Suggestions From an Editor, Part II - The Hero's Journey: The Force Is With You


(Believe me, you're going to hate me after this.)

Throughout history, since the first humans were drawing on cave walls and dancing and singing around fires at night, we have told stories. There are thousands of reasons for stories to exist: to explain the world around us, to enlighten, to explain the morals and ethics of life, to educate, and in many cases, to entertain.

But there is something special about storytelling. Overall, human beings are predictable and rhythmic. We like organization, order, routine, and patterns. This is natural to us. It's why we sleep at night and are awake during the day. It's why we use clocks and calendars. We don't like chaos; we get nervous, upset, frightened. It disrupts our natural need for rhythm and order.

Think of it this way: imagine you have a morning routine. You get up in the morning, you get in the shower, you get dressed, you make breakfast and eat it, you go out the door to work. This becomes easy and normal, and it is relaxing. Perhaps you go over your notes for a meeting that day, or you listen to the radio for the traffic and the morning headlines. It gets your brain ready to deal with the day.

But what if today you discover that the hot water heater isn't working? Really? You stupid machine, you couldn't have done this last night when I was washing dishes, when I would have had time for it? Now what am I going to do? I won't get to work on time if I have to deal with this now. For crying out loud, this is ridiculous!

This bump in your morning has created chaos and has completely changed your mood for the worse. You're probably angry and upset, and now you have to figure out if you can deal with this so you can get on with your day. But eventually, you'll get the hot water heater fixed and you'll be able to go back to your normal routine...albeit a bit wiser to make sure the appliance has a yearly checkup from now on.

Stories of all kinds will reflect that need for rhythm and order. So to satisfy our natural need for it, they will follow a pattern every single time...whether we like it or not. We want to read or hear a story that talks about struggle and then triumph. It's a form of escapism, but it also can be used to educate or enlighten. A man named Joseph Campbell identified this pattern, and he dubbed it The Hero's Journey

Beowulf and the Dragon by Paolo Puggioni

Campbell was a professor at Sarah Lawrence College in New York with a B.A. in English literature and an M.A. in Medieval literature. In his time and travels and his interactions with writers, professors, historians, and other scholars, he started learning about myths and legends around the world. He studied others' work before his who had discovered common patterns among religious stories, myths, and legends. After years of work, he officially identified the patterns and gave them a structure and format, publishing them in a book, which has since become a staple in creative writing studies across the globe. From Wikipedia:

The study of hero myth narratives started in 1871 with anthropologist Edward Taylor's observations of common patterns in plots of hero's journeys. Later on, others introduced various theories on hero myth narratives such as Otto Rank and his Freudian psychoanalytic approach to myth, Lord Raglan's unification of myth and rituals, and eventually hero myth pattern studies were popularized by Joseph Campbell, who was influenced by Carl Jung's view of myth. In his 1949 work The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell described the basic narrative pattern as follows:

"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." 


(That wasn't the part where you're going to hate me. That comes later.)

I of course highly recommend reading Campbell's book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. He can obviously explain this better than I can. But as is normal in our world, sometimes we need the Cliff Notes version. So I'm going to present to you the simplest form of the Hero's Journey as I've found that helps me as I write and edit stories.

It is important to note that Campbell's pattern was mostly applied to myths and legends from around the world and from various tribes, religions, and social groups. So the descriptions will sound a bit like a fantasy or your favorite fairy tale, but that's somewhat the point: are we not always telling tales? This is why the journey both appears and works in any type of story. 

This diagram is a common one to illustrate the Hero's Journey. It is a basic guide to help you learn the pattern. I blatantly stole it from The Writer's Journey website, so you can click here for more information. Feel free to print it out and stick it on your wall, make notes on it, keep it close while you find your main character's story arc.

Campbell suggested looking at the story as a circle because life is cyclical, repeating itself each day as the sun rises and sets. The stages run in a clockwise pattern to help us easily follow the cycle. Campbell's original design actually included seventeen stages; however, this design combines some of those stages to make it easier to remember them, as if you are looking at a clock. Twelve is also an easier number to remember than seventeen, for there are 24 hours in a day, correct? I do recommend checking out all seventeen stages at this link. You may find that some of the stages that aren't listed above will be vital to how you want your story to be played out. And remember to look at the stages as symbolic rather than being required. For example, the elixir can be an object, a person, or even just knowledge that will make the Hero's life better.

Now to explain the stages. The best way to do this is through example. And I'm going to use the one I was taught and that is honestly my absolute favorite: the story of Luke Skywalker in Star Wars IV: A New Hope. George Lucas had studied the Hero's Journey himself before he wrote Luke's story, so Luke is a perfect example to help visualize the stages.

PLEASE NOTE: I am using the word "hero" and the pronoun "he" just for consistency and ease of reading. This does not mean I exclude female characters or antiheroes (reluctant heroes, such as Wolverine). That's the coolest part of the Hero's Journey: it works for any gender, species, race, capability, or attitude.*

Stages text copied from The Writer's Journey - The Hero's Journey

The hero, uneasy, uncomfortable or unaware, is introduced sympathetically so the audience can identify with the situation or dilemma. The hero is shown against a background of environment, heredity, and personal history.  Some kind of polarity in the hero’s life is pulling in different directions and causing stress.

Luke Skywalker is presented to us as a frustrated young man, stuck working at his uncle's farm. He dreams of learning more about the universe around him and about his father's past.

Something shakes up the situation, either from external pressures or from something rising up from deep within, so the hero must face the beginnings of change.

Uncle Owen buys two droids, C-3PO and R2-D2, to help around the farm. While cleaning them, Luke discovers the secret message Princess Leia recorded and saved in R2-D2's rusty innards. She asks Obi-Wan Kenobi for help. Luke wonder if she means Ben Kenobi, a hermit who lives out in the desert dunes.

***Important: In Luke's story, the below stages are switched. While we can manipulate the story line to see the alternative of stage 3, Luke's story flows better by using the more obvious clues to the journey. But this is a good example of how the Hero's Journey can be changed up slightly to serve how the creator wants to present his story to his audience.

The hero feels the fear of the unknown and tries to turn away from the adventure, however briefly. Alternately, another character may express the uncertainty and danger ahead.

Once Ben has told Luke his destiny, he refuses, claiming his responsibilities to his family. Ben warns him not to return home, that it is too dangerous. (Alternately: Luke tells his aunt and uncle about the message he found. Uncle Owen shrugs it off and explains that it is too dangerous. Luke struggles with this, but then must go find R2-D2 the next day as he's run off.)

The hero comes across a seasoned traveler of the worlds who gives him or her training, equipment, or advice that will help on the journey. Or the hero reaches within to a source of courage and wisdom.

Luke finds Ben Kenobi and plays the message for him. Ben gives Luke his father's lightsaber and explains how his father was once a Jedi but succumbed to the dark side of the Force. Ben tells him that Luke needs to deliver the Princess's message to the Rebellion and help fight against the Empire. He must also learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi himself. (Alternately: Luke tracks R2-D2 down near Ben Kenobi's home. Ben saves Luke from some Tuskin Raiders who are trying to rob him. Luke plays the message for Ben, et cetera.)

At the end of Act One, the hero commits to leaving the Ordinary World and entering a new region or condition with unfamiliar rules and values.

Luke goes back home when he realizes the Empire will have tracked the droids to his family's farm. When he arrives, he discovers his aunt and uncle have been killed and the farmhouse burned. With nothing left to keep him on Tatooine, Luke agrees to go with Ben to Alderaan to deliver the message.

The hero is tested and sorts out allegiances in the Special World.

Luke and Ben go to Mos Eisley to find a ride to the planet Alderaan. They hire Han Solo and his copilot Chewbacca the Wookie to make the journey. On the way, Luke learns how to use the lightsaber and Ben explains to him about the ways of the Force and becoming a Jedi.

The hero and newfound allies prepare for the major challenge in the Special World.

The group discovers that Alderaan no longer exists, and has been destroyed by the Empire. Han's ship, the Millennium Falcon, is caught in a tractor beam by the Empire's deadly weapon: the Death Star. They are pulled into the station and discover Princess Leia is on board. They must rescue her and get her and R2-D2 to the rendezvous where the Rebellion is planning their attack on the Death Star.

Near the middle of the story, the hero enters a central space in the Special World and confronts death or faces his or her greatest fear. Out of the moment of death comes a new life.

As they are hurrying back to the Millennium Falcon after rescuing Leia, Luke witnesses Ben being struck down by Darth Vader, the Sith Lord. Ben seems to give up the fight so Vader can kill him. Luke is shocked, but his new friends manage to get him into the Falcon to make their escape.

The hero takes possession of the treasure won by facing death. There may be celebration, but there is also danger of losing the treasure again.

The group escapes the Death Star and destroys the fighters sent to follow them. They hurry to the rendezvous, and the Death Star plans are downloaded from R2-D2.

About three-fourths of the way through the story, the hero is driven to complete the adventure, leaving the Special World to be sure the treasure is brought home. Often a chase scene signals the urgency and danger of the mission.

The plans reveal a fatal flaw in the Death Star, and that's where they will concentrate their attack. Luke joins the Rebel fighter pilots to serve as backup while his squad leader attempts to fire missiles into the opening that leads to the center of the Death Star and will destroy it. The squad leader misses the opening.

At the climax, the hero is severely tested once more on the threshold of home. He or she is purified by a last sacrifice, another moment of death and rebirth, but on a higher and more complete level. By the hero’s action, the polarities that were in conflict at the beginning are finally resolved.

Luke is one of the only pilots left who can attempt to destroy the Death Star. Ben speaks to Luke through the power of the Force and tells him to use his instincts to know exactly when to fire. Luke turns off his tracking computer to concentrate, but Vader is on his tail, intent on destroying him. Han and Chewbacca fly in in the Millenium Falcon and knock Vader off course. This enables Luke to successfully fire his missiles into the Death Star.

The hero returns home or continues the journey, bearing some element of the treasure that has the power to transform the world as the hero has been transformed.

Luke, Han and Chewbacca are honored at a large ceremony. Princess Leia presents all three with medals, and C-3PO and R2-D2 are also part of the celebration.

I also really enjoy this video about the Hero's Journey. You can find others online as well, but this one is very comprehensive and entertaining to watch.


(Now is where you're going to hate me.)

This pattern exists everywhere. I'm not joking: EVERYWHERE. It is in every book you read, every movie you watch. Take a look at history: you can find it in the lives of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King, Jr., even Charles Manson. The story of the rise of the Nazis and their destruction; the story of America choosing independence from England. Jesus Christ went through the Hero's Journey, as did Gautama Buddha. Watch a sports game, you'll see it there. Video games and music videos have it too. Even songs have this pattern in them. Give Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" another listen and see what I mean.

You will even find it in your own life. Think about the four years you spent at high school, or even just one year. Do you see the twelve stages when you were on your journey of learning, both through books and social aspects? Who was your mentor? Who were your allies and enemies? How did they shape how you reacted to the world? And how did you feel on that last day of school, when the journey was finally over? Was your graduation diploma your magic elixir, or was it something else?

Why does this happen? Because we are humans. We like order. We live in order. Our world is designed for us to live within order. We cannot handle chaos. We avoid it, and we even punish it. Order helps us handle stress and have positive interactions with others around us. And our entertainment craves it so we will walk away satisfied and sated, ready to take on the next stage of our own journey. Ever had the need to find out exactly what happened? Who won the game, did your favorite TV couple get back together, or even if your spouse had a good day at work? That is your own mind working out the Hero's Journey.

In my next post, I will discuss how genre fiction can turn the Hero's Journey on its ear in order to deliberately create chaos to make the reader uncomfortable...perhaps even scare him. You'll see how it works in a well-known horror film, and how much fun it really can be!

So take some time to process this while I work on the next blog post. And please, don't curse my name too much when you keep recognizing the Hero's Journey in everything you come across...I don't really need many more curses set upon me. Thank you!


*Of special interest: there is a feminine version of the Hero's Journey known as The Heroine's Journey. It deals more with the emotional side of the journey rather than the physical. However, I believe that Campbell was not being sexist in his design. It is quite clear the Hero's Journey works in all story formats and for all types of characters, so I refer to it over the Heroine's Journey. Of course, the more you learn, the better your story will be, so you can read more about the Heroine's Journey here.