Six impossible things

The Hero’s Journey

The hero’s journey


If you’ve read much how-to-write advice in the past forty years, you’ve probably seen much talk of “The Hero’s Journey,” which is supposed to be the fundamental template or structure that lies underneath all great stories. It’s generally attributed to Joseph Campbell…but really, it’s a bit more complicated than that.

For the first half of the twentieth century, scholars of comparative religion like Sir James George Frazier (The Golden Bough) tried to come up with a sort of Unified Field Theory of mythology and religion. For far longer than that, literary scholars from Aristotle (Poetics) to Robert Graves (The White Goddess) had been trying to come up with a Unified Field Theory of drama as expressed in poetry, plays, and fiction. In the late 1950s, the two sides collided in Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces, in which he laid out what he called the monomyth, a detailed version of “hero wants something; hero tries to get it and fails; hero tries at last and succeeds; rewards and/or weddings follow.”

“Detailed” isn’t just hyperbole. My copy of The Hero with a Thousand Faces is 391 pages long (not counting the index), and Campbell devotes an entire chapter to each of the seventeen stages that he sees mythological heroes passing through. The general idea started getting traction in the late 1970s, when Star Wars became a huge smash hit, and George Lucas said he’d based its structure on Campbell’s hero’s journey. (That’s when I hunted up my copy of Hero.) Roughly ten years later, a series of interviews with Campbell was broadcast in prime time. A few years after that, Christopher Vogler took Campbell’s monomyth, cut it from seventeen stages to twelve (removing or renaming some of the more specific and annoying stages, like “Woman as Temptress” and “Atonement with the Father”), and applied it to writing fiction in The Writer’s Journey. Ever since, it’s been hard to get away from the idea.

The most common twelve-step version goes something like this:

1) The hero starts in his Ordinary World.

2) He receives a Call to Adventure, which he

3) either is initially reluctant to accept, or else Refuses outright.

4) He Meets a Mentor figure, who gives him advice, which leads to him

5) Crossing the Threshold to the “extra-ordinary world” of his adventures.

6) He faces Tests, Allies, and Enemies until he

7) Approaches the Inmost Cave, sometimes described as the “second threshold,” where he will face his ultimate

8) Ordeal. Having survived this, he gets

9) a Reward, and starts on

10) the Road Back, which is just as tough as getting this far has been. The ordeal was actually the mid-point of the story; the climax is

11) Resurrection or Rebirth, which is also described as the third and last threshold which the hero has to cross to get out of the extraordinary, adventure world and

12) Return with the Elixir (or the election results, or the dragon’s head, or fire, or whatever amazingly good thing the hero is bringing back to share with all the ordinary people in his ordinary world).

The hero’s journey as envisioned by Campbell and Vogler is one of those double-edged tools. On the one hand, it’s a fairly accurate description of the cycle a lot of mythic heroes go through. As such, you can map it quite easily onto the three-act and four-act structures that have been around since Aristotle…or map Aristotle onto the hero’s journey. They’re both describing the same fundamental thing, from different angles, and it’s often exceedingly useful to look at something in a new way. If you’re writing an adventure, and you have the nagging feeling that something is wrong with it, checking in on the various steps of the hero’s journey can give you a way to spot where the problem is.

On the other hand, the hero’s journey template has become so ubiquitous that it’s in danger of becoming its own cliché. It doesn’t take into consideration any of the changes a writer can ring on narrative structure and form, and while it has enough flexibility to adapt in a lot of ways, the writer has to be aware of the need to adapt it, which a lot of the folks pushing this structure don’t seem to think of.

The hero’s journey, as presented to writers, doesn’t explicitly allow for a spiraling story, in which the protagonist returns “home” several times, each time seeing it differently, or for the stories in which the protagonist never returns to their original home at all, but has to create a new normal somewhere else, or is condemned to wander on, perhaps forever. Again, the form can be adapted, but only if one is aware that it isn’t the rigidly-and-universally-applicable structure that many of its proponents seem to think it is.

The other problem is that the structure is very much a hero’s journey. Attempts at coming up with a heroine’s version have not been terribly successful so far, in my opinion – at least, none of the alternatives that have been proposed have caught on the way the Campbell-Vogler version has.

Most of all, though, the hero’s journey was conceived as a way of analyzing already existing works. It doesn’t – and it can’t – say anything about how those works were hammered into that shape in the first place, and it most certainly doesn’t have anything to do with how their writers went about writing them. Of the professional writers I know well, exactly zero start with the hero’s journey as a conscious and deliberate plot pattern, and I think only two (maybe only one) have ever used it during the revising/polishing process to find and plug plot holes. Writing fiction is almost never as logical and systematic as after-the-fact analysis makes it look.


  1. It’s a pattern which works, but these days I think it’s more useful as a warning than as a template: if your story fits into it neatly (whether or not that was your intent), you’d better have something else to make it stand out from the masses of interchangeable rotefant, sorry, Genre Fantasy.

    There’s a worse example of this principle in action: Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat! (2005), which is a page-by-page template for a saleable Hollywood script, derived in part from the hero’s journey. It was hugely successful, and it has very clearly been implemented many, many times over. There’s a review on my blog that goes into more detail.

    • Will you post the link to your review of Save the Cat!; I’d like to read it, but didn’t know which year and month to check on your blog.

      (I found your review of Artemis—which I have not read—interesting and helpful.)

      • Sure, sorry – it’s . There’s a link low on the right side to “all book reviews”, which has everything alpha-sorted by author.

        • Thanks, that was very interesting. The book is often cited as a good resource for novelists (even though it is intended for screenwriters), but I believe I checked the Look Inside on Amazon and concluded it wasn’t for me.

          Judging from your cogent review, I’d say it’s very much not for me! Thus far, all of my books have been “books of the heart,” and I can’t imagine trying to fit one of my story ideas to the Procrustean bed Snyder prescribes.

          I tend to have very strong feelings about how I want my story to proceed. 😉

    • I haven’t read that particular script template, but oh, my, it does sound dreadful. And it does explain so very much.

      Now I’m going to have to find a copy and read it, just so the next time my friends try to make me read Horror novels, I can wave it at them and say, “But I do! See?”

  2. So it’s like squinting at a lace shawl swatch that isn’t quite working, pulling out the Fibonachi sequence to see if that makes it all better then sleeping on it and switching needles or trying a different yarn?

    • Pretty much. The Fibonachi sequence might possibly be of use once you’ve done some of the actual shawl and you’re trying to figure out why the gradient or the strips aren’t working properly, but not when you’re actually designing the thing. Testing other needles and yarn is a much more practical/useful thing, at that point.

  3. “The other problem is that the structure is very much a hero’s journey. Attempts at coming up with a heroine’s version have not been terribly successful so far, in my opinion – at least, none of the alternatives that have been proposed have caught on the way the Campbell-Vogler version has.”

    The heroine’s journey, at least in fantasy fiction, seems to consist of ceasing to sing “Someday my prince will come” and getting, with difficulty, out of the house and doing something, almost anything, else. Lots of Anne McCaffrey, lots of Mercedes Lackey. MZB’s _Sword and Sorceress_ series has heroines already doing something else, but she was calling for and specifically selecting stories with such heroines. I haven’t been reading many new books in the last couple of decades (money), so I can’t give any fresh examples, but I bet they’re out there.

    In earlier days, however, somebody at The Other Change of Hobbit recommended _Caught in Crystal_ to me because the heroine had two small children whom she had to take with her on adventure. That started me on quite a lot of good reading. 🙂

    • In other words, the Ordinary World is singing it, and the Call to Adventure is what triggers the stop. . .

      The thing is, just about any story can be tortured into the Journey if you try hard enough. This is what makes it so uselessly. The best part of The Writer’s Journey was when he talked about how he tried to get The Lion King to fit it better, because you could see some applicability.

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