If you read books, watch movies or television, then you have encountered The Hero’s Journey in modern storytelling.
The concept of the hero’s journey was introduced in a book called The Hero With A Thousand Faces, published in 1949 by American professor, Joseph Campbell. The book argued that all ancient mythology tells one core story: the human psyche’s development from child to adult, and ultimately to fully realized individual. CBC Ideas
This story structure became immortalized when George Lucas embedded it into Star Wars. The success of Star Wars speaks to the cultural resonance that the Hero’s Journey is capable of. Hollywood, in the pursuit of box office profit has fully capitalized on this mythological underpinning, churning out iterations of the Hero’s Journey in varying levels of quality.
Storytelling unlocked! The code has been cracked! It seemed so at one point, or at least was presented that way by Hollywood and publishing gatekeepers.
I’ve read several of Campbell’s books, including The Hero With a Thousand Faces, and thought he made a lot of good points. I’ve watched the 1988 Bill Moyers series “Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth” and found it inspiring. I enjoy Star Wars, The Lion King, and The Matrix—all which are commonly portrayed as prime examples of Campbell’s theory. I read and write fantasy & science fiction novels, which are thoroughly steeped in the Hero’s Journey. And yet…I have issues when encountering anything presented as a monomyth that encapsulates all stories. Doesn’t feel right. A little too ambitious.
This description, in Campbell’s own words, provides more nuance than is usually offered by secondary sources regarding the Hero’s Journey:
The individual, through prolonged psychological disciplines, gives up completely all attachment to his personal limitations, idiosyncrasies, hopes and fears, no longer resists the self-annihilation that is prerequisite to rebirth in the realization of truth, and so becomes ripe, at last, for the great at-one-ment. His personal ambitions being totally dissolved, he no longer tries to live but willingly relaxes to whatever may come to pass in him; he becomes, that is to say, an anonymity. Narrative First
Now that’s the juice! An unassailable psycho-spiritual storytelling phenomenon, right? Well…
A Few Critiques
Everything depends on whether The One in The Matrix is going to be successful or not, the hero is going to save the world or not,” and “That’s, I think, the political danger. If everyone is thinking that they’re the hero, then there’s no possibility of thinking with compassion from the point of view of other people who are experiencing completely different stories as you are. CBC Ideas
Hmm, this comment does imply an unintended long-term consequence of ramming a monomyth down culture’s throat. If everyone believes they are a hero then that means anything in opposition to their own self must be evil, or at minimum, wrong. Draw your own conclusions about this proposition when considering the current socio-political landscape of the world.
Despite the pretense that these are ancient stories conveying what Joseph Campbell would call ‘boons from the transcendent deep,’ these are basically stories that are told by those in power in order to convince others that they should have power. CBC Ideas
Doesn’t sound as numinous and sacred when framed that way. The Hero’s Journey tends to involve an individual overcoming outer obstacles, learning how to survive, defeating rivals, being reborn as more than human thus receiving a higher social status; all concepts that can easily be subsumed by an economic ideology perpetuating the belief that a person should “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps” by sacrificing, risk taking, and hard work. Has this occurred? Maybe, maybe not, but it’s not so different when the psycho-spiritual aspect is deemphasized.
There is a sickness running through the world, a sickness that attempts to twist every instance of narrative fiction through the siphon of errors that is the “Hero’s Journey” story structure paradigm. Narrative First
It seems to me that this statement is referring to the role that existing systems take in directing what gets made. The storytelling process becomes a tool to reinforce the structural system, whatever it may be. Differences are cast out or realigned, if they are seen at all. The system wants to preserve itself, to continue its growth, so it taps into a known and trusted resource.
It might be assumed that the Hero’s Journey is the sole property of males and this is untrue, although it has historically been a male-dominated realm. Females can be, and are, heroes able follow this process, yet there seems to be a need to improve inclusivity.
…introduce an archetypal structure that expands the work of Joseph Campbell to include a feminine archetype. Maybe it will create more meaningful roles for women. That would be good. I would also hope it will create stories about men who also want to follow their spiritual, sexual or creative awakening, otherwise known as their feminine side. Kim Hudson
Too narrow of a paradigm is potentially as damaging to the males included within the monomyth as it is to the excluded females as it can lead to imbalance, emphasizing hyper-masculinity. Is a male supposed to always be in “hero mode” ? What happens when a person is exclusively expected to be rugged, strong, brave and challenging boundaries? Doesn’t seem sustainable. Not all that fun either.
Two of the most viable, and interesting, storytelling methods that I have come across are The Virgin’s Promise and Dramatica.
Dramatica is a complex, comprehensive structure that I can only touch on here.
Stories are about solving problems. Sometimes, solving those problems require the centerpiece of a story, the Main Character, to undergo a major transformation in how they see the world. Sometimes they don’t. There is nothing inherently better about a story where the Main Character transforms. Narrative First
The whole spiritual transformation aspect of Campbell’s theory are not at play within Dramatica, instead preferring a more objective approach.
The Main Character comes to a story with some emotional baggage. The Influence Character enters and by virtue of her presence, brings the Main Character’s baggage to the surface. She “impacts” him. One way or another, the two argue over the proper way to solve the problems in the story until at the end the Main Character has to come to a decision: Either keep doing things the way he always has, or change and adopt the Influence Character’s way of seeing things. Narrative First
Many examples come to mind, particularly the tried and true features produced by Pixar. More give and take than the classic Hero’s Journey. Development as more of an interaction rather than individuality overcoming outside forces.
The Virgin’s Promise is closer to a mirror image of Campbell’s theory:
…has two meanings and in a nutshell…The first meaning is the community’s belief that the Virgin has agreed to live up to their expectations. She has made a promise to them. The second speaks to the Virgin’s unproven potential that lies dormant within her, longing to come to life. The Virgin begins by conforming to the wishes of others and eventually learns to hear her inner voice and bring it to life. It is the journey to creative, spiritual and sexual awakening. Writers Store
The Hero leaves the village to ward off danger before it arrives and creates havoc in a foreign land. The antagonist is the personification of this foreign land and is basically evil and rightly destroyed. The Virgin lives in a Kingdom that is in need of change. The kingdom is stagnating and needs to allow more individual freedom. Growth of the Virgin forces growth of the Kingdom. Writers Store
I love this take. What happens after the dragon has been slain? Or when the enemy is not an overt other? What if the problems are close to home? What if the problems are built into home itself?
The Virgin is learning to be self-fulfilling. Her highest purpose is to overcome her Father Complex and make choices in her life based on her own values. She must follow her passion and know joy and love. She is about awakening her sexuality, spirituality and creativity and making her dreams come true. Writers Store
This is a facet of human existence of which the Hero’s Journey is ill equipped to portray. This is no fault of the Hero’s Journey—it has a distinct, useful core of themes built for certain circumstances. Hudson’s theory provides clarification for another way of being in the world.
The Virgin journey includes a friend while the Hero is aided by allies. The Virgin’s friend sees her potential and supports her in her quest to be true to herself out of love rather than personal gain. The Hero meets allies along the way who share a common goal. They don’t have to like each other; they simply have to share a common purpose. Writers Store
Hudson’s theory is compatible for males and females, which I have discovered in my own writing. My novels The Pale Queen and Witch 6 both feature male protagonists following their version of the Virgin’s Promise.
Seren, in The Pale Queen, is a magic wielding poet-warrior carrying a devastating weapon who at first glance checks many of the Hero’s Journey boxes, but the story begins with Seren at the height of his powers. He has already overcome obstacles, sacrificed, shown bravery and yet…his lover has left him and he faces a threat that cannot be punched or slashed.
Mavrik, in Witch 6, is a formidable witch with voodoo-like abilities as well as a prince of sorts due to his heritage and yet…he is unable to receive a higher social status and is facing a force beyond the scope of a single person’s power.
Both characters must discover how to live in a world where strictly being a hero is incapable of solving the problem. They must learn how to expand their awareness to include that of other people, their communities, and the wider world. This process is more aligned with the Virgin’s Promise even though such characters and settings typically adopt the Hero’s Journey.
Our world and the stories used to express our understanding of our roles within it are changing. People believe what they see, leading me to be of the opinion that narratives facilitating this changing understanding need to be integrated within cultural consciousness.
Let me know what you think! What are some other examples? What are avenues for modern storytelling?