Once upon a time, there was a regular person. Although basically happy, they were slightly dissatisfied with some elements of their life. Then, a mysterious mentor introduces them to a mysterious, supernatural world. Because this new world initially frightens the hero, they refuse to enter. A problem appears – the new world threatens the hero’s ‘normal’. The hero accepts the call with the help of the mentor and enters the unknown. The hero experiences challenges and temptations in the new world, overcoming them with the help of supernatural aid. Just as the hero feels capable, they fall into a pit of loss and despair. From this low point, the hero is transformed into the person they need to be to overcome the final challenge. After overcoming the challenge, they return home changed.
Which story did I just describe? You probably thought of a dozen examples. So did Joseph Campbell. Speaking of…
Credit where it’s due: The Hero’s Journey, also called the monomyth, was first formalized in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, by Joseph Campbell, a professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College.
It is important to keep in mind that while these steps have acquired cute names (which vary slightly depending on the source) over the years about mentors and monsters, elixirs and the underworld, this framework can be applied to any story about a character leaving a comfortable place to overcome a great challenge. There is no “supernatural” requirement. To the young woman from a small town, New York may be the “supernatural” world.
The Hero’s Journey is all about marrying external action with internal changes. It is similar to the three-act structure, but is broken into twelve steps, magnified, and steeped in character.
The Ordinary World (Beginning):
The Ordinary World – The story starts with a picture of the world in stasis. It is not necessarily safe, but the Hero is comfortable. They are at best only vaguely aware of the world beyond or of any need for change.
The Call to Adventure – A shocking event disrupts the hero’s comfortable world. The hero realizes that they must leave the world they know and venture into the unfamiliar supernatural world to make things right…
Refusing the Call – … but the hero is reluctant to leave. The world beyond is a wild, scary place and they feel inadequate, unworthy, and ill-equipped.
Meet the Mentor – A mentor, familiar with the supernatural world, equips the hero to take their first steps into the unknown.
The Supernatural World:
Crossing the threshold – Equipped by the mentor, the hero chooses to enter the supernatural world. They have probably either lost or intentionally left the mentor at this point. It is important that the hero cannot return home the same – they will either return transformed by victory, or destroyed by defeat.
Tests, Allies, and Enemies – The hero suffers trials in the supernatural world, either from the setting or from enemies who oppose their goals. As a reward for overcoming these tests, the hero gains allies or resources which will help overcome the final ordeal.
Approach The Cave – The hero approaches the final test. There is a reason, however, that this is a plot point and not just a transition – it is a choice. The hero knows the cave holds his or her greatest danger, and digs deep to find their motivation to advance despite the danger.
The Ordeal (The Underworld) – This is the climax – the moment of greatest tension, action, and drama. The hero is tested to the limit, spending all the resources gathered between the threshold to the cave.
Reward (The Elixir) – For overcoming the ordeal, the hero receives their prize, the goal for which they entered the supernatural world in the first place.
The Ordinary World (Return)
The Road Back – There is a moment where we pause, reflecting on the journey, resolving sub-plots and lingering questions. Like approaching the cave, this is more than a transition – it is an important step in resolving the story in a satisfying way.
Resurrection – This is the moment of greatest change – the hero acknowledges that they are not the same person they were before their adventure. They are rededicated to living their life as the person they have become.
Return – The resurrected hero intersects with the ordinary world. Former concerns are trivial. The world has changed for them because of their experience, and will never be the same.
At a glance, the Hero’s Journey looks very similar to the Three-Act structure. They certainly emphasize similar story beats. Where they differ is their focus. While the three acts emphasize key turning points, the hero’s journey layers the hero’s inner life on top of those events. It dissects the protagonist’s inner turmoil born from the trials and temptations found on their journey. It moves beyond events to look at character transformation.
Campbell argued that every story is The Hero’s journey. I find this to be a bit of a stretch, however, the hero’s journey is an extremely popular plot structure precisely because it is so relatable. We all experience moments in our lives when we transition from the comfortable to the unknown. Learning to conquer the fear and anxiety associated with these moments is central to the human experience. Therefore, you can leverage this model to craft an impactful and relatable story.