The monomyth, now more popularly known as the Hero’s Journey, is a common structural pattern that serves as the foundation for countless stories. It has been a basic form of storytelling for as far back as humanity can remember, laying down the plot structure for ancient epics like Gilgamesh and in many of today’s New York Times best sellers and Hollywood blockbusters.
Author’s haven’t always followed the Hero’s Journey structure, knowing that they were doing so. It wasn’t until the 1800s that hero myth narratives were studied and given this identity by mythologist Joseph Campbell in The Hero Wit hA Thousand Faces. Since then, The Hero’s Journey has become an essential tool in the writer’s toolbox.
In this episode I will be breaking down the stages of The Hero’s Journey and linking them to some memorable moments of a few of our favorite heroes: Luke Skywalker, Bilbo Baggins, and Harry Potter. I am Arthur McMahon, and this is Paracosms.
…the hero leaves their ordinary world behind and enters into the special world…
The Hero’s Journey is not a required checklist of plot points that every author needs to make sure they mark off as they work on their story. It is a tool, a guide. Every stage of the monomyth does not need to exist in a story for it to be considered good or complete.
But it’s important for writers of fiction to memorize the structure, to know the context and meaning behind each of the stages. Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The Hero’s Journey follows that three act format, essentially plotting out the main character’s story arc in a cyclical fashion that starts and ends in a place of familiarity with all of the weird stuff thrown in the middle.
Once you become aware of The Hero’s Journey structure you will be able to see how part or all of it exists in many of the books you read and movies you watch. And you’ll begin to see that there is nothing wrong with that, that all of those successful writers are not uncreative shams who have to stick to an old and tired plotting rulebook because they lack the intelligence and passion to create original pieces of art.
The creativity of a story comes in choosing which stages of The Hero’s Journey a character must be burdened with, the beauty comes in creating the unique paths in which the hero must navigate along their journey, the magic comes from the rhythm of the prose, the breath of personalities, the hustle and bustle of the world where the story takes place.
So let’s get into the stages of The Hero’s Journey. Just as a note, I will keep addressing the hero rather than the heroine. The Heroine’s Journey is actually a whole other structure which I will cover in a future episode, but these are just the names of the templates. A hero can be a she and a heroine can be a he because every story is different, and any character can be who or whatever they want to be.
Every Hero’s Journey begins with the call to adventure, as it must for any story to become a story, otherwise we would be watching Luke shoot womp rats and repair droids all day. The hero starts off in a mundane situation, but is called upon to leave his normal life. Luke is but a simple farm boy on a boring desert world until he intercepts a message from a space Princess who is pleading for help. Gandalf arrives in Bad End and asks Bilbo to join him on an adventure. Thousands of letters from Hogwarts are thrust upon Harry Potter until he reads one of them. Each and every one of these heroes gets pulled out of their everyday life.
But then there is often a refusal of the call. Bilbo would say that hobbits are not meant to go on adventures, Luke would insist that he was not talented enough, that he could never learn The Force, and Harry, well, the Dursleys took it upon themselves to refuse the call for him. Turning down the call to action serves as a way to give the hero some humanity, to show the audience that hey, he’s like us!
Ultimately, though, the hero accepts, otherwise there wouldn’t be a story. If Luke just flat-out told Ben Kenobi “No! I won’t do it!” and stayed home to help his aunt and uncle on the moisture farm, then it would be up to someone else to save the princess. But something always changes the hero’s mind. In Luke’s case, he discovers that imperial stormtroopers destroyed his home and killed his family as they searched for the droids. Then, to boost his skill and confidence, Luke is given supernatural aid from his mentor in the form of a lightsaber and some force training.
This is usually where the hero crosses the first threshold, a point of no return, leaving the comfort of the world they knew and adventure into the unknown, beginning the second act of the story. Luke leaves Tatooine. Bilbo leaves the Shire. Harry is introduced to Diagon Alley where he gets his supernatural aid in the form of a wand, and maybe also in that boatload of cash his parents had set aside for him. This crossing of the threshold is a symbolic moment that indicates a defining transition for the hero, one where they make the decision to mature and take on a responsibility greater than any they had ever managed before.
By crossing this threshold the hero leaves their ordinary world behind and enters into the special world, symbolizing the cycle of life as their old identity dies so that their new self can grow. Our hero ventures into the belly of the whale where danger lurks and evil lies, where falcons get caught in tractor beams and hobbits find powerful rings.
Ahead, the long road of trials holds a series of tests and obstacles for our heroes to overcome. They may fail some of these challenges, but each failure and success serves as a stepping stone to make our heroes strong, to prepare them for the final showdown at the end of their quest. This stage may exist through the greater part of a story, lasting until the hero’s final battle.
Along this road is the meat of the story, and it is also where plot lines that appear to rigidly follow the structure of The Hero’s Journey often stray from predictable paths. In this special world there is often a meeting between our hero and a goddess, a powerful female figure with whom he bonds with. The genders can be reversed if our hero is female, and in modern literature the gender of any character is rather inconsequential in such roles, but Campbell’s labels and descriptions can be broadly interpreted. The goddess is merely a term for this figure, Let’s run with it.
Supernatural or ordinary, the goddess supports the hero in some way. The bond between the male hero and female goddess represents a unity, like a marriage, that strengthens the hero, gifting him wisdom and emotional balance. Hermione Granger is one such goddess. She is like a motherly figure, supporting both Harry and Ron with her kindness and vast intelligence.
The flip side to the goddess is the temptress, which doesn’t always have to be a woman. The temptation is merely something which offers the hero short-term relief or an escape from his responsibilities. Giving into these temptations would prove the hero to be unworthy of his goals and cause him to fail his mission. The purpose is to give the hero a chance to show his integrity refusing the temptations. It is a contrast between the long-term perfect love of the goddess with the short-term carnal love of the temptress, the hero having to show faith once more in the commitment to his journey, the commitment to his long-term goals, to the greater benefit of others rather than himself.
Still on the road of trials, the hero may hit another roadblock, an atonement with the father figure. This is blatantly used in Star Wars with Darth Vader.
It is another trial in which the hero must defeat or gain the approval of a fatherly figure who stands in his way. The father represents power, and if the hero can take this power he will turn the table and become the father. While Vader and Luke directly personify the terminology, the father may be represented by anything with authority, literal or symbolic.
After facing enough trials, the hero finally transcends, entering apotheosis, which translated from Latin means ‘become a god’. The hero has learned enough of his situation, of his enemy, and has braved enough hardship to develop a better understanding of his adventure, its purpose, and the consequences of failure. Luke turns off his X-Wings targeting computer and, now understanding how to control The Force, uses his new powers to take down the Death Star. Harry fears that he may have lost his friend when Ron was knocked unconscious during a game of magical chess, and so he became fully determined to find the philosopher’s stone to ensure that Ron’s sacrifice was not in vain. The hero becomes ready to sacrifice himself if needed in the final act, something which Harry was prepared to do if necessary.
This stage is sometimes interlaced with the rescue from without, which is a situation where the hero is rescued one last time, sometimes by a person that may have previously abandoned the hero. Han Solo, for instance, originally refused to help destroy the original Death Star, not wanting to risk his life, but he later returned to help Luke fend off Darth Vader and his Tie Fighters.
This all builds up to the ultimate boon, the climax of the journey. This is when the great enemy has been defeated, when the major tension has been resolved, and the hero receives the prize he sought. Harry protected the sorcerer’s stone, Luke destroyed the Death Star, and Bilbo, well, he did a very fine job of doing what Gandalf asked of him and he was able to return home, which is all he ever wanted, really.
Thus ends act two, and now the hero is obliged to return to his ordinary world and receive recognition for his triumphs, but there is usually a refusal to return home. The hero often wants to stay in their new, exciting worlds rather than return to the dull ordinary place that they came from. Even in the case of Bilbo, who so desperately wanted to return to the shire, found himself dreaming of one day escaping to Rivendell, to a part of his new world. The refusal to return home is more apparent in the other characters. Luke stays with the rebels rather than returning to Tatooine, and Harry really, really, really does not want to go back to the muggle world and live with the Durselys for another summer.
In the cases where the hero does return home, it’s a quick, magical flight that gets him there in a hurry. However he gets home, the hero has to cross the return threshold, symbolizing the rebirth of his former self, the version of Luke, Harry, or Bilbo that was left behind oh so long ago. He has to resume his former ordinary life, for the most part, at least until another adventures calls his name.
But the journey has changed the hero, and he now lives as a master of two worlds. He can continue to live his ordinary life, but he can also cross over into his special being without hindrance. Harry Potter returns to the Dursleys after having faced many trials, through which he learned magical powers and grew his confidence. Though the use of his powers is restricted in the muggle world, Harry is now able to stand up to Dudley, threatening to use his magic in defense against his former bully. Harry is a master of both the ordinary muggle world and special wizarding world, but also of his own external and internal self.
Having conquered multiple worlds as well as their own inner demons, the heroes are now given the freedom to live as they choose. At the beginning of their tales, heroes are often confined to the simple lives they led, unable or unwanting to escape. But now with the burning flame of adventure encouraging their souls and the amazing skills they have learned, the world has opened to them and they have many paths to choose from. Luke joins the rebellion and seeks to become a full-fledged Jedi knight. Harry decides to follow the rules so that he can return to Hogwarts and continue his wizardly training. Bilbo returns home, still holding the One Ring, and writes a book about his adventures. Fate is in their hands, and they can now be whoever they want to be.
That’s The Hero’s Journey is a nutshell. Campbell’s seventeen stages have been critiqued and revamped over the years, but even more modern formulas aren’t rigid molds which a heroic story must fit into. Structures such as this are guides, plain and simple. Writers must learn it and use it, but not abuse it.
A Hero’s Journey in its most basic form, put as simply as I can make it, starts with a young person who lives a boring life and then an older mentor figure draws them onto a quest. The youngster faces huge adversity, succeeds his trials, and returns home matured, ready to live a new life.
The type of setting and style of characters do not matter for this plot archetype to work. Any magical realm or dorky teenager can exist alongside a Hero’s Journey, and that’s why it works.
Now, perhaps, you can think about some of your favorite stories and see how closely they follow the monomyth formula. Many series often reuse The Hero’s Journey, building an initial singular piece with the structure and then expanding it to frame the entire series. The Star Wars movies did this, as did the Harry Potter books, and The Matrix, and Shrek, and Indiana Jones, and The Wheel of Time, and Halo, and the Ninja Turtles, and The Sword of Truth, and Beowulf….
This has been an episode of Paracosms. The Hero’s Journey may be the most popular story structure on the market today, it’s the most recognizable at least, but there are plenty of other great templates in the writer’s toolbox to know. I’d even say that Harry Potter might lean closer to the Rags to Riches framework than it does the Hero’s Journey. I’ll get to those other structures in future episodes.
I’ve used the Hero’s Journey myself. What writer hasn’t? My Shadow Assassin series is an action-packed scifi thrill-ride that follows the deadly Silhouette as she fights her way through her own personal transformations. The latest book in the series, Deceit of Humanity, was just released on Amazon and Audible. You can find the links to the book on my website at arthurmcmahon.com or just search on Amazon for my name or the title, Deceit of Humanity.
Thank you for listening. I hope you enjoyed these worlds and I look forward to seeing you at the next.
- Journey’s Reflection by Darren Curtis
- Moving Mountains by Darren Curtis
- The Old Country Farm by Darren Curtis
- Rising Glory by Darren Curtis