Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Hero's Journey for Writers

Writing Wednesday

I've observed before that, as writers, in the process of writing we become our own protagonists. The stories we tell often invoke at least some of the elements of the hero's journey. In the course of our discussion of the long form, I realized that the parallels between the story we express and the experience of expressing that story are much stronger and much more significant to our personal development as writers than I imagined.

In his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell develops a theory of the monomyth, or hero's journey based on the archetypes, or basic patterns that recur in stories from around the world and across time. We can't do justice to Campbell or all the subsequent work in the area by anthropologists, mythologist, psychologists, etc. Instead, we'll explore the somewhat simpler version used by authors and screenwriters.

The hero's journey, as distilled by Christopher Vogler (see The Writer's Journey) and summarized on Wikipedia has the following stages:
  1. The Ordinary World. The hero, uneasy, uncomfortable or unaware, is introduced sympathetically so the audience can identify with the situation or dilemma. The hero is shown against a background of environment, heredity, and personal history. Some kind of polarity in the hero’s life is pulling in different directions and causing stress.
  2. The Call to Adventure. Something shakes up the situation, either from external pressures or from something rising up from deep within, so the hero must face the beginnings of change.
  3. Refusal of the Call. The hero feels the fear of the unknown and tries to turn away from the adventure, however briefly. Alternately, another character may express the uncertainty and danger ahead.
  4. Meeting with the Mentor. The hero comes across a seasoned traveler of the worlds who gives him or her training, equipment, or advice that will help on the journey. Or the hero reaches within to a source of courage and wisdom.
  5. Crossing the Threshold. At the end of Act One, the hero commits to leaving the Ordinary World and entering a new region or condition with unfamiliar rules and values.
  6. Test, Allies, and Enemies. The hero is tested and sorts out allegiances in the Special World.
  7. Approach to the In-most Cave. The hero and newfound allies prepare for the major challenge in the Special world.
  8. The Ordeal. Near the middle of the story, the hero enters a central space in the Special World and confronts death or faces his or her greatest fear. Out of the moment of death comes a new life.
  9. The Reward. The hero takes possession of the treasure won by facing death. There may be celebration, but there is also danger of losing the treasure again.
  10. The Road Back. About three-fourths of the way through the story, the hero is driven to complete the adventure, leaving the Special World to be sure the treasure is brought home. Often a chase scene signals the urgency and danger of the mission.
  11. The Resurrection. At the climax, the hero is severely tested once more on the threshold of home. He or she is purified by a last sacrifice, another moment of death and rebirth, but on a higher and more complete level. By the hero’s action, the polarities that were in conflict at the beginning are finally resolved.
  12. Return with the Elixir. The hero returns home or continues the journey, bearing some element of the treasure that has the power to transform the world as the hero has been transformed.
I intend to examine each of these stages, not as a way of structuring our stories, but as aspects of our experience as writers. In a sense, each time we write a book we take a journey through these stages.

My source and inspiration (should you want to read ahead) is Kim Hudson's, The Virgin's Promise, which expands on Vogler's work (among others) with a parallel structure for stories of self-fulfillment. We'll explore that pattern in the coming months, too.

Image: Simon Howden /

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