Not Just For Heroes
Perhaps you’ve heard about The Hero’s Journey before, maybe you’ve even looked at it and thought “Hah!, I’m sure that works for Star Wars and The Matrix but clearly not for my story”.
I am going to prove you wrong.
The goal of this section is to give you some background on why this construct is so fundamental to storytelling and why, from the ancient Greeks to modern day documentaries, The Hero’s Journey is used to tell stories that resonate with human beings.
One Common Story
Also known as the Monomyth, The Hero’s Journey comes from the psychology of Carl Jung and the mythological studies of Joseph Campbell. At the heart of the structure is the journey from the ordinary world into the special world, gaining new insights and skills in the special world, the hero returns to the ordinary world transformed. Beginning, middle, end.
Joseph Campbell studied the myths and stories of the Buddhist, Hindu, Christian, Native American, Greek and countless other cultures. As he collected narratives, a pattern began to emerge. In drama, fireside storytelling, religious rituals, books and in many psychological themes the overarching structure was the same. Campbell had uncovered something quite astonishing, a common denominator amongst the world’s cultures, a universal way of storytelling.
Campbell hypothesized that one of the reasons that this structure permeates storytelling is that people recognize their own problems and complications in The Hero’s Journey and that they are reassured by the stories that show them how to overcome setbacks and be happy and successful.
A Blockbuster Framework
The framework has proven flexible enough to be applied beyond just traditional storytelling. Marketers are using The Hero’s Journey for content marketing. Songwriters are writing songs with The Hero’s Journey. Blockbuster books and movies that follow The Hero’s Journey to the T are at the top of the bestseller lists every year. The Hero’s Journey is a potent storytelling tool.
“The hero myth is a skeleton that should be masked with the details of the individual story, and the structure should not call attention to itself.”
– Christopher Vogler
Before you dismiss The Hero’s Journey as only being efective in science fiction adventure movies remember: the hero doesn’t have to be the Luke Skywalker archetype, it can be a product, location, community etc. etc.
Campbell’s original work was later simplified from 18 to 12 stages and adapted to the 3 act structure by Christopher Vogler. As a story consultant at Disney, Christopher worked with the scripts of some of the bigger movies of his era and is partly responsible for the widespread use in film of The Hero’s Journey that we see today. Next time you watch a Disney movie, any Disney movie, see if you can spot The Hero’s Journey, applied almost formulaically.
I was certainly making profitable use of them, applying them to every script and novel I considered in my job.
– Christopher Vogler
THE HERO’S JOURNEY – A FRAMEWORK THE ORDINARY WORLD:
The hero is introduced so the audience identifies with his situation and/or dilemma. Show what life is like for the hero, what’s missing?
THE CALL TO ADVENTURE:
Something happens to change the status quo, the hero must face the beginning of change. It’s a call to restore balance to the ordinary world.
REFUSAL OF THE CALL:
The hero almost rejects the call. The hero or secondary character expresses fear and worry about the danger ahead.
MEETING THE MENTOR:
The hero meets a traveler accustomed to traveling between the ordinary world and the special world. The mentor equips the hero with training, equipment and advice. The hero searches and finds courage and wisdom within.
CROSSING THE THRESHOLD:
The Hero commits to entering the special world. The special world has unfamiliar rules and values.
TESTS, ALLIES, AND ENEMIES:
The hero endures tests in the special world. He makes friends and enemies.
The Hero and his new friends prepare for a major challenge, this challenge is the biggest challenge in the special world.
The hero faces their biggest challenge or fear. The challenge lies in a central space in the special world. They might die. They ultimately survive and are reborn stronger than before.
After surviving the challenge of the ordeal they get the thing they were looking for, the thing they need to restore balance to the ordinary world. There’s a brief celebration but the danger of losing the treasured thing is looming.
THE ROAD BACK:
The hero has to escape the special world and return to the ordinary world. He is pursued on the way out. It’s a dangerous flight.
We are at the climax. The hero has almost completed his journey, but is tested once more, but this time it’s worse than ever. He is ultimately victorious by sacrificing, by dying and being reborn. The confict is resolved.
The hero returns home with the treasured thing having transformed the world and himself.