The Hero’s Journey
In June and July of 2020 I set out to do a series of seminars on some of the basic concepts of novel writing. This is the first segment of a three-part blog post from the notes on the first seminar, The Hero’s Journey.
Over the next several weeks I’ll share with you the notes from those seminars – some of the most essential building blocks I’ve learned for writing a work of fiction. The seminars were very basic and certainly not comprehensive. When the world opens up again, one of the best ways to learn the craft of writing is to go to a Writer’s Conference. Or there are any number of excellent “How To” books on writing that offer more depth than can be presented here.
But my goal is to give you a few good building blocks to get you started.
The first seminar started with the rudimentary and bare bones elements of plot development – The Hero’s Journey – which I will share with you in three consecutive blog posts. Additional blogs will concentrate on the other seminars: The Plot Skeleton; Structure for Gardeners; Bit Players Steal the Show; and Character Development.
But let’s jump right into the topic of The Hero’s Journey.
A man named Joseph Campbell, who passed away in 1987, was an American author and teacher who specialized in the field of mythology. In 1949 he wrote the seminal book on plot structure, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which has influenced millions of readers, authors and filmmakers.
In the mid-80s, while working at Disney Studios, Christopher Vogler wrote a seven-page, internal memo to other Disney staff, outlining what he found in reading Campbell’s work. A lot of the concepts of The Hero’s Journey were distilled from Campbell’s book and developed and applied by Vogler, first for a host of Disney films and later into a book, The Writer’s Journey, and a course he taught at UCLA.
Everything that I’ll be sharing with you today comes from those two sources – Campbell and Vogler – who deserve all the credit.
So, what is The Hero’s Journey? In his study of world hero-myths Campbell discovered that they are all basically the same story – retold endlessly in infinite variations. He found that all storytelling, consciously or not, follows the ancient patterns of myth, and that all stories can be understood in terms of the hero myth; the “monomyth”, containing constantly repeating characters who occur in the dreams of all people and the myths of all cultures.
The theme of the hero myth is universal, occurring in every culture, in every time; it is as infinitely varied as the human race itself; and yet its basic form remains the same, an incredibly tenacious set of elements that spring in endless repetition from the deepest reaches of the mind of man.
The repeating characters of the hero myth such as the young hero, the wise old man or woman and the shadowy antagonist are identical with the archetypes of the human mind as revealed in dreams. That’s why myths, and stories constructed on the mythological model, strike us as psychologically true.
Such stories are true models of the workings of the human mind, true maps of the psyche. They are psychologically valid and realistic even when they portray fantastic, impossible, even unreal events.
This accounts for the universal power of such stories. Stories built on the model of the hero myth have an appeal that can be felt by everyone, because they spring from a universal source and because they reflect universal concerns: Who am I? Where did I come from? Is there anybody else out there?
Vogler’s 1985 memo at Disney is a re-casting of Campbell’s basic premise. He says, “I’m re-telling the hero myth in my own way, and you should feel free to do the same. Every story-teller bends the myth to his or her own purpose. That’s why the hero has a thousand faces.”
These are the stages of The Hero’s Journey:
The Ordinary World
The Call to Adventure
Refusal of the Call
Meeting the Mentor
Crossing the Threshold
Tests, Allies and Enemies
Approach to the Innermost Cave
The Supreme Ordeal
Seizing the Sword/Reward
The Road Back
Return with the Elixir
We will look at these stages in more depth in Part II.