The Hero's Journey is an archetypal story pattern, common in ancient myths as well as modern day adventures.
The concept of the Hero's Journey was described by mythologist Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces and refined by Christopher Vogler in his book The Writer's Journey.
It can be boiled down to three stages:
- Departure: the Hero leaves the familiar world behind.
- Initiation: the Hero learns to navigate the unfamiliar world of adventure.
- Return: the Hero returns to the familiar world.
More elaborate taxonomies usually include the following stages, not all of which need be present:
- Miraculous or unusual circumstances around the Hero's conception or birth. Bonus points if there was a prophecy. Less common in modern stories, which tend to emphasize the role of personal choice in defining a hero, although there may still be a Prophecy Twist involved.
- Begins in the ordinary world of the Hero's hometown, often in one of two flavours:
- The Hero may be dissatisfied with the ordinary and express a desire for adventure. In musicals this can be expressed through an "I Want" Song.
- The Herald brings a Call to Adventure. The Hero learns that they must leave the known world behind and travel into the land of adventure.
- The Hero must then decide how to answer the Call:
- Refusal of the Call: More common in classic stories. The Call will often try again because The Call Knows Where You Live. Can't Stay Normal and Resigned to the Call are special cases of call refusal.
- Jumped at the Call, sometimes even in the face of Adventure Rebuff: More common in modern stories. The modern subversion of this is when the hero is Resigned to the Call. They accept it, but only because they feel it would be pointless to resist, and not because they're particularly happy about the thought of adventure. If the hero finds themself abducted by destiny before even knowing what the Call is or even that they were addressed, then they may be a Cosmic Plaything. Resigning oneself to fate becomes easier in these situations. Just like its enthusiastic counterpart, this version of the narrative is more common in modern tales than classic ones.
- Frequently, the first step on the Journey is receiving some kind of magical tchotchke or other Supernatural Aid.
- Crossing the First Threshold: The Hero must make a conscious, willing decision to embark on the adventure and leave the known world behind. This is the First Threshold. The Hero may have to defeat Threshold Guardians, who are not necessarily adversarial but do test the Hero's resolve. Down the Rabbit Hole is a special case for young heroines embarking on supernatural adventures.
- The Land of Adventure: the Hero enters a strange, dreamlike realm, where logic is topsy-turvy and the "rules" are markedly different from the ordinary world. Carl Jung identified the Ordinary Realm with the conscious mind, and the Realm of Adventure with the subconscious mind.
- The Spiritual Death and Rebirth represents a symbolic death for the Hero: the Hero is defeated and killed, their flesh scattered, ready to be reborn and emerge as a new person. If you think the symbolic death ought to come later, don't worry: The Writer's Journey omits this step altogether in favor of a Resurrection step just before the end.
- A more contemporary interpretation of this step is that the hero is taken down & demoralized by the Big Bad and hits rock bottom, without actually dying (though this can be caused by someone close to them dying). Afterwards, they have an important revelation, giving them a final bit of Character Development, and restoring their resolve.
- Part of this step involves the Hero Losing the Guide.
- Road of Trials: the path out of the Belly of the Whale. Usually the meat of the story; The Writer's Journey calls it Tests, Allies, Enemies, while Booker goes into detail on different types of tests (deadly terrain, monsters, temptations, deadly opposites, and a journey to the underworld). Stops along the way might include:
- The Shapeshifter: someone you don't trust but nonetheless need for their capabilities or knowledge.
- The Goddess
- The Temptress
- Atonement With the Father: George Lucas loved this step. Oedipus probably didn't. Variants include a final showdown with an Archnemesis Dad (sometimes still ending in atonement if Death Equals Redemption) and Calling the Old Man Out
- At least one "Leave Your Quest" Test, usually after meeting the Goddess or Temptress.
- Night Sea Voyage: the Hero must sneak into the Big Bad's Elaborate Underground Base and retrieve something or someone. Campbell noted that these Stealth Runs were usually at night and often involved water; hence the name.
- Time out just before the big battle: the Heroes gather around a campfire and prepare for the battle, tell stories, confess their feelings, etc. It reminds them of what's at stake, and serves as a breather after all the action of the Road of Trials.
- Apotheosis / Fight against the Big Bad / Ultimate Boon (These are typically very closely related, often intertwined.)
- Apotheosis: The Hero comes to view the world in a new and radically different way, either because of a critical breakthrough they've made or some crucial information they've uncovered. If it is something to do with themself then this is a good time for an I Am Who?.
- The Hero confronts the Big Bad: Typically this plays out in a David Versus Goliath fashion. They are usually called upon to sacrifice themself, or something or someone important to them. A Friend-or-Idol Decision is a common scenario. Note that asked is the key word here—it's usually enough that the Hero be willing to sacrifice something without actually having to do it. Someone else will sacrifice themself in the Hero's stead, or the Hero will prove to have outwitted the Big Bad somehow (so that the apparent sacrifice isn't really a sacrifice), or it was all a Secret Test of Character, or
- The Ultimate Boon: getting the reward the hero's been chasing all this time, often but not always a MacGuffin.
- The Final Temptation is often involved in one or more of these three events: A hero originally motivated by a self-serving goal may receive their Ultimate Boon with the option to take it and run before saving the day. A hero on a Homeward Journey may find a way home, but turn back after their Apotheosis makes them realize their work isn't done. Another may be offered the Ultimate Boon or a tempting substitute by the Big Bad in exchange for stepping aside. Still another may find that the Ultimate Boon is exactly the sacrifice they are required to make to defeat the Big Bad.
- Refusal of the Return: At this point in the story, the Hero has mastered the strange world they were thrust into. They probably have earned a permanent place here, if they want it. They may even want to stay, but usually there are forces at work that propel them home.
- The Return: Also called the Magic Flight; the Hero now has the boon and high-tails it away, with the villain and/or their forces in hot pursuit, the two parties locked in a battle of wits and magic (especially shapeshifting) during the chase. (See the Celtic story of Taliesin's escape from Cerridwen for a textbook example of this.) The Hero's escape may not require actual magic, but will require all of the new skills they've learned and new allies they've made. Or alternately they could realize the Awful Truth that they can't return home because sometimes Failure Is the Only Option
- Crossing the Return Threshold. Sometimes a fight against the forces of the Muggle world, which the Hero wins thanks to help from their Muggle allies. This is where the Post-Climax Confrontation happens, as the remaining antagonistic forces have followed the Hero beyond the threshold and attacked them at a time when the plot should be wrapping up. In the absence of any action, it may be a Boring Return Journey instead, a chance for the Hero to reflect on what they've gained and experienced throughout their journey.
- Freedom to Live: The Hero grants the boon to their people.
- Celebration: A Dance Party Ending is often in order.
The pattern of the Hero's Journey can be found in shows ranging from Star Trek to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. George Lucas claims to have used it as a guide when writing Star Wars. Traditionally, the Hero's Journey was cyclic; a female Hero's Journey is more likely to be cyclic than a male's. Buffy The Vampire Slayer fits this to a tee; the movie is the first cycle, and each season roughly corresponds to one additional cycle. The game Journey intentionally fits this model exactly, even referring specific steps in the soundtrack's titles. This sequence is so ubiquitous that even The SpongeBob SquarePants Movie can be shown to follow it.
The Harry Potter books can also be seen to be cyclic in this fashion, although the journey was followed more closely in the earlier installments. The sixth and seventh books are arguably one cycle divided into two parts. With the final book having been split into two films, the last three films kind of form their own mini-trilogy, with each installment covering a step in the departure-initiation-return model. An interesting element is the fact that in the first five books/films, the Muggle world is the ordinary world and Hogwarts is the world of adventure, but in the Prince/Hallows duology/trilogy, Hogwarts has become the ordinary world and now it is the world beyond Hogwarts which is the world of adventure.
This approach is not without critics, however. Some critics argue that Campbell's theory has become a formula on how to make hit stories and thus discourages originality since it is unsuitable for every type of story. Others (most notably Greg Egan) feel that the pattern is too vague and general to be a notable pattern among both classical and modern stories. Still others feel that the approach focuses far too much on what good stories do when how they get there and the problems they must solve are more important. Even when looking at the theory as a description of what already exists, folklorists complain that the pattern isn't really universal, because archetypes are culture-specific, and finding the Hero's Journey as a universal in stories from other cultures is only shoehorning them into familiar patterns.
Compare Campbell's description of the journey with Booker's The Seven Basic Plots, especially the plots of Overcoming the Monster, The Quest, and Voyage and Return. Like Campbell, Booker invests a lot of symbolism in the various elements, to the point where messing up the symbolism kills the story for him (for example, he calls Star Wars flawed because they rescued the princess way before they killed the Big Bad, when ideally those should happen at the same time, since the death of the Monster causes the release of the Anima).
Compare The Quest. See also Propp's Functions of Folktales. If you experience a Heel Realization mid-Journey and realize your efforts so far have been for the wrong side or wrong reasons, please take the detour to your Redemption Quest.