Tag Archives: hero’s journey

The Hero’s Journey with Story Structure

This entry is part 18 of 24 in the series The plot thickens (Mwahahaha)
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by C. Michelle Jefferies

Brooks’ Story Structure is, in my opinion, the best prescribed formula for how to place a story together. However, I originally used The Hero’s Journey (hereafter referred to as HJ) to plot out my current WIP. A lot of what is also called “The Mythic Structure”, within the HJ, makes sense as a template as to where to place each item the story needs. One thing I disliked about HJ was the common opinion that you could move items around to your liking, therefore maybe putting certain things in the wrong place.

I have found, however, that HJ is a good characterization tool for creating a proper arc. It can also add understanding to Brooks’ Structure if applied properly. Used together I find that I have a more, well-rounded picture of the story.

What we recognize as Concept and Theme in Structure, is the Story Question in the HJ. The question I asked is: Can the MC survive being dumped by the man she thought was her life, and move on? A secondary plot question is: Which guy is right for my MC? These questions begin the thought process of how my character is going to grow in this story—the beginning of that character arc.

The Ordinary World in HJ is the equivalent of Part one: Introduction in Structure. We see the main character, who is at a fancy restaurant, unknowingly waiting for her date to dump her. As character arc, we are finding out what her ordinary world is: what she is thinking, what she is wearing, whether she likes the restaurant and how excited she is about getting married. This is the place for us to start identifying with the MC and establish emotions and rapport with her. Because, when that devastating information comes, we want our reader to be emotionally invested in the MC, enough that they don’t put the book down.

We introduce theme and set things in action by ‘calling the MC to action’, or reaction on her part. The Call to Action in HJ is not plot point #1. Although the event is important, the MC or Heroine, refuses to act. The Call is the boyfriend dumping her in public, which leads us to the Refusal of the Call. My MC goes home and cries, thinking her world is over. She locks herself in her room with a half gallon of ice cream. These actions are giving us more depth into the characters’ personality.

At this point in time we also have what is called Meeting with the Mentor. Sometimes the mentor is the one delivering the call. Sometimes it is the person the MC goes to for advice and help. My MC doesn’t have a “mentor.” She has her friend, who just happens to be a guy, who she goes to for advice and safe friendship after the disastrous date. The relationship between the MC and the mentor is another way that we develop character. How they relate reveals a lot about the MC.

Next, we experience what HJ calls Crossing the First Threshold or plot point #1. The MC is at work, and her friend talks her into going out with his brother. By accepting the date with her friend’s brother, she has accepted that the ex is a jerk and she needs to move on, thus figuratively putting the ice cream securely in the freezer. She moves from what we saw as her ordinary world into the new reality. This area is often a point where our MC struggles to become better and braver, and to take that step into the post-First Threshold world.

Now we enter Part two: reaction, the Tests, Enemies, and Allies stage of the book. This is where the MC adjusts to her new reality—post ex. She begins down a road of new possibilities. Characters, enemies, and trials are introduced during this part. This is where in the “tree” theory after you put your character in the tree, (Crossing the Threshold), you begin to throw small rocks at her. The MC reacts to what her life has dealt her.

As we Approach the Innermost Cave which is Structure’s Mid-point the plot begins to get serious and the “rocks” get a lot bigger. This point is often a place where the writer reveals information to the reader that opens up whole new possibilities. Sometimes the reader knows something that the MC doesn’t even know. My MC finds that she has feelings for both of the brothers. The guy friend finds that he has feelings for the MC too and hates that he has introduced her to his brother. By his “code,” he should back off and let the older brother have his chance with her.

This “reaction” from both the friend and the MC leads us to Part three, proactive stage. This is a time of trials for the MC. She finds out who her real friends are and what she is made of, the previous trials proving her mettle.

As we near The Ordeal, we can have either the “lull moment” where the characters think all is lost and there is no hope, or a “I’ve finally succeeded and this is the end, only to find out it isn’t” moment. My MC has an all is lost moment, and feels that she will never know who is right for her, and she will be single her whole life. This point in the story is a place where we again feel sympathy for the MC and deepens our concern for what happens to her.

The Ordeal or Plot point #2 comes at about [3/4s or] 4/5s way through the book. This is the huge crisis moment, the event that changes everything. After this point in time, no new characters or information may be allowed into the story. The MC is at Thanksgiving with the brother and has had a heated moment with the friend who she thought wasn’t interested. The spark is still there and it has grown stronger. The brother proposes and she has to make a decision—to live a relatively happy life with a good guy, or take a chance with the friend and truly love someone. She says no and runs. The friend follows her at the brother’s request, oblivious to the attraction between them. This is the refining fire for our MC, the culmination of all previous actions. This is where the reader is cheering for the MC to succeed.

Her decision is the Reward. She has proven herself, and has demonstrated to everyone that she has grown and is stronger for it. We are still cheering for her and her success.

What Structure calls Part four, resolution, HJ calls Return With Elixir. The Ordeal brings us massive change in the MC’s life. Now that everything has changed for my MC, she makes decisions that bring about resolution. She confesses her feelings and they finally kiss. They live happily ever after, or at least until the book ends. This is where the MC moves into the new ordinary world and we see not only the comparison to the old world but we see the Story Question answered. We tie up all the loose ends for the reader as well.

What do you think? How would you line up the Hero’s Journey and Story Structure?

About the author
C. Michelle Jefferies practically grew up in a library. When she was ten, she realized she wanted to write stories like the science fiction books she loved to read. A mother of six, she put her writing on the back burner while she focused on raising her young children. When her children were old enough for her to spend a few hours on the computer, without them burning the house down, she returned to writing and hasn’t stopped since. She blogs at My life in a laptop.

Photo credits: path—Kat Gloor; path through structure (bridge)—Jo Ann Deasy

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Cons of the Hero’s Journey (and a winner!)

This entry is part 15 of 24 in the series The plot thickens (Mwahahaha)
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No plotting method is perfect—though a lot of Hero’s Journey fans may tell you that the HJ comes close 😉 . However, academics and scholars have pointed out some weaknesses in using the Hero’s Journey as a template for a novel or movie.

On a scholarly level, many point out that Campbell’s theories (the basis for Vogler’s, if you’ll recall) may not really be supported by the full body of mythology and fairy tales. He uses the Western canon, and even then, not the worldwide canon, to support his theories, and within mythological studies today, most consider his work an overgeneralization at best.

As Eileen mentioned in the comments yesterday, the Hero’s Journey can sometimes seem a little formulaic. However, that’s not always a bad thing. Romance, mysteries/thrillers/suspense, and inspirational novels are all “formulaic”—they have a prescribed formula, and if you break with it, well, good luck with the audience. Fans of those genres read them because they know how they’re going to turn out, and that reaffirmation is powerful.

On the other hand, some do believe that adhering to the Hero’s Journey had produced a lack of originality and clichés in pop culture, especially in movies. (However, I still think it’s versatile enough to use—just try to give your story events a fresh twist. Isn’t that what we should be doing anyway?)

Finally, the Hero’s Journey isn’t all that kind to women—and not just because it’s not called the “Heroine’s Journey.” While it’s certainly possible to use a woman instead of a man as a protagonist, Campbell’s archetypal roles for women include mother, witch and damsel in distress. Not exactly a strong, empowered female role model, eh?

Critical analysis aside, however, the Hero’s Journey can still be a good model for plotting a story—even if it doesn’t magically give you the story events that will make your story a perfect, marketable marvel.

Next week, we’ll take a look at another plotting method that helps you not only plot but also pace your story events.

And before we end here, of course, we have to announce our winner of a free copy of The Everything Guide to Writing a Romance Novel. After taking out comments from me, Faye and her co-author Christie, and using the a random integer generator, the winner is <drum roll please>

Stephanie of Write Bravely

Congratulations, Stephanie. If you’ll send me your mailing address, I’ll pass it along to Faye and she’ll get the book out to you ASAP.

How has the Hero’s Journey fallen short for you and your story telling?

Photo by Mary Harrsch

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Applying the Hero’s Journey

This entry is part 11 of 24 in the series The plot thickens (Mwahahaha)
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The Hero’s Journey is one of the more useful plotting methods we’ve looked at so far, because of the specific nature of most of the steps. And I can say this from experience—I’ve used the Hero’s Journey (both Vogler’s and Jung’s versions) to plot at least six books. Of those, I’ve actually written two of them (one with Vogler’s outline and the other with Jung’s).

The Hero’s Journey is a fun method to use for plotting, because it gives a great structure that we instinctively recognize (since it’s based on archetypes from fairy tales and all those myths we had to study in high school). It has some very specific steps to follow, so you have clear suggestions on the types of events to include.

However, sometimes I’ve been disappointed by the Hero’s Journey as a plotting method—when I expect to look at a list of steps and magically have the list tell me exactly how I should handle each of those scenes. That’s not really what it’s for—we still have to use our imagination.

And, as with all plotting methods, we have to be flexible. Not all books require all steps. A murder mystery, for example, may open after the hero has finally accepted the call—when he arrives on the crime scene. He may have another call to adventure, though—something that makes the case personal, if it isn’t already. And, of course, in writing, we have to stay flexible, too. My Hero’s Journey outlines bear only a passing resemblance to the finished products—in fact, I’m not totally sure I even have all the steps left in the manuscripts.

Sometimes it’s tough to see how the Hero’s Journey applies to different genres. Like I said, sometimes in mysteries, we jump in in the middle of the Journey. At Annette’s presentation a few months ago, someone asked about applying the Hero’s Journey to a romance. I was actually convinced to use the Hero’s Journey by The Everything Guide to Writing a Romance Novel, which I won on the Romance Writers’ Revenge blog—and tomorrow, we’ll have co-author Faye Hughes here to discuss how the Hero’s Journey plays out in a romance!

Now the Hero’s Journey is one of my favorite methods of plotting. Have you used the Hero’s Journey? How have you seen it applied in your works or in others’?

Image credit: Svilen Mushkatov

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Archetypal characters in the Hero’s Journey

This entry is part 13 of 24 in the series The plot thickens (Mwahahaha)
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Checking out archetypal characters to help with planning a novel? Be sure to join my newsletter for a FREE plotting/revision roadmap, and check out the full series on plotting novels in a free PDF!

As I mentioned yesterday, the Hero’s Journey started with Joseph Campbell looking at heroes across mythology. He found that not only do heroes have a lot in common, but so do other roles in their stories. Again, Christopher Vogler adapted this for writers in The Writer’s Journey, so we’ll be using his terminology.

The Hero is our protagonist. The audience identifies with him (or her). He grows in the course of the story, and is involved in most of the action. He has a character flaw, of course (if he were perfect, could he grow? And would he be interesting?) This flaw is often the flipside of his biggest strength—his optimism means he has false hope, love of family means he won’t sacrifice his dad’s to save the world, etc. But he must be willing to sacrifice when we get to that climactic point of the story.

The first archetypal character he usually meets is the Herald, the character who issues the call to adventure. His challenge announces a coming change, that all is not well in the Ordinary World. He also gives the Hero motivation to go on the adventure.

The Herald doesn’t have to actually be a person—in Lord of the Rings, it’s the ring; in Harry Potter, it’s the letters; in Star Wars: A New Hope, it’s Luke’s aunt & uncle dying. (You could try to argue it’s meeting R2-D2, but remember that R2 bore a message for someone else).

He usually has a Mentor who teaches him. Often, the Mentor gives him a useful gift as well as motivates the hero into accepting the call. (Technically, the mentor doesn’t have to be a person either—and I don’t just mean disembodied voices and Force ghosts, either. It can be anything that teaches the Hero and prepares him for the coming tests.)

Along the way, the Hero encounters Threshold Guardians who block his path. These obstacles are tests for the Hero—have his skills developed enough? The guardians may be working for the good side or the bad side, or no one at all (but it’s hard to make someone who makes trouble for his own sake believable for very long, you know?)

The Trickster is often a sidekick. He often balances the drama with comic relief and brings things into perspective.

The Shape-Shifter can be his or her own character—or it can be combined with another character type. As the name states, he’s not what he appears to be. Revealing his “real” self can create big change in the story—but they may or may not be evil. They may switch sides, but they may become good. In fact, in a romance, the romantic leads are often Shape-Shifters because they must change to enter into a relationship. (Heck, even the Hero might be a Shape-Shifter, since he has to learn and grow throughout the course of the story.)

The Hero may encounter a rival—someone who’s competing for an intermediary goal, or the girl, etc. But it’s the Shadow that is the true villain. He tests the Hero’s true abilities and worthiness, and forces the Hero to rise to the challenge. He’s often a shape-shifter, appearing beautiful, elegant or good.

Added by Iapetus999 (Andrew) in the comments:
The Ally (AKA the Sidekick, the Best Friend, the Brother-in-Arms, the Faithful Companion, the Loyal Troops, the Partner in Crime (or do-gooding), the Guardian Angel, the Band of Brothers, the Knight in Shining Armor, the Merry Men, the Faithful Steed…) The Ally is a person the Hero trusts. He’s someone the Hero can turn to when the chips are down, to provide him with wisdom, to provide him with humor or a shoulder to lean on, to lend him an ear, to prepare him for battle, to do all the little and big things a Hero can’t do for himself. He may be too tired from the fight, too engaged with the enemy, or just on a pig-headed mission, so the Ally needs to watch his back. We can’t all be Heroes, but we can all be Allies.

And nothing is complete without a few examples, right?

  Harry Potter Star Wars IV-VI
Hero Harry Luke
Shadow Voldemort Darth Vader
Mentor Hagrid, Dumbledore       Obi-Wan
Herald Letters the deaths of Beru and Owen
Shape shifters Literally: McGonagall Leia, Vader/Anakin, Obi-Wan
Trickster Fred & George Han, C3PO, R2-D2
Threshold Guardians      Neville, Fluffy Stormtroopers
Ally Hermione Granger, Ron Weasley Han Solo, Princess Leia, and the Droids

What do you think? How do you see these archetypal characters, either in others’ works or your own?

Image credits: superhero—Stefanie L.; shadow—Michal Zacharzewski

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A quick overview of the Hero’s Journey

This entry is part 12 of 24 in the series The plot thickens (Mwahahaha)
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Planning out a novel? Be sure to join my newsletter for a FREE plotting/revision roadmap, and check out the full series on plotting novels in a free PDF!

Over the last two weeks, we’ve looked at two plotting methods. One helped us parse our story into parts, the other helped us grow it from an idea. But a weakness of both is that neither really tells us what kind of events we need in a story—especially in the sagging middle.

The Hero’s Journey is based on the universal archetype work of Carl Jung, as applied by Joseph Campbell. Campbell studied myths, legends and tales from around the world, and observed that most of the stories followed a similar pattern. However, it was Christopher Vogler that applied the Hero’s Journey to writing (and film) technique and story structure in The Writer’s Journey.

I first learned about the hero’s journey in high school. We had this really cool interactive website—man, I wish I still had the URL . . . what? Why are you looking at me that way? Yes, we had interactive websites when I was in high school. This was like ten years ago. You’re just jealous.

Ahem. Anyway. Since then, I’ve come across the hero’s journey . . . oh, a million times. The bulk of this post actually comes from my notes from the most recent encounter, a presentation by Annette Lyon to the local League of Utah Writers chapter in April June (I’m good with calendars). While there are a full seventeen stages of Campbell’s journey, Vogler reduces the steps to the twelve here.

The Hero’s Journey

The story begins in The Ordinary World. Here, of course, we meet the hero and his problems. This is how we can introduce the story question—the protagonist’s underlying quest (Can heroine find her place in the world? Can hero mend his bitter, broken heart? Can Jimmy save his grandpa’s farm?). The story question and the ordinary world may foreshadow the story world—three words: Wizard of Oz.

Then comes the Call to Adventure. A herald arrives, announcing the change. (I just watched Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone again this weekend, and the call is super obvious there, yes?) The hero must act—it’s not an open-ended kind of catchall cast call. In some cases, a “we need someone who has X, Y and Z characteristics” might work, but we often see more of a “We need YOU” call.

Normally, the hero isn’t interested. Obviously, this is going to be hard work, and maybe I don’t want to find my place in the world/mend my heart/save the farm that badly. This is the Refusal of the Call.

Fear doesn’t have to be the only reason for refusal—he may also have noble reasons, or perhaps other characters are preventing him from leaving (on purpose or inadvertently). Again, this is HP1—his aunt and uncle refuse to let him even open the letter, and whisk him off to some rocky outcropping.

Sometimes it takes a mentor to get the hero on the right path. So next we have the Meeting with the Mentor. (This can also take place after the hero has committed to the adventure, or kind of concurrently . . . anyway.) This gets the hero (and the story) moving again. The mentor often provides hero with training and/or an object that will help in the quest.

Now we’re ready for Crossing the First Threshold. This is where the hero leaves the Ordinary World and enters the New, Special Story World. (Again, this is dramatized well in The Wizard of Oz—literally in Technicolor—but lots of movies actually have big cues for this transition—change in tempo, location, lighting, music, etc.). This is where our hero faces his first test, the first challenge to his commitment. Life will never be the same once the hero passes the threshold.

The bulk of the story comes in the Tests, Allies and Enemies phase. Here, the hero adjusts to the New World, often with tests of skill. He meets lots of people and has to determine whether they’re allies or enemies. In these sections, we see groups coming together and people gathering. The hero picks up his sidekicks and possibly a rival. In HP1, this is everything from the Hogwarts Express to the sorting, and then all the inner skirmishes the kids face.

Then things start to get serious with the Approach to the Inmost Cave (can’t you just hear a booming, echoing voice?). This is the first of two big, final tests—it’s preparatory to the final test, though sometimes the character thinks it’s the final test. However, this will only prepare him for a later Ordeal.

In the Inmost Cave, we often run into illusions and characters who determine the hero’s worthiness. The hero must use what he’s learned so far to get through, and sometimes he enters a new Special World. In the original Star Wars trilogy, this is most obvious when Luke actually goes into a cave to confront an illusion of Darth Vader. In Harry Potter, Harry, Ron and Hermione have to use what they’ve learned to get past Fluffy, the deadly vines, the swarm of keys and the living chess set.

These ordeals strip the hero of his friends, leaving him alone for the final Ordeal. But since that’s kind of heavy, there’s often a break here—some comic relief, a campfire scene (or this can be after the Ordeal). This can also be a scene where they think they’ve won—and then they find out there’s just one more “little” problem.

The Ordeal. This may be the climax. It’s a “final exam” for the hero to show off his newly-gained knowledge. Here he battles the real villain (not to be confused with the rival, who is so trivial now), and faces his greatest fears. The hero has to be willing to sacrifice something huge and/or die here.

But it all pays off, because next he gets to seize the sword—he gets The Reward. The hero captures or finds the Elixir—an actual treasure, some treasure of knowledge—or accomplishes the point of the quest. Now we can celebrate (another good place for a campfire scene).

Here, the hero has an epiphany—he understands something new about himself. He’s grown, and that itself might be the Elixir.

In an action-oriented story, or a story that Will. Never. End. (Make! It! Stop!), we come next to The Road Back. The hero heads back to the Ordinary World with the Elixir. The Villain comes back (I’ve heard this referred to as always having to slay the dragon twice).

Now, we have the Resurrection, which is often the climax. This is the biggest ordeal of all, something that pushes him to the limit. Remember that after the Ordeal, the hero realized he was changed. Here, we get to see that change in action. What part of himself did he sacrifice or lose? If this is the climax, then this is where the hero finally triumphs over evil once and for all, he vanquishes the Villain and the Villain is changed forever.

And we get back on the road back to home for our triumphal Return with the Elixir. Here we have the denouement. Characters receive their rewards or punishments. We wrap up all the loose threads—but a surprise or two in here is always fun!

After this, though, the hero may leave because with the Elixir, he no longer belongs in the Ordinary World. Frodo is the classic example of this.

Naturally, as Campbell also examined characters, we’ll take a look at archetypal characters in the hero’s journey tomorrow.

Want to go more in-depth in the Hero’s Journey? Check out Andrew Rosenberg’s (Iapetus999) current blog series!

What do you think? Can you see the Hero’s Journey in popular books and movies today? How about your own work?

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