The Hero’s Journey – A Complete Guide
If you haven’t heard of the Hero’s Journey, then brace yourself, as you’re about to learn one of the most useful tools to help develop your skills as a novelist
If you’ve already heard of it but want to know more, then you’re in the right place.
In this article we’ll explain what the Hero’s Journey is, where it comes from, and why it’s so useful.
Then we’ll examine each of the stages in detail, with examples from popular fiction: The Hunger Games, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Interview with a Vampire and Interstellar.
We don’t cherry pick parts of each of these stories that fit and ignore the rest, we follow each of the stories through every single stage.
Have you ever wondered if there is some kind of structure, a tested formula which you can use as a guide for writing your novel, rather than having to just flail around wildly in the dark, with no idea whether you’re on the right track or not?
Well, you’ve found it.
The Hero’s Journey is a set of steps which provide a roadmap for the structure of a story.
Using these stages allows writers to create stories which are more likely to be compelling and satisfying to readers and audiences.
The Hero’s Journey stages are the backbone to a vast amount of popular fiction, and appear in everything from Star Wars to Harry Potter to The Da Vinci code to The Hunger Games.
Nobody. And everybody.
The reason the Hero’s Journey is so effective, is because nobody ‘invented’ it – instead it is a pattern that was identified by comparing and contrasting popular human stories throughout history and discovering that common patterns emerged.
These patterns appeared to cross continents, cultures and eras.
In other words, it has emerged from our collective human psyche.
However, there have been key individuals involved in researching these human stories and defining the pattern.
The first of these is an American professor named Joseph Campbell. He actually called his set of steps ‘The Monomyth’, and it contained 17 stages.
Building on Campbell’s work, a Hollywood development executive named Chris Vogler simplified and modernised the Monomyth and set down the 12 steps, essentially giving us what is widely recognised today as the definitive Hero’s Journey.
The fact that this pattern can be found in stories spanning continents and centuries suggests that there is something inherent about the stages which resonates with us on a very deep level.
Being able to tap into this is obviously incredibly powerful from the point of view of a writer.
Following these stages works to make readers and audiences feel more satisfied, even though they may never have heard the term ‘The Hero’s Journey’.
Not every story follows the Hero’s Journey, but once you’ve learned it, you’ll likely start to notice the stages in almost all the popular fiction you encounter.
A criticism that is often levelled at the Hero’s Journey structure is that by following it we will end up with ‘cookie-cutter’ novels that are all boringly the same.
But there are as many different interpretations of the stages as there are people in the world, and the Hero’s Journey lends itself to working across genres and even disciplines (business and psychology both use the Hero’s Journey concept). In fact, the existence of genres is much more of a risk of creating repetitive stories.
Furthermore, powerful as the Hero’s Journey is, it should not take precedence over flow and inspiration. Using the Hero’s Journey does not mean being its slave. You must still be the master. This means that if you feel the urge to deviate, then do so. If you want to skip a stage or two, or put them in a different order – then great! You will be creating new and colourful variations on a basic pattern.
Having said all that, we probably should remain wary of the risk of creativity becoming too bound. The more people use a single structure and the more formalised it becomes, the more we might stop seeing alternatives. Perhaps there are other patterns that are equally fulfilling, and possibly even more satisfying or valuable in terms of human actualisation…
We should keep an open mind. The Hero’s Journey isn’t the only story.
Which segways us nicely into the sticky issue of…
Another issue with the Hero’s Journey is the potential inherent sexism.
This was hard to ignore in the original monomyth, which talked of ‘Woman as the Temptress’ and ‘his fellow man’, and many people still find the word ‘Hero’ too biased towards the male.
Thankfully, in more recent incarnations of the Hero’s Journey, a lot of the horrendously stereotyped gender terminology is gone.
And as for the word ‘Hero’, there are strong arguments for keeping the word and claiming it for all genders, rather than trying to insert feminine endings. For decades feminists have been arguing that suffixes such as ‘ess’ are unnecessary and demeaning:
Unnecessary, because in most cases there’s no need to make gender distinctions. If a man and a woman both write books, why call one an author and the other an authoress? Demeaning, because the way gender is marked—by taking the masculine/generic form and adding a feminine suffix—suggests that men are the default for the human species while women are a special case or an afterthought, like Eves fashioned from Adam’s rib.
However, there may be even deeper gender biases buried in the Hero’s Journey that are harder to see.
It’s quite possible that having a male dominated society across continents and ages means the Hero’s Journey contains inherent male-centric biases that we’re so used to, we simply don’t notice.
As mentioned above, there may be other patterns that are yet to be discovered and are waiting for a female or non-binary professor of literature or self-taught writer to reveal to the rest of us.
It’s not perfect
But just because the Hero’s Journey has flaws, doesn’t mean it doesn’t also have a lot of value. Just use it wisely and with flexibility and don’t be afraid to take what works for you and leave what doesn’t.
Here is a brief overview of the steps of the Hero’s Journey – which are usually split into three Acts.
- Ordinary world
- Call to adventure
- Refusal of the Call
- Meeting with the Mentor
- Crossing the first Threshold
- Tests, Allies, Enemies
- Approach the Innermost Cave
- The Ordeal
- The Reward
- The Road Back
- The Resurrection
- Return with the Elixir
Now let’s look at each of those in more detail.
For each step we have given a description of what is expected to happen in that stage, and some examples from popular books and movies.
Please bear in mind that all these examples are open to interpretation, and may fit the structure to a greater or lesser degree. As mentioned above, the Hero’s Journey can be used flexibly, with some stages omitted, or others shuffled around.
Further reading – A slight variation on these examples can also be found in our own interpretation of the Hero’s Journey – The Universal Plot Outline, which is Step Two of the Novel Writing Roadmap.
The Ordinary World
To begin with, you set the scene and introduce the main character. This is the place to establish what’s missing from the main character’s life, and give hints about the story to come.
For extra points, you may also want to establish their want and their need.
|Story||The Ordinary World|
|The Hunger Games||Katniss lives in poverty in a fictional world called Panem in the near future. She wants to keep her little sister safe. She needs more of a life than just survival.|
|Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone||Harry lives in modern day England with his mean family who treat him very badly. He wants to stop being bullied. He needs to find love and friendship.|
|Interview with a Vampire||Louis is a plantation owner, 1791, New Orleans, grieving the death of his wife and child. He wants to wallow in his guilt for surviving them, and rage at the unfairness of the world. He needs to release his guilt and accept that the world is beyond his understanding and control.|
|Interstellar||Cooper is a farmer living in the near future, in the United States, where crops are dying and civilization is struggling for survival. He wants a life of adventure and exploration. He needs to realise that happiness is found in the love those close to him.|
Call to Adventure
An external force appears which challenges the main character. This is usually an invitation or a threat.
|Story||The Call to Action|
|The Hunger Games||Katniss’s little sister Primrose is chosen for the Reaping – and almost certain death.|
|Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone||Harry is invited to Hogwarts and is told he is a wizard.|
|Interview with a Vampire||Lestat give him the choice to become a Vampire.|
|Interstellar||Murphy’s ‘ghost’ leads them to the secret NASA hideout, where they ask Cooper to pilot a dangerous exploratory mission into space.|
Refusal of the Call
The protagonist often expresses reluctance to answer the Call to Action. They may be afraid or feel poorly equipped for such a challenge. Sometimes the reluctance is expressed by a supporting character, rather than the hero themselves.
|Story||Refusal of the Call|
|The Hunger Games||Primrose repeatedly screams ‘no’ and clings to Katniss after she volunteers, and has to be carried away by Gale.|
|Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone||Harry has a few moments of thinking it must be a big mistake. Harry’s Uncle Dursley goes to great lengths to obstruct the invitations, including screwing the mailbox shut, burning the letters and eventually driving the entire family to the middle of nowhere.|
|Interview with a Vampire||(This stage is out of order) Louis refuses the life of a vampire, preferring to drink from rats and chickens.|
|Interstellar||Murphy begs him not to go, and says even the ghost is saying ‘stay’.|
Meeting with the Mentor
The mentor is a character of authority to the protagonist. They provide advice and useful gifts, such as weapons or talismans. The mentor often reflects the tone of the story – a tragedy will have a toxic, destructive mentor (or one who is already dead), a children’s fairytale will have a benevelont all-knowing one, a dystopia may have an unreliable one. The mentor is usually a recurring character.
|Story||Meeting the Mentor|
|The Hunger Games||Haymitch is an unreliable mentor who patronises them and says they should accept they’re going to die. Reflecting the heart of the book he is broken and without hope on the surface, but actually still has hope and fight deep inside.|
|Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone||Hagrid is the main mentor in the first book, though Dumbledore is a secondary mentor. Reflecting the heart of the book Hagrid is kind at heart, but can be unintentionally dangerous. Hagrid shows Harry the magical world, passes him his riches, and gives him an owl as a gift.|
|Interview with a Vampire||Lestat is the mentor, and instead of being caring and wise, is hedonistic and destructive in reflection of the futile, unjust nature of the story world. The gift he gives Louis is The Dark Gift – strength, powers, immortality.|
|Interstellar||Professor John Brand is Cooper’s old mentor who gives him knowledge about the journey he will take, as well as a spaceship.|
Crossing the first Threshold
In order to ensure your lead has the pressure on and therefore your readers are hooked into wondering how they’ll ever get out of this mess, it’s good if your hero crosses some kind of threshold that is difficult, if not impossible, to get back to normal life from. It may be a physical journey across land, the removal of allies, self-inflicted isolation or becoming wanted and on the run. Trains are popular (!).
|Story||Crossing the Threshold|
|The Hunger Games||Katniss is taken on the train to the Capitol.|
|Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone||Harry takes the train to Hogwarts school.|
|Interview with a Vampire||Louis dies the mortal death and becomes a vampire.|
|Interstellar||Cooper launches not only into space, but through a black hole through which there is no way back.|
Tests, Allies, Enemies
Although this is listed as a single stage, it really represents most of the middle act. Your hero will win some challenges and lose others, and they will make friends, but also enemies.
|Story||Tests, Allies and Enemies|
|The Hunger Games||Tests include: the introductory ceremony, the interviews, the training sessions, the sponsor session. Katniss gets to know Peeta better and meets Rue. She also encounters the Career Tributes.|
|Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone||Harry meets his ally Ron and enemy Draco. He also meets Hermione, Neville and a bunch of teachers, including McGonagall and Snape. He faces the sorting hat, and difficult lessons. Snape bullies him and Draco tries to get him into trouble but ends up making him the youngest seeker in history.|
|Interview with a Vampire||Louis’s staff turn against him, and he drinks from his caring maid despite trying not to. He can’t kill the nasty woman he’s supposed to, and drinks from her poodles instead. He refuses to kill the woman Lestat half kills for him. But finally he breaks and drinks from Claudia, who Lestat then turns into a vampire to bind Louis to him.|
|Interstellar||Cooper meets the crew members and robots. They land on an ocean planet where they find the wreckage of the ship of the astronaut who landed there, then are faced with giant tsunamis. A crew member is swept away and their engines are flooded. When they finally get back to the ship they have lost 23 years.|
Approach the Innermost Cave
This is a time of reflection, quiet before the storm. It seems that the hero is making good progress towards their goal – but there are looming doubts or uncertainties.
|Story||Approach the Innermost Cave|
|The Hunger Games||They stand on the roof, look out over the city and Peeta talks about how he doesn’t want them to change him.|
|Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone||Harry learns and excels at Quidditch. They have lessons to make objects fly, but Ron hurts Hermione’s feelings.|
|Interview with a Vampire||They have their settled life together, but Claudia expresses anger that she will never grow up.|
|Interstellar||They reach Mann’s planet and it seems like they might have achieved their goal. But there are hints that something isn’t right.|
In this stage your hero should face death (either actually or metaphorically) in the form of a dangerous physical test or deep inner crisis. They should face their greatest fear or a deadly foe.
|The Hunger Games||The tributes enter the arena, and many are killed in the Cornucopia.|
|Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone||A troll is loose inside the school, and Hermione’s life is at risk as she is trapped in the girl’s toilets with it.|
|Interview with a Vampire||Claudia kills Lestat. But he comes back and they have to set him on fire and flee the burning city.|
|Interstellar||Mann admits he lied to save his own life, and tries to kill Cooper, pushing him down a giant hole and damaging his air supply. Mann’s booby trap kills Romilly.|
Having completed the ordeal, the hero will emerge changed and stronger than ever before. They now have the tools – which may be power, insight, allies, weapons or tools – to face the ultimate enemy in the final conflict.
|The Hunger Games||Katniss gets a bag, which has very useful things, such as a knife, rope, sleeping bag and water bottle.|
|Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone||Hermione is now their friend, quite an asset.|
|Interview with a Vampire||Without Lestat they search the world for truth, other vampires and the meaning of life, and eventually find some in Paris. Armand appears to be the vampire and life mentor Louis has always desired.|
|Interstellar||Cooper admits to Brand that she was right (and maybe they should have followed her heart).|
The Road Back
This is a tricky stage to interpret. It is sometimes called a reverse call to adventure, and the idea is that the hero can see the light at the end of the tunnel. They are now better equipped, but they need to make one final push before achieving their goal.
|The Hunger Games||Katniss allies with Rue and they succeed in blowing up the career tributes’ supplies. But there are still other Tributes to defeat.|
|Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone||– Not Present –|
|Interview with a Vampire||Louis believes that Armand can give him the happiness and understanding he has been seeking for so long. But the coven will not accept Claudia.|
|Interstellar||Cooper jettisons himself, sacrificing himself so that Brand can reach the next planet. They lose another 51 years in the process. Cooper enters the event horizon of the black hole Gargantua.|
This is the final battle, where the hero is tested by a powerful enemy and proves that they have changed from the person they were in the beginning.
|The Hunger Games||Monstrous dog bear creatures attack, and then so does Cato. Katniss and Peeta manage to push him down and the creatures attack him. Katniss shoots him with an arrow to end his suffering. But then the Gamemakers change the rules again, forcing Katniss to kill Peeta. But she refuses, threatening to commit suicide with berries instead. The Gamemakers relent and she wins.|
|Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone||The friends have to battle many dangerous challenges, including three-headed dogs, strangling plants, giant chess sets and poison bottles, and finally Harry faces Voldemort, who tries to kill him.|
|Interview with a Vampire||The Paris Vampires take Claudia and kill her as punishment for killing one of ‘their own’ and lock Louis in a coffin. But after Armand gets Louis out, he burns down the Paris Vampires home and kills them all.|
|Interstellar||Cooper finds himself in a Tesseract where he realises he was Murphy’s ghost, and desperately tries to send her the data she needs. Murphy has a eureka moment when she works out the answer that will save humanity.|
Return home with the Elixir
The ‘elixir’ is the new self knowledge the hero has gained. Once your climax is completed the hero returns to their original home complete and recognised as a hero. There are often celebrations, and the closing images contrast with the opening ones, in order to show how the hero has changed.
|The Hunger Games||Katniss has beaten the Gamemaker’s themselves in becoming victor with Peeta at her side. She is crowned and cheered, but there are warnings that she will be made to pay for what she’s done.|
|Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone||Harry is popular once more and celebrated as a hero. He is surrounded by friends and admirers and knows that Dudley will not be able to bully him anymore. He has achieved both his want and his need.|
|Interview with a Vampire||Louis no longer searches for a mentor to teach him the meaning of life as a vampire. He comes to terms with the fact that the world is not fair and cannot be controlled, and so accepts that he must kill humans, and releases his guilt. He encounters Lestat, who is broken, a shadow of his former self, while Louis is healthy, whole, comfortable in the modern world and at peace. But when the interviewer wants to be like him (powerful, with the strenth to control his destiny), he realises he has failed in passing on what he has learned about the world, and loses his temper, and control, once more. Proving once more that the world is not fair and cannot be controlled.|
|Interstellar||Cooper wakes up on a new space station and meets Murphy, who is now a very old woman. Cooper sees her surrounded by her own loved ones. She tells him to go and join Brand. He has had his adventure and will now go and be with someone as his companion. He has achieved both his want and his need – though he missed out on the loving relationship with his daughter, so it is a little bittersweet.|
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