Unraveling the Hero’s Journey: A Roadmap to Crafting Your Story

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Estimated reading time: 4 minutes

Every great story is built on a foundation that resonates with readers, taking them on an unforgettable journey alongside the protagonist. One narrative structure that has stood the test of time is the hero’s journey.

Although it was first identified by 20th Century mythologist Joseph Campbell, the hero’s journey has been with us for thousands of years. This structure is found in the ancient Greek myths — even as far back as the Epic of Gilgamesh.

What is the hero’s journey?

The hero’s journey is a storytelling structure that outlines the protagonist’s transformative journey from an ordinary world to a special or mythic world, ultimately returning as a changed individual. This framework provides a roadmap for crafting engaging narratives by following a series of stages and archetypal characters.

The stages of the hero’s journey

The hero’s journey consists of several stages, each serving a specific purpose in the character’s development. Here are the key stages as identified by Campbell.

1. Departure

  • Ordinary world. Introduce the protagonist in their familiar environment.
  • Call to adventure. Present a challenge or opportunity that disrupts the protagonist’s ordinary life.
  • Refusal of the call. The protagonist hesitates or initially rejects the call to embark on the journey.

2. Initiation

  • Meeting the mentor. The protagonist encounters a guide or mentor who provides wisdom and/or assistance.
  • Crossing the threshold. The hero commits to the adventure, leaving the known world behind.
  • Tests, allies, and enemies. The protagonist faces trials, encounters allies, and fights adversaries that shape their growth.
  • Approach to the inmost cave. The protagonist approaches a significant challenge or obstacle, leading to self-reflection and preparation.
  • Ordeal and transformation. The protagonist confronts their biggest obstacle or faces a life-changing event, experiencing a profound transformation.

3. Return

  • Seizing the sword. The protagonist gains a crucial insight, tool, or power necessary for their final challenge.
  • The road back. The hero begins the journey back to the ordinary world, facing additional tests and obstacles.
  • Resurrection. The protagonist faces the ultimate test or battle that represents a metaphorical death and rebirth.
  • Return with the elixir. The hero returns to the ordinary world, having achieved personal growth and with a gift or knowledge to share.

If this structure sounds familiar, it’s because it has been used repeatedly for thousands of years, and is famously the basis for the original Star Wars movie.

Why is the hero’s journey relevant to your story?

The hero’s journey holds relevance for contemporary storytelling due to several factors.

  1. Archetypal characters. This framework incorporates archetypal characters such as the mentor, threshold guardian, and allies that, despite their old-fashioned names, are still relevant today. By utilizing these character types, writers can tap into the collective unconscious and create relatable and impactful stories.
  2. Empathy and connection with the audience. The hero’s journey allows readers to connect with the protagonist’s struggles, aspirations, and growth. Even if your hero isn’t fighting mythical beasts, so many protagonists have similar dreams and aspirations, even those found in modern thrillers and romance novels. This emotional connection builds empathy, making the story more resonant and engaging.
  3. Relatable protagonists. The hero’s journey emphasizes the protagonist’s transformation and personal growth, making them relatable and inspiring. Readers are drawn to characters who overcome challenges and evolve throughout the story.
  4. Emotional journeys for readers. By following the hero’s journey structure, writers can craft narratives that take readers on an emotional rollercoaster.

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Tips to enhance your storytelling

The hero’s journey is a framework. You can use that same framework for your story, whether you are writing an epic fantasy or a kitchen-sink drama. To maximize the impact of your hero’s journey narrative, consider:

  • Incorporating symbolism and themes. Infuse your story with symbolic elements and explore themes that resonate with readers on a deeper level.
  • Weaving subplots into the hero’s journey. Integrate subplots that complement and enrich the protagonist’s journey to add depth and complexity.
  • Connecting subplots to the main story. Ensure that subplots align with the main narrative and contribute to the protagonist’s growth or the story’s themes.

Other important tips

  • Avoid being too rigid with the hero’s journey. Remember, this is a framework. Keep what’s important to your story, dispense with what’s not.
  • Don’t forget your hero’s character arc, aka their “inner journey.” It’s not enough for your protagonist to win the day, readers want to see them grow through the course of your story.
  • Don’t overemphasize action and plot at the expense of your characters’ relationships. Plot might get your readers to finish your book, but the way your characters interact with each other will bring them back for more. (Or as one writer put it, “Don’t forget your cockroach races.”)

Share your hero’s journey with the world

The hero’s journey is a timeless and effective storytelling framework that guides writers in crafting compelling narratives. By understanding the stages of the hero’s journey, using archetypal characters, and creating emotional connections with readers, you can embark on a transformative storytelling adventure. Enhance your hero’s journey narratives by employing vivid descriptions, engaging the senses, incorporating symbolism, and weaving subplots that enrich the main story.

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