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 review what we’ve talked about so far.
Just like a good story, this series has reached its “midpoint,” that is twisting point where the second half is almost a different story than the first. Up until now, this Hero’s Journey series has focused on the mechanics of the journey. What are the stages? Who are the characters? What is the world? Basically, what makes up the Hero’s Journey?
We are about to jump into the how, and I’m pretty excited about it. We are going to work together through a story from beginning to end and see exactly what it takes (and how simple it is) to create a journey. Finally, we’ll talk about some practical tips (18 in all) to make the journey interesting, memorable, and personal.
But Before We Go There
Let’s review what we’ve seen so far. The most basic
At its most basic, a story has three elements: Character, Plot, and Setting. A person (not necessarily human) doing stuff in a place and time. That’s all the hero’s journey is, one way to describe that person doing that stuff in that place and time. What makes the Journey special is its seeming universiality (why can’t that be a word?)
The Hero”™s Journey is one way to weave characters, plot, and setting. It is not the only way. It may not be the best way. The magic of the Hero’s Journey arises from its primality; its universal basicness. Joseph Campbell spent his lifetime investigating myths from all around the world, distilling patterns he found from all civilizations into some common principles. Carl Jung, a prominant psychologist, built upon this these patterns by likening this journey to facets found deep in the human psyche and cultural memories. This isn”™t some kooky metaphysical idea, it”™s basic psychology. – Series Home
To break down the journey into a sentence: “A hero is at home in the ordinary world until something happens to unbalance her reality, leaving the hero to enter the special world on a quest to set the world in balance again which can only happen by confronting the Shadow.”
Though I originally posted them in a different order, lets go through that definition of a story in a hero’s journey way.
Characters allow storytellers to explore how different people react to different situations. Even deeper than all that, though: Characters are what the audience identify with. – Major Archetypes
There are to kinds of players in a typical Hero’s Journey: Major Archetypes and Minor Archetypes. Major archetypes are those that are necessary for the journey to work. You need a hero, a mentor, a shadow, and a herald of some kind. The Hero is the main character who actually goes on the quest to set the world in balance again. Along the way, the hero grows. They have some flaw they overcome. This growth is paramount to any good story.
The Mentor is a character (or circumstance, interestingly enough) that guide the hero part of the way. Maybe they’ve been down the road before or posses some knowledge or gift the hero will need. The Shadow actively tries to stop the hero from succeeding. This shadow can be an external enemy (Darth Vader) or an internal foe (self-doubt). The Herald calls the hero off on the adventure. Many times the herald may be the mentor, or not even a character as such.
Minor Archetypes fill out your cast. They have a relationship with the hero, even if (in the story) they have to connection. These characters reflect the hero by bringing out a specific facet of the hero’s character, counterpoint the hero by showing what the hero “could be” if circumstances were different, and aid the hero, most especially in growth. Minor Archetypes lists several common character types, and there are limitless more.
Mixing and matching these basic functions into more specific characters can be a blast. Han Solo in Star Wars, for instance, is an ally, a mercenary, a ranger, and a redeemed. The more creative you get, the further from cliche you will find yourself.
Archetypes are powerful characters because most anyone can identify with most any archetype at some point in their life. Archetypes are broad types that we all encountered in life, and (whether we like to admit it or not) have portrayed at some point. Each of us has been a Mentor. We”™ve all felt like the Hero going the road alone. We”™ve even been the Shadow trying to hinder another, though we never think of ourselves as evil. Even with minor archetypes, this is true. I”™ve been a trickster, a shape shifter, an ally and (yes) the wicked-step-mother. – Major Archetypes
Having all the greatest characters mean nothing if they don’t do stuff. The plot is the most defined part of the Hero’s Journey, and there have been a million books and articles discussing it. The point of this series is not to make that a million and one, but to simplify it a little. Let’s break the Journey down into five steps:
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 phase of the story introduces our hero and his world, and gives our audience something to connect with the main character. 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 must step out into the special world. – Plot I
The Hero and the Quest
Now that the hero is on the road towards a goal, they 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 basic principles are 1.) Characters crave stability (or what they perceive is stability), and 2.) They will do the least amount of work possible to acheive it.
Really, the quest is wide open. Have fun. For those who want more structure, check out Writer”™s Journey and Joseph Campbell”™s original Hero”™s Journey.
The Hero and the Passion
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.
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.
The Hero and the Moment
It all comes down to this. This is the climax. This is the Moment the Hero faces her worst fear, the most powerful adversary, the greatest challenge. This is almost always faced alone. This should also be the moment of change in the Hero”™s character arc. Lastly, many of the most powerful stories involve a resurrection of some kind.
The Hero and the Repercussions
Believe it or not, the character does not have to get what they want ““ but they do have to get they need, that is their growth. Whether it is a happy, sad, or bitter-sweet ending, the Hero is no longer the same. And, they have made their way into another ordinary world. This will not be the same ordinary world they began in (though it may be similar). It will, however, be ordinary to the Hero. Things are settled now. – Plot III
Our characters are doing stuff, but where? The setting is just as important as the characters and plot.
In this deeply-powerful, hero-centric way of storytelling everything is connected to the main character. The plot is determined by their choices, the secondary characters are archetypes that fill psychological functions, the hero’s growth is the bones of the tale. Setting is also connected to the hero in the same way that minor archetypes are; by reflecting, counterpointing, challenging or aiding, and adding believability to the protagonist. – The Hero’s Three Worlds
The importance of a well-constructed, internally consistent world cannot be overstated. And, this isn’t just important for fantasy. Wherever you ground your story, the world is a part of it and must be completely fleshed out.
In the case of the Hero’s Journey, it can be said that there are three worlds. The ordinary world is where the hero starts out. It is in balance, she knows her place in the world, everything is ordinary (at least to her). The special world is the world of the quest. While it doesn’t have to be fantastic, it does have to be different. The remade world is the world after the climax. In balance again, but not quite the same.
Phew…that was a longer post than I like to write, but I wanted to lay out the entire journey in a snapshot because we are about to put it to the test to create three different stories running in parallel: a fantasy, a romantic comedy, and an intimate drama. Just to prove it works. Stick around!
Latest posts by Chris Michaels (see all)
- What to Ask After An Offer of Representation (by an Agent) - September 1, 2017
- Learnings from Comicpalooza - August 18, 2017
- Resources for Educational Storytelling - August 1, 2017