the Elixir
This is the final stage of the hero's journey. The hero returns home, having grown as a person, having faced many dangers, and having learned a lot about himself/herself, others, and the world around them. And the hero looks forward to a new life with fresh knowledge, skills, insight, perspective, and hope.
The final reward, whether spiritual or material, represents change, success, and proof of his/her journey. The story is resolved for the main character and for all other people in the plot. Enemies have been punished and allies have been rewarded. And the hero will never be the same again.
Why the Hero’s Journey Is Important
The reason why the hero’s journey has become such a staple of not only Hollywood movies but of story writing altogether is because the hero’s journey reflects both our own personal journeys and how we see ourselves. It is nearly a universal story structure, told time and time again under different circumstances with different characters, different weaknesses, and different challenges. It is a basic storyline that fellow man can connect and identify with. It is a journey we take in our own lives to a lesser degree. And it is a mysterious adventure we can go on with the main character—and still feel safe in our own lives.
How to Use the Hero’s Journey in Telling Stories
You don’t have to be a Hollywood screenwriter or great American novelist to have storytelling skills or to use this story structure in the telling of your own life adventure. In fact, you don’t have to use all twelve elements of the hero’s journey for your story to carry meaning. Your story is unique, and likely you have experienced many journeys in your life… perhaps not as epic as in the movies, but they may have been amazing just the same in your own life.
Once you’re familiar with the twelve steps of the hero’s journey, decide which step (or more than one step) you can apply to create your own adventure. So, how do you know if the hero’s journey is applicable to your story? Let’s start by asking a few more questions.
- Have there been any journeys in your life?
- Obstacles to overcome?
- Situations of self-doubt?
- Opportunities when you met a mentor who helped guide you through a tough time?
- Does your story have a life lesson?
- Did the experience challenge you in a new and big way?
- Did someone help or guide you?
- Did you feel fear, worry or anxiety?
- Was there a point of no return?
- Were you forever changed as a result of your own journey?
If you answered Yes to any of the above questions, it may be worth at least experimenting with the hero’s journey as you tell your own story. You may even discover something new about yourself or the experience as you retell the story.
Use this twelve-step guide to process and write through the telling of your own life experiences and how you changed as a result of those experiences. As you work through the steps, use them as a guide for what to include that will be compelling for people and keep them with the adventure… and leave them with new knowledge that they can apply to their own lives as well.
Improving Your Writing Using the Hero’s Journey
Using the hero's journey for telling a story can make your tale stand out from others and make the narrative very relatable for the target audience. Our brains naturally connect with this type of storytelling. And it can help keep you on the right trajectory while telling your story.
The hero’s journey also provides a method to analyze your own stories. When you match the elements of your own story line to the twelve steps of the hero’s journey, the most important parts of your story can rise to the surface. So, instead of getting mired in unimportant details, you are better able to home in on the crux of the story and keep your audience both engaged and interested throughout the telling of your tale.
Do You Need to Use All 12 Steps of the Hero’s Journey?
Wondering whether you need to completely mirror the hero’s journey? The short answer is No. We get that you’re not trying to write a Hollywood blockbuster movie or the great American novel. And that’s OK.
The hero’s journey is meant to be used as a barometer of sorts to gauge elements of your narrative with audience interest. You may not need to start at step one, and your adventure may not have a mentor who plays an important role. Sometimes, you may roll more than one step in the hero’s journey together. It’s truly up to you how deep you dive into the writing of your story. It may not be necessary to use all twelve steps in order to portray your story.
If you’d like hands-on experience to learn more about the hero’s journey and its mythic structure, we recommend the following books and resources.
Hero’s Journey Web Pages
Hero’s Journey Infographics
Hero’s Journey Books
You Are a Heroine: A Retelling of the Hero’s Journey by Susanna Liller
The Hero's Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work (The Collected Works of Joseph
Campbell) by Joseph Campbell, Phil Cousineau, et al.
The Ultimate Hero's Journey: 195 Essential Plot Stages Found in the Best Novels and Movies
by Neal Soloponte