This post is part of a series exploring the Hero’s Journey. Joseph Campbell studied hundreds of world-wide myths, finding patterns to virtually any story. This basic framework gives the stories we tell a universal, timeless appeal and resonate deeply with our audiences. This series is not about a “five steps to perfect stories” method, nor does it claim a best way to tell stories. Today, we begin with plot.
The “Journey” in Hero’s Journey
The Hero”™s Journey (or the Writer”™s Journey as Christopher Vogler calls it) has been analyzed, redefined, tinkered with and taught a million different ways. The point of this series is not to make that a million and one, but to simplify it a little. Stories are simple. They are powerful. That”™s why its been a primary occupation of man since that first campfire. We will break down the journey into five steps:
- The Hero and the Ordinary World, Broken
- The Hero and the Quest
- The Hero and the Passion
- The Hero and the Moment
- The Hero and the Repercussions
For the geeks out there (of which I am unashamedly one), here is a more extensive list of the Writer”™s Journey and Joseph Campbell”™s original Hero”™s Journey.
The Hero and Character Growth
We use these five steps because they are a more character-centered way of organizing the Hero”™s Journey. Each of the five steps is completely connected with the Hero”™s growth and character arc. As we will see in more detail later, the main character (and really most of your characters) must grow. They must change, becoming a different person by the end of the tale. That may be literal (zombie to human) or more internal (grumpy to happy). It can even be negative growth (happy to grumpy), though handle this with caution. The point is: the journey itself (all the stuff the hero goes through) aids this change. Most commonly, a hero has a want, a wound, and a need. You may also think of these as character flaws. More on this later.
The Hero and the Ordinary World, Broken
In the ordinary world, all is well”¦or at least all is ordinary for our hero. This first face of the story introduces our hero and his world, and gives our audience something to connect with the main character. The reader must understand that the hero is more-less comfortable with the routine and position in the “ordinary world.” While this world may be strange to audience, the hero knows how to function inside it. His or her life is in balance. We get to know the character, and are exposed to his major flaw or whatever aspect he/she will grow in.
Then it happens. Something causes the world to be thrown into chaos. This may be literal (plague, war, the ring of power is found) as in many epics. Or, it may be much more personal (the hero meets the girl of his dreams, a parent falls ill or dies, or the next-door neighbors begin the secret club). Whatever the event, intentional or not, the hero now has the conscious want and subconscious need.
This conscious want is for the world to be normal again, or to build a new “ordinary world” that they will be comfortable in. The unconscious need goes deeper introducing the character’s arc. The want may be to marry the girl of his dreams, but the “need” is to learn empathy. The “want” may be to return with the life-saving elixir. The “need” is to become a self-sufficient person. Whatever the case may be, the need is usually connected with the Hero”™s main flaw. The wound is something that is keeping the hero from fulfilling the need.
So, the hero is left with the decision to leave the ordinary world and travel an uncomfortable journey toward the want/need. This may be where the mentor is introduced, someone who can guide the hero along the first stems (think Obi Wan Kanobe). Often, the hero refuses the call at first, but is pushed into making the quest.
The Hero and the Quest
Principle one: Humans (and all life) craves stability. Principle two: We will do the least amount of work we can in order to find that stability. That is what the quest is all about. At first, our hero only wants to accomplish her goal and she will do only what she feels is necessary to accomplish it. The problem is, there is a Shadow (an archetype we will talk about later) who wants the hero not to accomplish that goal. This may be a literal person (the challenger in the boxing ring), an aspect of the hero”™s own personality (insecurity), society itself, or any number of other things. The Shadow may consciously or unconsciously seek to stop the Hero (though consciously is usually more engaging). In whatever case, the Shadow throws up roadblock after roadblock in front of our Hero, and the hero has go deeper and deeper (still only doing what they think is necessary) to find stability, and get the want.
The Quest (and the world the Hero is now in) is governed by the Law of Conflict. Nothing moves forward without conflict (internal or external). This part of the Journey is where the Hero might meet Allies, Shadows, Tricksters, or whatever your heart desires. Just make your Hero work to get where they”™re going, and never let them get anything easily.
The Hero and the Passion
Probably the most common problem with stories is what screenwriters call the “second act slowdown.” Storytellers tend to be good at creating an engaging opening and exciting climax, but the middle drags and people lose interest. Admittedly, the middle is the hardest part to write. On the other hand, stories with a strong middle are almost automatically great. This is not because the storytellers are more imaginative. It is because they understand the character arc. At some point (usually around the middle of the story), the Quest becomes more than a Quest to the hero. It becomes a passion, a drive, an obsession. This is no longer, “lets save the princess so she”™ll reward us.” Now it”™s, “we have to ““ and will ““ save the princess no matter the cost.” This is the point of no return for the Hero (and often his allies).
Often, this turning point has something to do with the Shadow. It may also be the point the Hero starts to realize the unconscious need and becomes less focused on the conscious want. This scene has to be powerful, because from here to the next part (which is the climax) things have to get dire for the Hero — as dire as you can make them. This passion is what will carry them through.
Next we’ll look at specific plot elements for this quest. We will also see how this works in stories that may not seem like good candidates for a Hero’s Journey.
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