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The Hero’s Journey: The 12 (or 17) Steps for Writers

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In this article, you will learn all about the hero’s journey – the common template seen in many myths, legends, and stories across cultures that involves a hero going on an adventure, overcoming challenges, and returning home transformed. Specifically, we will cover:

  • What the hero’s journey is and why it’s so prevalent in storytelling
  • The origins of the hero’s journey concept by Joseph Campbell
  • The 12 main stages of the journey outlined by Christopher Vogler
  • Examples of the hero’s journey in famous myths, films, novels, and stories
  • Tips for using the hero’s journey structure in your own writing

When I first learned about the hero’s journey, I was fascinated by how this template seems to capture the essence of storytelling and the universal human experience. In this article, I’ll share my own excitement and perspectives on this captivating concept as we explore what makes the hero’s journey such a timeless and powerful narrative structure. Let’s begin our own adventure into the world of the monomyth!

What Is the Hero’s Journey And Why Do People Talk About it All The Time?

The hero’s journey, also referred to as the monomyth, is essentially the common template of stories that involve a hero who goes on an adventure, faces various challenges, comes through a crisis or major ordeal, and returns home transformed in some fundamental way.

This basic narrative arc can be traced back centuries and is found in myths, legends, folklore, and religious tales across vastly different cultures. For example, the epic of Gilgamesh from ancient Mesopotamia, the Odyssey by Homer, the legend of the Buddha’s enlightenment, the Bible stories of Moses and Jesus, and medieval Arthurian legends, all follow this fundamental template.

The hero’s journey was popularized in the 20th century by American mythologist Joseph Campbell. In his seminal 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell analyzed myths across cultures and found this common throughline structure he called the monomyth. He summarized the journey in this way:

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Ever since Campbell published his work, the hero’s journey concept has been applied extensively in understanding myths, legends, films, novels, plays, video games, and all types of stories. Writers, directors, storytellers, and artists have latched onto this idea because it seems to resonate with universal themes about human experience.

We all face trials and challenges in life. We go on both physical and emotional journeys to overcome obstacles and grow. In stories, we get to live vicariously through the heroic protagonist. The hero’s journey allows us to relate to them and be inspired by their perseverance. At its core, this monomythic cycle ties into concepts like love, sacrifice, courage, transformation, and fulfilling one’s destiny. These timeless themes and character arcs continue to captivate audiences and new generations.

The 12 Stages of the Hero’s Journey (as outlined by Christopher Vogler)

While Joseph Campbell originally outlined 17 stages of the monomyth in his book, screenwriter Christopher Vogler simplified it into 12 stages in a popular guidebook for writers. Known as the hero’s journey model, these 12 steps are:

  1. Ordinary World
  2. Call to Adventure
  3. Refusal of the Call
  4. Meeting the Mentor
  5. Crossing the Threshold
  6. Tests, Allies, Enemies
  7. Approach to the Inmost Cave
  8. The Ordeal
  9. Reward
  10. The Road Back
  11. Resurrection
  12. Return with the Elixir

Let’s look at each of these 12 stages in more detail:

1. Ordinary World

The hero exists in the ordinary world, their normal environment, when we first meet them. This allows us to see what their daily life is like before the adventure begins. In The Matrix, we see Neo living an ordinary life as a computer programmer before he is called to his destiny. In Harry Potter, we witness Harry’s difficult life with the Dursleys until he’s summoned to Hogwarts.

The ordinary world establishes the status quo that will eventually be disrupted as the journey unfolds. It lets us relate to the hero as an everyday person like us before they embark on something extraordinary.

2. Call to Adventure

The hero receives a call to go on an adventure that disrupts their ordinary world. It may come in the form of a threat to the hero or their community. This call could come from a herald like Gandalf summoning Frodo in Lord of the Rings. Or it may be adventure itself that calls to the hero, spurring them to seize new opportunities.

However it arrives, the call ignites the hero’s journey as they are drawn into a new world of possibilities. But hearing the call is just the beginning of their transformation.

3. Refusal of the Call

When presented with the call to adventure, the hero may initially refuse or express reluctance to embark on the journey. Refusing the call hints at their fears or shortcomings that must be overcome.

At this stage, heroes might believe they are unfit for the journey ahead. Bilbo Baggins tries refusing Gandalf’s request for him to join the dwarves in reclaiming their home. Other times, refusal comes from a sense of duty preventing the hero from leaving home.

4. Meeting the Mentor

The hero needs guidance to answer the call, which comes in the form of a mentor figure. The mentor prepares the hero for the journey ahead by training, advising, and empowering them.

The mentor can appear as a wise old wizard like Merlin or Dumbledore. Or they may impart wisdom in less obvious ways. In The Karate Kid, the unassuming maintenance man Mr. Miyagi mentors Daniel through karate lessons and life advice that transform him. Whatever form they take, the mentor molds the hero toward being ready to face their destiny.

5. Crossing the Threshold

The hero commits wholeheartedly to the adventure by crossing the threshold into the special world beyond their ordinary one. There is often an actual threshold representing the boundary between worlds.

Dorothy leaves Kansas behind by squinting through the door of her tornado-blown house into the colorful Land of Oz. By committing to the journey, the hero enters Act Two, facing tests in the special world. The threshold marks the point of no return.

6. Tests, Allies, Enemies

In the special world of Act Two, the hero faces a series of tests that allow them to gather allies and enemies. The tests are part of the training the hero must undergo to prepare for the bigger ordeals yet to come.

The hero discovers new abilities, but also weaknesses that they seek to overcome. Allies join the hero on the journey and work with them to pass tests. Enemies create obstacles and complications for the hero. Through these trials and relationships, we see the hero change and grow.

7. Approach to the Inmost Cave

The inmost cave may be an actual location in the special world, but really represents the innermost darkness of the hero’s psyche, their deepest fear they must face. As they approach this critical juncture, they prepare themselves for facing this ultimate ordeal.

On the approach, the hero may appear to be reaching their goal or think the journey is coming to an end, only to find this is yet another prelude to a more difficult confrontation with death ahead.

8. The Ordeal

Here, the hero undergoes the supreme ordeal of facing their greatest fear in the hope of being rewarded or resurrected anew. This is the climactic central confrontation often representing facing death and rebirth both metaphorically and literally.

The ordeal allows the hero to conquer their enemies or shadowy aspects of themselves once and for all. By dying to their old self, they can be reborn as their true heroic self.

9. Reward

After surviving death in the ordeal, the hero gains the reward they’ve sought like the holy grail or some elixir to save their people. It may come in the form of new knowledge or insight. This rest period lets us see the hero enjoy the fruits of their labor and sacrifice.

10. The Road Back

Carrying the reward, the hero begins their return journey home to the ordinary world. But the adventure isn’t over yet. New dangerous obstacles arise that imperil the hero’s journey home.

The stakes are raised once more as the hero must stay resilient on the road back, holding onto the reward and wisdom gained from their difficult trials. The journey is about mastery of two worlds.

11. Resurrection

As the hero nears the threshold home, they must endure one last test where everything learned so far is put to the ultimate test. Facing mortal danger, they may need rescue from without. This final trial leads to the hero’s resurrection and ascension as a superior being.

12. Return with the Elixir

This brings the hero full circle as they return to the ordinary world, but able to bestow gifts on that world as a powerful guide ready to lead others. Their elixir is the wisdom gained from the ordeal. The hero comes back from death transformed and enlightened.

By mastering and balancing both worlds, the hero is a carrier of boons to help renew their community. They return wiser and more enlightened than when they started.

The Original 17 Stages of the Hero’s Journey (as outlined by Joseph Campbell)

Joseph Campbell’s original 1949 outline of the monomyth actually had more stages – 17 steps versus the simplified version’s 12 steps. Campbell’s 17 stages, grouped into a three act structure, are:

Act I – Departure

  1. The Call to Adventure
  2. Refusal of the Call
  3. Supernatural Aid
  4. Crossing the First Threshold
  5. Belly of the Whale

Act II – Initiation

  1. The Road of Trials
  2. Meeting with the Goddess
  3. Woman as Temptress
  4. Atonement with the Father
  5. Apotheosis
  6. The Ultimate Boon

Act III – Return

  1. Refusal of the Return
  2. Magic Flight
  3. Rescue from Without
  4. Crossing the Return Threshold
  5. Master of Two Worlds
  6. Freedom to Live

While containing more steps, Campbell’s outline aligns with Vogler’s simplified version covering departure, initiation, and return. The expanded 17 stages provide more details about certain phases of the journey. Both models offer a guide to crafting an archetypal heroic story.

My Favorite Examples of the Hero’s Journey

The hero’s journey monomyth structure has been analyzed in many myths, legends, films and stories. Here are some of my personal favorites:

  • The Odyssey – This classic epic by Homer shaped much of the hero’s journey template through Odysseus’s long difficult voyage home after the Trojan War.
  • Star Wars – Luke Skywalker’s journey follows the hero template faithfully, one reason the film resonates so powerfully.
  • The Matrix – Neo’s journey from hacker to hero/savior closely aligns with the monomyth. Facing Agent Smith is akin to an ordeal and resurrection.
  • Harry Potter – Harry progresses through each stage, mentored by Dumbledore, gaining allies like Hermione and Ron, facing enemies like Voldemort, dying and returning to defeat evil.
  • The Lion King – Simba’s epic quest contains numerous stages like crossing a threshold into the elephant graveyard, undergoing an ordeal facing his evil uncle, and returning to restore the kingdom.

Each example above takes the universal monomyth template and makes it singular and unforgettable by creating iconic heroes, mentors, allies and villains. The hero’s journey is infinitely malleable.

How to Use the Hero’s Journey in a Novel

If you want to employ the hero’s journey structure in your own novel or screenplay, here are some tips:

  • Have a clear vision of your hero and their ordinary world before disrupting it with the call to adventure.
  • Make your mentor, allies and enemies dimensional, memorable characters that impact the hero.
  • Structure key events like the ordeal, the climax, and the hero’s resurrection around the middle and end to shape the emotional arc.
  • Customize the template to fit your unique story needs. Not all 17 stages must be included.
  • Outline the stages before writing, but also allow some to emerge organically from story and characters.
  • Include symbolic thresholds like crossroads, gates, bridges, or actual magical portals marking transitions into new worlds.
  • Use tests in the special world to allow your hero to grow incrementally through small wins and losses.
  • Consider how bringing back the “elixir” transforms not just the hero but also their community.

In essence, incorporating a monomyth structure provides a time-tested narrative arc while leaving plenty of room for your own imaginative embellishment. Allow the template to guide, not limit, your creativity.

That concludes my personal guide to the hero’s journey draws from myths, films and literature! I hope relaying my own perspectives and enthusiasm brought this monomyth template to life. Now that you’ve completed your own vicarious adventure through the world of the hero’s journey, you have all the tools to craft an epic tale full of memorable characters, riveting ordeals and triumphant returns. Wishing you the best as you set forth on your own writing journey ahead!

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