Writing the Time Tested Narrative
The Hero’s Journey is the ultimate formula for writing a complete story and bringing the best experience to your readers. It’s the reason they are reading your book. No matter what genre, subject matter, theme, moral, or anything else, the reader is going to read it for the hero. People read stories about people. If your book is full of beautiful prose, eloquent monologues, witty dialogues, and panoramic settings, but if your main character doesn’t do anything, then the reader will feel dissatisfied or may not finish your book. This is why we need the Hero’s Journey.
Joseph Campbell, an American scholar of several disciplines, wrote a book called, A Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) where he discussed his theory of the archetypal hero found in historical mythologies, also called the Monomyth. There are seventeen stages to Campbell’s Monomyth and they are important to your book. Some authors may only use some, or perhaps all stages. Others may use them out of the order outlined by Campbell. Still, most of them should make their way into your novel. On Friday, I will discuss a modern book that fits nearly perfectly into the Monomyth.
Your story needs at least one main character. That hero or heroine, human or not, must start out in a place of familiarity. They are then called to adventure, usually taking friends or a wise, old mentor to the unknown. There the hero and friends will go on the Road of Trials where tests and temptations lurk. The main character will battle against the antagonist, defeating the ultimate foe, and return home as a changed person. This journey and the seventeen stages fall into a three-part structure: Departure, Initiation, and Return. Departure is where we begin.
Part 1: Departure
This part of the story is where the hero is first introduced, Called to Adventure, and begins his or her quest.
1. Call to Adventure
The story opens in a place of familiarity for the hero. Then the character experiences his or her Call to Adventure and they are thrust into action where they transition from the known to the unknown. Last week, I called this the, Inciting Incident. They may be the same point in the story but not always.
Katniss Everdeen was in her home in District 12.
2. Refusal of the Call
Sometimes the character may refuse the Call to Action. This may may happen because of a sense of duty to family, an insecurity, or the feeling they aren’t worthy of the quest. You can have any number of reasons for not going, including being a Hobbit. Regardless, they always go.
3. Supernatural Aid
Your hero can’t go at it alone. Give them friends, a mentor, equipment, or any other means to help them in their quest. This is often the wise old man, a party of friends, magical sword, or sometimes all three. Make sure your characters are ready for the adventure ahead.
4. Crossing the Threshold
Crossing the Threshold is the point where the character crosses from the known world into the unknown. This new place contains participants, rules, and sometimes landscape that is unfamiliar. Your hero takes his or her first steps and the tension of the narrative begins to grow.
An example would be Luke Skywalker at the cantina in Mos Eisley.
5. Belly of the Whale
This point happens just after the threshold. Your character is in a strange new world and they cannot go back. Often this is a vessel of transportation, but could also be the destruction of a bridge or a broken relationship that keeps the character, either physically or emotionally, from returning home. Here the character shows willingness to take on responsibility and undergoes his or her transformation.
Katniss Everdeen boarded the train for the Capital after the Reaping. She could not go back to District 12.
Part 2: Initiation
Your story is well underway at this point. As the character moves on into their own adventure, so does your story move onto the actionable middle.
6. Road of Trials
From the Belly of the Whale, your character is thrown into various tests, battles, and sequences as they move toward their end goal. They may fail one or more of theses tests depending on what is at stake. If you’re true the the Greek classics, these tests will come in three’s. Not all tests must be combative. The Road of Trials could be a man trying to woo the woman he fancies or an archeologist solving an ancient mystery. Regardless of your subject matter, your character should be pushed to his or her limits of their moral and sometimes physical character.
7. Meeting with the Goddess
Along the way the hero will meet a character who gives them temporary relief from their quest. This is the time to relax, regroup, and rearm after the Road of Trials. It’s a brief pause in the action after the Road of Trials.
Frodo met Lady Galadriel in the woods and the Fellowship took refuge for the night after their encounter with the Goblins in Maria and Balrog the demon.
8. Woman as Temptress
Your character is almost at the height of his or her quest. Temptation strikes just before they reach the desired prize. This is important step in the journey. If the hero gives in then the quest will be lost.
Just as Lady Galadriel gave rest to Frodo and the Fellowship, so did she offer temptation to Frodo for the Ring of Power. He did not give up the ring and continued the quest.
9. Atonement with the Father
You have made it. This is it. The story has reached the point to which it has been building for multiple chapters. Your characters must now face the ultimate power over his or her life. Atonement with the Father is the final battle with the evil sorcerer. It’s the detective’s confrontation with the murderer. It’s the man who confronts the girl’s disapproving parents. It’s Anastasia Steele allowing Christian Grey unleash his full dominant behavior upon her. At this point in the story, your character must fight with everything they have to confront and defeat their antagonist.
The character has defeated the enemy and learned something about themselves or about the world during the battle. There was change in their life and now they have reached enlightenment during their quest. They realize not only was this a test of physical limits but also a learning experience to something greater.
Luke fully trusted in the Force to destroy the Death Star.
11. Ultimate Boon
With the antagonist no longer in the way, your hero can get the ultimate prize. Sometimes this is a physical object they were seeking, like the Holy Grail. Other times it can be new knowledge that was previously lacking or the love of another. This is your character’s reward.
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Part 3: Return
With prize in hand, your character can return home.
12. Refusal of the Return
Your character has undergone an amazing transformation both physically and emotionally. They are no longer the simple milkmaid or 9-to-5 accountant. They are the hero in both mind and status. Sometimes the hero will not want to return from their quest. Why go back to a world where you are just another number at a corporation or another blacksmith? Other times they refuse to go back due to the weight of the knowledge they carry. After achieving enlightenment, the burden they carry is too much for a simple man or woman.
13. Magic Flight
If the hero won something that was guarded from the Ultimate Boon then their journey may not be peaceful. This is often the flight from the altar after taking the elixir of immortal life, but it could also be the vengeance of the girl’s former lover. If your character obtains a physical object, then something or someone else should be guarding it.
14. Rescue from Without
The hero needs help getting to the end of their quest. They also need help returning. If the character was wounded in the final battle or magic flight, this is where they are receiving medical treatment and/or healing happens.
15. Crossing the Return Threshold
The character must go home at some point. They reflect on the change they made in the world as well as the change within themselves as they journey from the previously unknown into the known again.
Frodo and the Fellowship walked back from Mordor and visited many of the places they stopped at along the way as they make their way back to the Shire.
16. Master of Two Worlds
Almost to the end. The character reaches the place where they started their journey which is often home. During the quest, they not only learn something about the world but also about themselves. They achieve enlightenment and must exist in both the old and new worlds.
17. Freedom to Live
Mastery over themselves and the world leads to freedom. The character, plagued by fear and death during his or her quest, no longer fears either. They have the freedom to live with a new outlook on life. This completes their transformation and concludes your story.
Many writers and scholars since Campbell have criticized the Monomyth. Some criticize it for its masculinity, not allowing for heroines. Others have said it leads to safe storytelling as a template to structure repeatable and predictable stories.
Frank Herbert, the author of the Dune series, offered his criticism in 1979, “The bottom line of the Dune trilogy is to beware of heroes. Much better [to] rely on your own judgment, and your own mistakes” and later in 1985 he wrote, “Dune was aimed at this whole idea of the infallible leader because my view of history says that mistakes made by a leader (or made in a leader’s name) are amplified by the numbers who follow without question.” Herbert argues that the Monomyth does not allow for flawed characters. It expects heroes or heroines not to fall to temptation or become beguiled by their power. It’s a sterile mechanism forgetting human nature.
Reactions to Criticism
There are obviously many more criticisms, but the point of this article isn’t to list them all. Campbell theorized the Monomyth in 1949. Unfortunately, that was time for fewer women in many fields. Today, things have changed with many female authors as well as heroines. I’ll be analyzing a female author and heroine for Friday Fiction Breakdown. Check back Friday. If you change Hero to Heroine and Goddess to God then you still have a story structure that stands up for the kind of hero you have.
Whether you want to call it “safe storytelling” or “time-tested” the fact of the matter is the Monomyth is very much still in use and still very successful. There is a reason we still write books and film movies with this structure since the Greek classics, because it works. Look at movies with $50-million opening weekends, books that have been in print for 70-years, or Greek classics still being taught at universities. The Hero’s Journey sells. The same people who sit up on their academic pedestals and call the Monomyth boring or archaic are the ones tenured in literature departments that other professors teaching Homer and other Monomyth classics.
Herbert’s criticism is interesting, but he’s right. Campbell’s observation of the classics did not allow for the possibility of flawed humanity. The Greeks, Romans, and others idolized not only the human body, but also the human spirit believing man could conquer anything with the help of the gods. Their stories accounted for the temptation of mankind, but it was always expected that the hero (heroine) resisted the temptation with an unwavering moral compass. This is archaic and I do agree with Herbert. Modern stories should account for human nature and often our characters do not get what they want or they get something they did not realize they wanted. Herbert himself went out to write a series to prove the Monomyth wrong with extremely fallible characters. George R. R. Martin is another author who comes to mind with fallible characters who die, or worse, due to their nature.
I would argue there is still room for the Hero’s Journey. You do not have to follow every single step, but keep it in mind while you are writing. Like the Snowflake Method, it is not a replacement for good storytelling. It is merely a tool to help you craft your story whether plotting or pantsing. Continue to think of ways you can get your character to change on the inside and change the world. Don’t forget that your characters are human. Hemingway said:
When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people, not characters. A character is a caricature.
Take account of the gender of your character. Heros are no longer exclusive to men. Create ways for the character grow as they travel from the known world to an unknown world, and back home again. The reader should see a change in your character by the end of the story. This means a positive, selfless change. Characters who refuse to change to the times or become selfish end up dead, ask Eddard Stark or Joffrey Baratheon. As long as your characters are changing for good, then there is room for the Monomyth.