The Hero’s Journey

In our previous post, Mapping and World Creation, we introduced some of the basics of writing speculative fiction genres, and especially looked at the “rules” for science fiction and fantasy.

Today, we’ll take an introductory look at “The Hero’s Journey,” a major story-telling cycle described by Joseph Campbell. As you read about the stages in the cycle, try to think of what stories these stages remind you.

 The Hero’s Journey: The basic pattern of the hero’s journey is found in myths and narratives throughout the world. This universal pattern includes important myths which have been passed down for thousands of years as well as being found in the most modern books, films, video games, comics, and more.  You might be surprised to discover that pretty well all these stories share a similar basic structure and stages. These kinds of stories are known as “monomyths” and include “archetypical” heroes. The oldest heroes form a pattern of an idealised model of a person, object or concept from which similar heroes and their life journeys have been derived or copied right to the present.  Stages of the hero’s journey include:

  1. Separation: The hero is dragged from the comforts of home to experience growth and change. (Think Frodo Baggins in The Lord of the Rings)
  2. The call: The self-realisation of imbalance or injustice in the hero’s life (or a realisation of societal injustice) that invites him or her into the adventure, the unknown. (Consider Shakespeare’s Hamlet)
  3. Threshold: the jumping off point for the adventure, the point between known and unknown. (Threshold guardians are obstacles that interfere with or delay the start of the journey. They can be literal (physical barriers, people) or figurative (fears/doubts). (Can you think of a threshold and a threshold guardian from one of your favourite stories?)
  4. Challenges/temptations: obstacles/difficult experiences that test the hero. The hero emerges stronger from each challenge. Helpers help and support the hero along the way, but are usually not present (or have only minor parts) during the final battle. Often there is also a mentor, a guide that keeps the hero focused on his or her goal. The mentor helps the hero obtain the skills to overcome challenges. In many stories, the mentor must die so that the hero can face a major challenge alone. (Think Obi-Wan Kenobi’s death in Star Wars)
  5. The Abyss: the greatest challenge of the journey where one must “slay the dragon” or be in “the belly of the whale.” This often includes a journey to the underworld. (What story does this bring to your mind?)
  6. Revelation/Transformation: a sudden change in the way one thinks or views life. Transformation often occurs through death and rebirth in the great myths. It is symbolic of the old self dying and the new self being reborn–which of course cycles back to the call/self-realization. In some stories, the death and rebirth of a mentor results in this transformation of the hero and other important characters in the story.
  7. The Return/Sharing the Gift: This is the final stage where the hero contributes to society, sharing experience, knowledge, and wisdom he or she has gained through the journey.

Check out the diagram at the top of this post. Can you use it to create your own stories based on the Hero’s Journey cycle?

Check out all the posts in this series on writing speculative fiction:
Mapping and World Creation (with a focus on Science Fiction and Fantasy)
The Hero’s Journey
Utopian or Dystopian Story Writing
World Building Through Mapping
More Aspects of World Building–Part 1 (conflict, political systems, technology, magic, values, small details, economic system, cultural groups)
More Aspects of World Building–Part 2 (realistic hangouts, world naming, food, alternate realities, time/era, transportation, morality, architecture, overall considerations)
Characterization in World Building
Links to Some Great Posts on World Building
Tips for Writing Super-Hero Stories


Coming up: An introduction to writing utopian and/or dystopian stories!

Your comments: What are your favourite stories that follow the stages/cycles of “The Hero’s Journey”? Have you written any stories that follow this pattern? Share your thoughts in the comments! Thanks.

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