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 look at worldbuilding.

Check out the rest of the series and a compare different versions of the Hero’s Journey

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. We have already touched on plot and major and minor characters. Today, we look setting, or the Hero’s World.

The Purpose of Setting

The where and when of a story can sometimes be taken for granted. Every story happens somewhere, and (except in Fantasy/Sci-Fi) the setting is usually not terribly important. In cases where the setting is a contemporary world, it can be downright boring. And that’s fine. I’m not advocating that every setting needs to be fantastic, strange, or otherworldly. On the contrary, a relatable world can be used powerfully.

What I am advocating is setting with a purpose. 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 setting

  • Reflects and Counterpoints the hero by bringing out a specific facet of the hero’s character. The mountain is there for her to climb. The stuffy party exists to show his free spirit. These settings draw out characteristics and give places to disect the hero’s character. (There is a difference between character and characteristics).
  • Challenges or Aids the hero by providing obstacles or helps in times when the story warrants it. The setting, like a character, is an active part of the story.
  • Adds believability to the hero. To have a wonderfully developed main character in a shallow setting would make your character seem false or like a cartoon.

Three Worlds

In the hero’s journey, there are three worlds that line up with the journey itself. Let’s recap the plot structure real quick:

  • The hero is at home with her world in balance
  • Something happens to put the world out of balance
  • She steps out (often reluctantly) to set the world in balance again
  • and meets all sorts of challenges along the way.
  • Finally, coming to a moment of climax and decision where she grows
  • and finds a new world of balance.

Do you see the three worlds? Ordinary, Special, and Remade. Consider each of these “worlds” as perspectives on the world or worldviews. They may or may not be separate places. We will dig into each one, in turn.

The Ordinary Word

This is the world as the hero knows it. In one sense, this is the world that the hero came from last because every story is really a snapshot with its own history and future untold to the audience. In any case, the hero knows her way around the ordinary world. It may be difficult. It may be painful. It may seem chaos. But it is home.

It can be beneficial to make the ordinary world a sharp contrast to the special world to draw the audience into the drama as the hero crosses the first threshold. Take The Wizard of Oz movie. The ordinary world is in black-and-white where Oz is in color. You may also foreshadow the special world while inside the ordinary world. You can do this by having your character long for some aspect of the special world or see some aspect that will carry through to the special world. The possibilities are endless. The ordinary world, again, need not be a separate world from the special. In a romantic story, the ordinary world is life before they met “the one” who pushes them into unbalance.

Spend some time in the ordinary world. Reveal your character, especially the growth arc. The ordinary world is where the dramatic question comes into play. It is here that the hero’s world is thrown out of balance, forcing them to enter the special world to reclaim order.

The Special World

Past the first threshold lies the special world. The only real key here is that the hero does not know the special world. Others will. It is possible, even, that your audience will know the special world. It is only special to your hero. The mentor will be vital here, guiding and pushing the hero through the stages of the journey and showing her the rules of the road.

The special world is where you will spend most of your time. Make sure it is well developed, understood by you. You should know things about this world that your audience will never even find out because one thing always leads to another. How does this world work? What are the rules? What is the back story? The future story.

The hero should feel out of place; should be out of place. Consider the Special World a character that draws out certain aspects of your hero, both character and characteristics. This special world will be everything from the first threshold, through the climax, and perhaps even the road back.

The Remade World

If the dual core of the hero’s journey is a quest for re-balance and character growth, then the Remade World is the product of the quest. Most likely, you will spend very little time here, but it should be enough to show how everything has changed for your protagonist. The world is once again in balance, though a different balance than before. She has grown. Things have changed.

Often, after such an adventure, the hero will try to re assimilate into the Ordinary World, only to find it impossible. The places may be the same, but they are different because of their journey.

There are also two different approaches to resolving the Hero’s Journey. The first is a circular form that provides a sense of closure. The second is more open ended. Here, the hero’s problems are not so neatly tied, and the Remade World not necessarily in harmony. It is still, however, a complete world. Either form can work well, just know what you are getting into.

Finally, it is important to think of the Hero’s Journey as a snapshot in a much larger story; with history that happened before the first page, and a future that will proceed long after. The Remade World, then, is the Ordinary World for the next story (even if it is never told). Get to know this world as well.

We have examined the basic characters, plot, and setting of the Hero’s Journey. We have all the pieces in place. Now, a quick review.

And please comment below.

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Chris Michaels

Storyteller. Researcher. Coder. Innovator. I seek to push the boundaries of storytelling and education.
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