The hero’s journey is a story structure identified by the American writer and scholar of mythology Joseph Campbell. Campbell claimed that the hero’s journey is the natural basis of all stories – be they jokes, fairy tales, folklore or myths. Influential story analysts such as Christopher Vogler believe that Campbell’s approach sets out the unwritten rules linking all of the stories told in every culture.
The Writer’s Journey
I first came across the hero’s journey when I was doing my creative writing MA. One of the set textbooks was Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the work where he introduces and explains the idea. Because this book is so very complex, I had a lot of trouble understanding the hero’s journey, never mind working with it. But I did glimpse enough to become intrigued.
Much later I came across The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler, which was easier to understand. I owe most of my grasp of this topic to Vogler, and what I’ve written here is based on his version of Campbell’s ideas. I’m not sure I completely buy into the hype around the hero’s journey, but I certainly find it helpful when I’m writing. And its basis in myth has special relevance for works of fantasy, sci-fi and speculative fiction.
How Can the Hero’s Journey Help You?
I’ve said this before, but even if you’re not writing a novel with a plot, you need to decide on a structure. The hero’s journey is one of the least painful ways of structuring a novel I’ve come across. And if you believe Campbell and Vogler, it results in a structure with universal appeal.
It’s also pretty handy when your story has lost its way and you can’t figure out what’s wrong. Once you’ve got the hang of the journey’s steps you’ll be better equipped to identify which story elements are missing, or those that pop up in the wrong place. Not only that, but film-makers love the hero’s journey. If you want to write a screen-ready novel, it’s a good idea to make the hero’s journey work for you.
How to Write the Hero’s Journey
First, create your hero
Forget all about the traditional implications of the word ‘hero’, and let your imagination run riot. Your hero certainly needn’t be male, and they needn’t be conventionally heroic, but they must inspire interest and sympathy in your readers. This means giving them at least some redeeming or intriguing traits.
Next, give them a goal
Here’s an important point: first and foremost, stories exist on a literal level. This means you need to design the fundamental arc of your story as soon as possible. The best way to do this is to send your hero on a real quest for a tangible goal. If you don’t have a specific finishing point in mind, you haven’t defined your hero’s quest clearly enough.
Then, set out the four quadrants of the story cycle
Take a bird’s-eye view of the hero’s journey and you’ll see that it divides into what Campbell and Vogler call four movements. I’ve found that these map quite nicely onto the three-act structure.
- Your hero leaves their ordinary world. Sometimes this is done freely, but more often they’re ripped from normality by events. The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell contains a vivid example of this, with its heroine, Holly Sykes, forced to leave her family and friends to protect them from the battle she’s been drawn into.
- Your hero experiences death and rebirth. This could of course be a literal death and resurrection, or a close brush with death. Or it could be a figurative death. Either way, your hero’s old self must die and a new self emerge as the result of these events. When Charlie, the hero of Daniel Keyes’ novella Flowers for Algernon, is granted increased intelligence, he must say goodbye to his old self.
- Your hero is initiated into their new life. This is a period where they’re able to get their bearings and learn the rules of their new existence. Think of PC Peter Grant mastering his first magic spell in Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London.
- Your hero returns to their old world, permanently changed by everything they’ve experienced. Without committing spoilerism, I’d say that a classic return ending comes at the end of Stephen King’s alternative history novel 11/22/63. It’s worth pointing out, though, that the return doesn’t always happen, especially in tragic endings or in more literary examples of speculative fiction.
If this quick introduction to the hero’s journey sounds appealing, I’d recommend doing a deeper dive by reading The Writer’s Journey. Who knows, you may even feel inspired enough to go right to the source and experience Joseph Campbell at first hand.
While I’m not sure his structure has quite the universal appeal claimed for it, I do feel that the hero’s journey structure a useful tool for writers of fantasy, science fiction and speculative fiction.
Have you written a novel using the hero’s journey structure? Let me know why you chose this structure and if it worked for you in the comments.