You are probably on a journey; I know I am. For me, it’s a writer’s journey, but it’s a hero’s journey, too. Writers have our own battles, allies, and enemies to navigate. Whether we realize it or not, the characters we write about, and ourselves, have embarked upon The Hero’s Journey. Cinch down your cloak, replenish the ink in your sharpest quill, and let’s talk about it.
The Hero’s Journey is a concept I first read about in Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces. Campbell explains that there are reoccurring themes that run through almost all stories, myths, and even religious texts. The theme is The Hero’s Journey. Once it’s broken down into pieces, you can’t help but noticing it in most of the books, movies, and mediums you see everyday. Even aspects of our own lives conform to the structure.
While Campbell introduced the idea of The Hero’s Journey, Christopher Vogler does an amazing job of breaking it down into component pieces in his book, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers & Screenwriters. Campbell basically said, “There be dragons ahead,” and Vogler took that statement and wrote a book on how to slay those winged beasts.
Vogler’s step-by-step model of writing stories has been adopted by many writers working in different mediums. You’ll have a hard time finding a Pixar or Disney movie that doesn’t adopt this structure outright. The reason? Well, for one, it works. Two, this plotting method is relatable to most people, because our life experience seems to tie into the myth of the story.
Vogler explains, “The Hero’s Journey, I discovered, is more than just a description of the hidden patterns of mythology. It is a useful guide to life, especially the writer’s life. In the perilous adventure of my own writing, I found the stages of the Hero’s Journey showing up just as reliably and usefully as they did in books, myths, and movies” (p. 5).
With Vogler and Campbell’s twin stars on the horizon as our guide, lets learn about the journey. Also, let’s uncover how it applies to our writing and our lives.
The Ordinary World. This is where the writer introduces the hero/heroine in their normal environment. Of course, they aren’t a hero yet. They are a street rat (Aladdin), hairy-footed Hobbit in a hole (LOTR), or girl living in the coal district (Hunger Games).
For the writer, this may be the time before you started writing. Maybe you thought about writing. There was a nagging feeling, but you ignored it. You stayed in the comfort of your Ordinary World.
The Call to Adventure. This is when an external influence causes the hero/heroine to consider abandoning the Ordinary World. This call to action is often times them learning of a threat to the safety of their Ordinary World.
For writers, this is the moment of inspiration. Maybe a book, friend, teacher, movie, flash of clarity, or all of these combined, turns the nagging feeling into something more. The words are calling to you.
Refusal of the Call. This is the moment of doubt. The budding hero doesn’t want to leave the comfort of the Ordinary World. Family, doubt in ability, lack of incentive, and fear are often played upon refusals.
These are those first doubts you feel as a writer. “I can’t do this. I don’t have a story to tell. I don’t even know how to write well. Is writing worth it?”
Mentor Pops Up. Aladdin had a genie, the hobbits had Gandalf, and Katniss had Haymitch. These are their guides to push them along. Some act as a moral compass, some simply push the hero, and some are there to meddle.
A mentor doesn’t have to be a person when it comes to writers. It can be, sure, but it can also be a book/idea/dream that inspires you. Something to guide you along your path and help you step outside of your comfort zone.
Crossing the First Threshold. This is when the story starts getting interesting. The hero puts his/her head down and embarks on the quest. They accept the adventure, leaving the Ordinary World and entering a special one.
For you wordsmiths, this is when you say, “Screw it – lets do this thing.” You sit down and begin the process. You exit the real world and enter the creative whirlpool. I see many authors quitting their jobs and taking up writing full-time. No doubt, they are crossing toward the First Threshold.
Tests, Allies, and Enemies. Here we start getting elements sprinkled in. The hero/heroine meets friends, learn of and encounter enemies, and begin facing minor trials. They battle threshold guardians and sometimes, almost always, they come up short. The hero/heroine haven’t yet honed their skills. Or perhaps they haven’t built a strong enough connection with their allies to be effective.
For us scribblers, this is the beginning of the process. We seek out others like us. We deal with writers block and creativity issues. We learn that the initial fire, that spark, won’t sustain us. We need something more: dedication and habit. We often fail, but in the process, we begin to get better at the craft.
Approach to the Inmost Cave. At this point, the hero/heroine (and allies if applicable) have honed their skills, and are preparing to face the enemy. They stand at the gates, swords/wands/pens in hand with a determined look on their faces. Their scars, whether metaphorical or very real, are a testament to the journey they have taken to this point.
For writers, this when you start getting deeper into the work. You’ve knocked out a couple hundred pages, maybe told a few people what you are up to, and now the pressure is mounting. The end is in very near, but you still have work to do. You hope your resolve and skill will carry you to the end.
The Supreme Ordeal. This is the, “oh crap,” moment when the hero stares death in the face. For the reader/audience, you wonder if they will survive. The hero/heroine does survive the conflict, often barely, and realize they are more powerful/resourceful than they thought.
For the writer, this is the moment when you almost lose the writing battle. You step away for a few days, weeks, or months — sometimes longer. You reappraise what you are doing. If you are the writing hero I know you are, you’ll return to the desk and finish.
Reward. For the hero, they seize the reward after beating the boss; the battle is won. Many times, they gain a boon, trophy, or magic item. The reward may simply be the realization of power they didn’t know existed within themselves.
My friend M.L.S. Weech always says, the more times you type, “The End,” the more confident you will be in your skill. He also says the more of them you type, the easier and quicker the next one is to get to. This is sentiment I’ve heard echoed by many of the writers I work with, or consider to be mentors in my own journey. Needles to say, for a writer, typing The End is a major reward. It is also the realization of hidden potential.
The Road Back. The hero begins the return journey back to the Ordinary World with the reward in hand, or inside them.
For the writer, I equate this to the real world versus fantasy world we live in while we write. You improved your skills while you wrote, you finished the work, now you must come back to the Ordinary World and edit/promote/sell it.
Resurrection. The hero may have slain the dragon and seized the magic sword that heals the land, but now the dragon’s mother is in pursuit. Often times, the hero must deal with the consequences of their Supreme Ordeal. When power is found, unlocked, or a magic item is gained, there is often the issue of wielding this power responsibly. Sometimes, those around you become wary of what you have become, or what you are capable of.
For the writer, this is the realization that writing The End is just another beginning. There are edits, rewrites, book covers, email lists, agents, publishers, and critics to contend with now. More ordeals spring up like weeds.
Return with the Elixir. It’s all meaningless for the hero if they don’t return to the Ordinary World clutching their spoils. These spoils can by physical: an item to cleanse the blighted land, or powerful weapon to protect it. The spoils can be mental: they now have a story to share, become a mentor themselves, or offer insights to protect and enhance their Ordinary World.
For us writers, these are the moments of impact after the book, or work, is out there. The email from an appreciative reader, the five star review, the kind words from friends and family. Maybe your elixir is to compile a book to illuminate the way, much like Campbell and Vogler did for me.
That’s The Hero’s Journey. This was a longer post, if you made it this far you’ve completed a reader’s journey. In the future, I want to elaborate on each step, but we needed a point to jump off from – hence the length.
I hope you found this helpful. Do aspects of your life (writing life/life in general) fit The Hero’s Journey? Do you feel like steps are missing or are incorrect? I’d love to talk about it.