The Hero’s Journey – My Pros and Cons

Little hero on her journey

It’s one of the classics of literature, isn’t it? The hero’s journey is part of almost every genre, it’s part of fictional DNA, it’s a must, right? Well, not in my notsohumble opinion. The hero’s journey is too formulaic for my taste. Not because I’m better, or some equally inane bullshit, but because I don’t write heroes.

In literature, a hero is a person distinguished by exceptional courage, nobility, self-sacrifice or by any superior qualities. This person is responsible for saving, redeeming or leading other people. To become their savior or leader, he must first overcome some trials, make an actual journey and evolve as a person. By the time he’s ready to be a hero for others, he’s practically not the same person anymore, and everyone now genuinely believes in him.

Here’s my formula for the hero’s journey in a nutshell:

There’s a bunch of nicer graphics online, but they’re all tailored to fantasy novels which is kinda sad IMO. So I drew a new one.

Hero's Journey

That’s about it, more or less. The events might vary greatly from one story to the next, but the logical sequence of things remains the same. There’s a call to action, a mentor, trials and tribulations, new insight and acceptance of the new role in life, a journey home and a last challenge that restores order to the world, and then everyone lives merrily ever after.

Here’s my list of pros and cons for the hero’s journey:

PROS

– there’s a pretty clear story structure right there in the hero’s journey; all you need to do is flesh it out with the right characters, setting and events, and you can have anything from epic fantasy to science-fiction dystopia

– it’s a well-known structure, and everything that’s well-known is easily recognizable and comfortable; the readers won’t have a hard time drifting into your storyworld

– the hero’s journey is an evolution from selfishness and small thinking, to selflessness and leadership

– it’s the simplest and safest way to show character growth

CONS

– the hero’s journey has been used so often, in so many stories, it’s become predictable even when the actual events of the story are new and surprising

– it’s only one way to show character growth, and only one type of character (here are a couple more!); or have you and any of your friends matured as people through a hero’s journey?

– it’s unfitting for any other type of protagonist – the antihero, the villain, the observer, the victim, the desperate, the mentally unstable, etc. etc.

– the positive outcome of the hero’s journey does not fit every story, or every genre; a thriller ending in disaster with the protagonist barely surviving is certainly no place for a hero’s journey

 

It’s a bold move to stray from the path of the hero, especially when you’re a total nobody with no credentials to your name. It’s even bolder—if not stupid-crazy—to do that with your first actual novel, when you’re still figuring out how to write decent descriptions and keep your dialog tags fresh. I sometimes shudder in the gloomy light of my laptop screen, wondering what the hell I was thinking. I’m currently churning out a much improved draft #2 with several big additions and modifications, and I sometimes wish it were as easy as following the steps of the hero’s journey and knowing exactly how to show my characters’ personality mutations and the degeneration of the setting.

But the hero’s journey just wouldn’t fit my story, no matter how tailored and finely adapted it would be.

My protagonist is an antihero. She’s stubborn and selfish, unwilling to be a team-player, oblivious to the consequences of her actions on others, and even when she does the right thing, she does it for the wrong reasons and at the wrong moment. None of the other character are heroes either. Not even the villains are typical villains. They don’t want to take over the world or destroy other people’s lives, they just take what they think is theirs, regardless of who stands in their way. Much like the protagonist…

How do I go about showing character growth, when I don’t have a clear journey with steps and landmarks to follow?

I’ve opted to do that for all my characters by changing their self-perception as the story progresses, by changing their outlook on other people and events, and consequently changing their behavior. It’s harder (especially since I’m really not an expert writer, only an audacious one) yet it’s the only technique that works with my characters and my story. The more I try to perfect it, the harder the details are to get right, and the more I’m fascinated with non-hero’s-journey type of character growth. And really, I just love my story the harder it gets to write it well. It’s an interesting challenge!

So what about your stories?

Did you flesh out a hero’s journey with your own, unique elements? Or did you go a whole ‘nother route?

37 Replies to “The Hero’s Journey – My Pros and Cons”

  1. The Hero’s Journey is the black hole at the centre of the story telling galaxy. It’s bloody hard to avoid orbiting it in one form or another… The stories that “make it,” generally have at least half a dozen of those characteristics because its so readily received by readers.

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    1. It’s fairly common indeed, and for a trained eye, easily recognizable despite various disguises. But there are also great stories which have nothing in common with it, particularly in the horror and thriller genre, but also in idea-centered science-fiction.

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  2. My recent stuff focuses on more than one person, for want of a better term, a ‘collective’ – or maybe ‘bunch’. They follow much the same arc but at different speeds and not all follow through. Mind you, Clay Cross at present out there seeking representation, snarls at growth and redemption. Like Popeye, he is what he is, a cold war misogynist who doesn’t have a clue : )

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    1. “Cold war misogynist” definitely doesn’t sound like a candidate for a hero’s journey. Maybe a redemption journey, but that would be out of character, wouldn’t it? ๐Ÿ˜‰

      Stories that focus on societies, organizations or groups of people (families, teams, etc.) rarely fall into the hero’s journey category, simply because of the size of the cast, but not just that — the purpose (or theme, if you will) of such stories is usually not concerned with the inner evolution of a character, but with the outer evolution of cause/effect, action/consequence, decision/disaster. Mmmm…. I love those stories! ๐Ÿ˜€

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      1. Hey Veronica, fantastically written article ๐Ÿ™‚ it was great to read as the ideas were so clear.

        I was just wondering if you had any more visual representations of other story arcs?

        Just a side note, of course Shakesperian tragedies for example don’t have a clear cut hero and the point is to show that bad things can happen to good people. Not everyone completes the heroes journey, but that doesn’t make them “bad” or “wrong”.

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  3. My protagonists/antagonists have many sides to them and my plot is definitely not a hero’s journey, not even close. So, IDK. Is there even a reason to stick to some kind of scheme?

    In character-driven stories characters, their motivation and needs is what propels the whole thing. Forcing character into the “Hero’s Journey” thing will be like framing character-driven story into a tight and ruthless outline, which is close to forcing a four-year-old kid who likes to dance sit still, while the music is on.

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    1. I would’ve been shocked if you said you loved to write after a formula. Hehe.

      Sometimes people take the craziest, unorthodox-est (screw you, grammar!) paths to growth and maturity, not all of them would even consider the “hero’s journey”. Some characters would laugh right in the face of a “become a hero for the sake of your people” kind of demand. ๐Ÿ˜€

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  4. I write mostly nonfiction, but as a reader, I appreciated this article (and who knows, I may venture into fiction some day). I don’t like obvious hero stories. They’re predictable and often, especially in popular genres like fantasy, fleshed out similarly. Glad you are being bold and audacious! The best books follow a writer’s heart, not the popular crowd opinion.

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    1. Thanks, Julie! Yup, it’s become stale, especially in YA and fantasy. I’ve also found it in science-fiction here and there, though more subtle, but it still feels predictable. Of course it’s impossible to not have a couple of the stages and steps in any form of character growth story, but not the whole shebang. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  5. I love the user-friendly language you’ve used for the stages of the journey. The hero’s journey template may be useful as a reference point, even in consciously not using it! It may be a collective-unconscious kind of thing (Carl Jung and Joseph Campbell would say so). So I think deliberately not following the formula has a certain effect on the reader’s psyche, which may make a well-written story more fascinating. IMHO

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    1. Thanks, Celeste! I agree, it’s also useful to know what to avoid when you try to not fall into a trope. And surprising the reader with a carefully crafted twist, where he expected a certain step (conforming to the trope) is certainly gonna make their eyes spark. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Thanks for the comment!

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  6. Funny this should come up, since another blogger also discussed it.

    I’ve talked at length about the Hero’s Journey on my own blog and the thing about it is, it’s a poor tool for story planning. It’s actually better for analyzing existing stories to understand their structure. However, it’s a great tool when you’re editing, to make sure your story does have an accessible structure that will draw readers in.

    But the crazy thing about the Hero’s Journey is this: It applies to all stories. Not just the larger than life action hero stuff.

    Almost every story I’ve seen fits the Hero’s Journey with little to no adaptation or reinterpretation. I wrote a series of blog posts examining how the Hero’s Journey can be applied to different movies. I took obvious examples like Kung Fu Panda and Thor, but also less-obvious examples such as Run Fatboy Run and even Bridget Jones’ Diary.

    The key to understanding and using the Hero’s Journey is to step out of the assumption that “hero” means a larger than life champion fighting impossible evil and saving the damsel in distress. The hero can be someone just trying to get by in life. A man trying to hold on to his job. A woman raising her child. A student dealing with exam stress. The tropes and plot elements are all there, it’s just the set-dressing that changes. I’d wager that I can make the Hero’s Journey apply to the vast majority of stories you could pitch at me.

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    1. I see where you’re coming from, Paul, but that degree of free interpretation no longer compares a story’s character growth with the classic “hero’s journey”, but with, well, character growth. And that’s obviously always the case with every story. That’s why it’s possible to find a very liberal interpretation of the hero’s journey in every single story. But that’s just the core of it, the change in personality, not the actual trope of the ordinary character who becomes an extraordinary savior or leader, which the hero’s journey really is.

      Also, movies are MUCH more standardized than novels. There’s barely any diversity in story structure or type of character growth, because movies (unlike novels) must appeal to a much wider, less pretentious audience. Sad but true.

      However, I understand what you mean. Certainly the basic principles of personal evolution are present in all stories with dynamic characters, because they’re all human, after all (even most of the inhuman characters). It’s psychology 101, and I frankly can’t imagine a story without them. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Thank you very much for your thoughtful comment!

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  7. Tsk, tsk, Vero. No mention of Joseph Campbell, the mythologist who started it all? ๐Ÿ˜‰

    I seriously love talking about the Hero’s Journey. Stuff like this touches so many of my nerd buttons all at once. Obviously, a skilled writer can use the monomyth to tremendous effect and great success (see: Star Wars original trilogy, The Matrix, Harry Potter, Buffy, etc.), but I think most problems really come when a writer tries too hard to crowbar every single facet of the Hero’s Journey chart into the story, leaving it a convoluted, omnidirectional mess (see: Star Wars prequels, Eragon, the Green Lantern movie). These writers seem to forgetโ€”or just don’t realizeโ€”that Joseph Campbell formulated the monomyth as a DECONSTRUCTION of popular myths and iconic stories, not a plotting tool. That doesn’t mean it can’t be used this way, but if you’re set on using the monomyth, you don’t have to use it like a checklist. You can zoom out and look at the cycle as broadly as possible. You can even go so far as to cut out every step in the circle and focus only on the three major legs of the journey: Departure, Initiation, Return. This is one of the reasons you see it a lot in movies, since it can easily be applied to a three act structure (which the major Hollywood studios love).

    I found your bit on antiheroes interesting, as one thing I’ve noticed is that a lot of the more recent stories that use the Hero’s Journey attempt to subvert it in some way by placing an antihero in the role of the hero. Then, they either do the exact opposite with every beat in the monomyth just to hammer the point home (which can be just as eye-rolly as when someone plays it straightโ€”this almost ruined a recent rewatch of Scarface when I realized that’s what was happening), or they have the antihero redeem themselves at one of the thresholds and become a hero (which often feels like the writer screaming SEE WHAT I DID THERE?! HE TRANSFORMED! IT WAS THE MONOMYTH ALL ALONG!) or the antihero sticks to the chart, but fails at some key point in the narrative, refuses the Return, and becomes Darth Vadโ€”uh, a villain.

    Then you have other interesting examples like the Lord of the Rings (which was written before Campbell formulated the Hero’s Journey), in which Frodo’s arc follows the Hero’s Journey almost to a tee, except he fails. He comes right to the brink of completing his quest and refuses. For that one tiny moment, Frodo becomes an antihero. Then poor Gollum (an antihero in his own right) inadvertently saves the day. Frodo is redeemed and still gets his Return.

    Anyway, I could obviously go on and on about the Hero’s Journey and the way it’s been used, subverted, inadvertently applied without the writer’s intent, etc. etc. I’ve only (intentionally) played with the monomyth once, and I ended up never finishing that story because I wasn’t feeling it. I still like to cherry pick elements here and there and play with them though, as you’ve probably noticed reading my stuff. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Great post!

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    1. You’re really passionate about this one, aren’t you? ๐Ÿ˜€

      It certainly is an integral part of many great stories, and its basic principals of character growth and personal evolution, of ovcoming obstacles and becoming something greater than one was before has a powerful and eternal appeal, because most people can identify with it, or would love to experience it.

      What I refered to with my protagonist being an antihero and not following the hero’s journey, was not that she’s going agaist it (and I’m certainly not defying rules for the heck of it), but that her evolution is not linear, not positive and not negative in a classic sense, she doesn’t save her people or doom them (yet), she doesn’t have a mentor, she doesn’t have a clear mission, etc. I could go on. What she has is a problem, and she proceeds to make it everyone else’s problem by the end, while at the same time growing as a person through the fight with this problem that can’t be overcome.

      *shrug*

      With much winking and smiling, you could always find traits of ANY and EVERY trope in every story, but I’d always argue that such liberal interpretations mutate the trope into a truism and then meh. ๐Ÿ˜‰

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    2. Oh, I forgot to mention — great examples! I admit I never analyse stories this way. Must be because I REALLY HATED doing that in school. And why I hate writing book reviews longer than 2 paragraphs. ๐Ÿ˜€

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  8. I love that you tackled this. Honestly, I tried to fit Dominant Race into the hero’s journey, and while it did work, I removed so much that could’ve been unique that it falls flatter than I intended it to. With its sequel, though, I changed everything, haha. The hero’s journey doesn’t fit the world I created in this series at all, but I’d been beaten over the head repeatedly that the hero’s journey is THE way to go.

    So yeah, thanks for mentioning this, it’s definitely worth noting that there are many other ways to go about writing a story. Tried and true doesn’t always mean better. ๐Ÿ™‚

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    1. Thanks, Elisa! Yup, some stories won’t accommodate the hero’s journey as well as others, and trying to force it will alter the uniqueness of your story to fit a mold. Having some parts of a trope in a story is by no means detrimental, they can help gain depth and a recognizable structure, but following tropes ad literam often results in cookie cutter prose.
      Glad you took a chance with the sequel. Hope it does well!

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      1. Me too! I’m going to rework the first book too, make it truly itself and not be afraid to stray from the archetypes in certain spots if I need to. You know? Also thanks again because your post really helped solidified that concept in my head. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  9. My book (still in the editors hands seven months later, by the way) is ALL about my hero’s journey. Holy crap, he really hits every single formulaic attribute of the typical hero. I’m hoping the reader sees this…I remember my beta readers saying how arrogant he is, and they’re almost hoping he falls.

    And he does. BIG time. By achieving the hero’s goal, my protagonist fails.

    So that’s the curveball I throw into the hero’s journey trope.

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    1. Curveballs can be real gems! It’s fun to surprise readers and make them rethink their judgment of a character and/or story. Wish you good luck with it! I’m sure it’ll be an interesting read.

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  10. Wow, that is such a great visual. Instead of making novels read like they followed a formula, an author can stay on the right path while the reader maybe doesn’t even consciously realize it.

    But I hear you about your hero not being able to follow a path like this. I find so many great resources online that just won’t work for humor writing – even tips for writing a query don’t work for me. On the plus side, I could probably hire myself out to write query letters for fiction writers – LOL!

    Thanks for another great post.

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    1. Most advice online only fits conformist prose (and I don’t mean that in a bad way). If you try to do something different, mix genres that don’t usually mix, or have an unusual style, you just can’t use most of the otherwise great advice out there. You’re on your own.

      Also, yeah, I bet it’s not easy to write humor or query it. Humor is a serious business.

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    1. That’s a really interesting question. I guess it all depends on the storyworld—if different genders are treated differently, offered different possibilities and suffer from different prejudices, then yes, the hero’s journey would differ from the heroine’s. But in a storyworld that treats men and women equally (be it because it’s only a piece of our own world where gender doesn’t matter much, or a fictional world) I see no reason why the journey might differ based on gender.

      Also, if the journey depends on something that’s biologically gender-based—such as giving birth to a child—then gender might play a role again. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  11. If you’re going to use “hero” in the limited way you have defined it above, then certainly you will find that there are stories that don’t fit a “hero’s journey.” Likewise, if you use the term meaning only a masculine referent. But if you use “hero” broadly in the sense of “main character of the story” (as it is common enough to use the word in college English classes), then you will find that “everyone is on a journey.”

    And Campbell is NOT the be-all-and-end-all of description of myths. I shudder to think that there are those who believe that. Many others have studied the patterns of myth and discerned narrative sequences that are standard enough (check out Vladimir Propp who analysed Russian folk tales). But always the point of such “hero’s journey outlines” is that these are the general shapes our storytelling takes.

    We want beginning, middle, and end. We want to see changes somewhere in the story because of actions taken – whether to the character, or to the situation. We want conflicts of some sort. Generally, we would rather be inspired, but we do like stories that challenge us to wonder “what would I do?”

    The best thing is to actually want to “kick over the traces” and tell the stories that are burning inside you. Not to worry about whether they will “fit the pattern.” The reality is that the way humans respond to stories is such that your tales will be grounded on patterns of meaning that have lasted for eons. This is not a bad thing – it’s what makes communication possible. Structure of any sort are only the bones of the creature: you as the writer have to put the flesh and blood on the bones.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Sarah. Nice meeting you. ๐Ÿ™‚

      Hm, is “hero” really used in the US to denote the protagonist? I think that’s a very superficial use of the word. If hero means protagonist, then what about antiheros, and stories where the bad guy (a serial murderer, or Hitler, for example) is the protagonist? You wouldn’t call those characters “heroes”, you’d call them protagonists. Or at least, I would.

      By my understanding, and by all definitions I have come across so far on this side of the pond, a “hero” is a positive character, and the hero’s journey is a character arc through which this positive character outgrows his/her limits and becomes a savior / martyr / for a large group of people. I simply can’t imagine calling it a hero’s journey, if the protagonist is an antihero, and is effectively and unwittingly dooming humanity by the end of the story, as mine does.

      Of course the hero’s journey is nothing but a set of guidelines. That’s the whole idea about my post, that it’s one way that a story can be told, and not a law to be applied to all stories. There can be compelling character arcs and terrible conflicts in stories that don’t follow the hero’s journey, just as well as in those that do. And also can there be story structure (the beginning, middle and end that you mentioned) in stories that don’t follow the hero’s journey.

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  12. Hi there,
    I was wondering if you’re okay with my linking this blog post and using your beautifully clear graphic in a workshop I’m doing at When Words Collide Writing Conference? It would be on a Powerpoint slide and in a hand out. I’m talking about various writing frames, and Campbell’s is one of them.
    Thanks in advance.
    Shawn

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    1. Hi Shawn,
      Yes, sure, you can link to my blog post. I’m glad you found it useful and want to discuss the topic with other writers. ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks!
      Have a great time at the Conference!

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  13. Ms. Sicoe, I am a English 4 teacher in Justin, TX and I would really like to use your Hero’s Journey graphic in my class. Are you OK, with me using it in my lessons? I would also like to create a copy of it to use a reference (on my wall). I will cite you as the owner and creator.

    Thank you
    Ben Caulder

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    1. Hi Mr. Caulder, of course you can use my graphic in class. I’m very happy you found it useful! I hope it helps the kids understand how the hero’s journey works. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  14. Can you think of a story that doesn’t follow the monomyth structure? I have been pondering this subject for a while now but I can’t think of a main story that doesn’t follow it.

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    1. Campbell’s monomyth is so broadly and flexibly defined, and has been gobbling up so many different story types (some people would shoehorn any story into that mold, and trust me, if you can twist the “rules” so hard they turn into Moebious strips to accomodate everything you could possibly want to accomodate, then something’s wrong with those rules), that it’s become like a literary virus, infecting all who come in contact with it.
      Truth is, the monomyth was meant to find a common ground between mythological stories, nothing more. But it completely ignores non-Western literature, many genres (such as horror), many story-types (such as short stories and flash fiction), and doesn’t even take into considerations stories with multiple main characters, or for that matter, with female protagonists.

      Want more concrete examples of stories that don’t fit the monomyth? Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita, most of what Stephen King writes; practically everything Edgar Allan Poe has ever written (or Lovecraft, for that matter); any Star Trek novel; Twilight (and scores of other romance and/or paranormal romance novels); most Eastern European and Asian novels; etc. etc.

      But the “beauty” of the monomyth is that if you really pinch your neurons, you can fit (i.e. beat and mutilate) any story to fit it. But then it becomes obsolete as an analysis tool, because you could just as well say that “all stories have one or more protagonists”.

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