Explaining the Hero’s Journey
A Deep Dive into Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth
Since its publication in 1949, Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With A Thousand Faces has been a hugely influential work in the field of comparative mythology and storytelling. It explores the common patterns found in myths and legends across diverse cultures throughout history. And, most importantly, it introduces the concept of the “monomyth,” or the Hero’s Journey, a narrative structure that Campbell argues transcends cultural boundaries and forms the basis of many of the most compelling and foundational stories ever created.
The Hero With A Thousand Faces provides a comprehensive cross-cultural framework for understanding what makes a story a story. Its impact, particularly that of the monomyth, has shaped the way we perceive and create stories in literature, film, and beyond. In fact, after reading this article, you may find it difficult not to see the monomyth coloring stories all around you.
But why is the Hero’s Journey so important for storytelling? Anyone can write a story. But writing something that captures the attention of readers means knowing how to craft it in a way that will tug on their emotions and stay with them long after reading. The Hero’s Journey is one of the most important structures and tools we have for creating compelling stories. In this edition of Facts of Fiction, you’ll learn what it is, how to use it, and what narrative structures lie beyond.
The Hero’s Journey Demystified
The Hero’s Journey encapsulates a common narrative archetype, or story template, often used in storytelling, particularly from a Western perspective. In it, a hero first departs (or separates) by going on adventure, is initiated into a new world, and then returns home.
In The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkein, for example, Gandalf calls upon Bilbo to join the dwarves of Thorin’s Company on a quest. Thus, Bilbo leaves his peaceful hobbit hole and finds himself on an adventure where he learns and struggles a great deal. Throughout the story, Bilbo gains a new level of maturity, competence, and wisdom—the skills he needs to secure his own kind of victory in ultimately leading to victories against the dragon Smaug, and at the Battle of Five Armies. Bilbo then returns to Bag End with some treasure and more stories, ultimately setting up for the beginning of Lord of the Rings in which Frodo also follows the call to adventure—once again led by Gandalf.
We see here the “nuclear unit” of the monomyth in its full form: separation, initiation, and return.
The first stage of the monomyth, also called the “departure,” has five stages wherein the hero:
- Receives the vocation to their journey, signifying that destiny—in the form of the “herald”—has summoned them. This may appear in the form of a problem or threat, or as a person, such as Gandalf in The Hobbit.
- Refuses the vocation, thus seeing for themselves the banality of their normal life. Campbell notes that “the refusal is essentially a refusal to give up what one takes to be one’s own interest.” In stories that take on the full Hero’s Journey, the hero always ultimately accepts the call.
- Receives unsuspected assistance from a supernatural force, usually a protective figure—often a little old crone or old man—who provides the adventurer with tools against the forces the hero is about to face.
- Crosses the first threshold, officially departing on their heroic journey.
- Enters the realm of the night, also known as the belly of the whale. Here, the hero faces the first of their trials and enters into the unknown. In fairytales, for example, this may be an ogre guarding a bridge that the hero must outwit, bribe, or use the tools granted by the supernatural aid to defeat.
The second stage of the monomyth details the trials and victories of initiation. Our hero must overcome great challenges to fully come into themself as a hero and a person. In this stage, the hero:
- Takes the road of trials, a series of ordeals they must survive in order to reach the next stage. These include trials that test them both physically and emotionally and serve as a means to help the character grow.
- Meets the “goddess,” in which the hero meets the allies who help them on their journey.
- Faces temptation to abandon their journey and must avoid it. Campbell also refers to this stage as “Woman as Temptress” but it signifies any kind of temptation leading the hero away from their fate.
- Atones with the father, or faces a major turning point in the story and discovers the ultimate reason for their journey. This may manifest in a face-off with a villain or a moment of internal doubt, or even a conflict with the herald who issued their quest.
- Reaches the highest point of development or apotheosis—the climax of the story wherein the hero learns how they will face the rest of the journey and gains knowledge that will help them continue.
- Confronts the ultimate boon, fulfilling the reason for their journey.
Finally, at the end of the hero’s journey, the hero must return home and reintegrate into society. During this time, the hero:
- Refuses the return, as they are reluctant to end the journey and return to the banality of real life.
- Goes on the magic flight, or is chased by those who would prevent them from returning home.
- Is rescued from without by an outside force or mentor who guides them home and rescues them from whoever is chasing them.
- Crosses the return threshold and returns to the world they lived in previously.
- Becomes the master of two worlds, learning how to balance the mundane world with the one discovered on the journey.
- Finds freedom to live. The hero acclimates back to their mundane life and lives peacefully.
In short, the Hero’s Journey is a common narrative archetype, or story template, in which a heroic character—the protagonist—goes on an adventure, learns a lesson, wins a victory, or victories, with that newfound knowledge, and returns home transformed.
Character Arcs and Turning Points
Perhaps the most important aspect of Campbell’s monomyth is how it serves as a classic structure to develop characters. Here at Brink and F(r)iction, we place a lot of value on character development and see the monomyth as one of the ideal ways to bring a character through a fully thought-out and satisfying character arc.
The Hero’s Journey as outlined above doesn’t have to be a physical journey. It doesn’t have to take the form of fantasy, as it does in The Hobbit or classic fairytales and myths. It can start with a character getting the call to adventure by accepting a new job or starting at a new school. It can be mundane and every day, but the point is that it changes the protagonist as a person, amplifying both their good traits and their flaws, and bringing them full circle emotionally, mentally, and sometimes spiritually as well.
A great example of the Hero’s Journey outside of genre fiction is Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen. Our hero, Elizabeth Bennet, lives her ordinary life until she is “called to adventure” by the arrival of Mr. Darcy and Mr. Bingley. In this case, the adventure is love, and most of Elizabeth’s trials are internal. But ultimately, her story follows the structure of the monomyth and brings her to the full circle of “returning home,” only this time, it is her home with Mr. Darcy.
Most importantly to Elizabeth’s Hero’s Journey, however, is her overall character arc. The title Pride and Prejudice gives us a clue: is Elizabeth the prideful one or the prejudiced one? In the end, she is both, and the journey she takes leads her to growing as a person, shedding her pride and her prejudice, and finding love—the very thing she refused at the beginning of the novel.
The point of the character arc in the monomyth is that the hero changes. The stages of the Hero’s Journey amplify this change, unearthing the character’s greatest strengths and weaknesses and how they may use and overcome them, respectively. The transformative power of the Hero’s Journey for character is what makes it so compelling to readers. For example, think of how Aang in Avatar the Last Airbender changes over the course of the show. He goes from being a scared twelve-year-old boy who ran away from his problems (so effectively that he vanished for one hundred years) to accepting his purpose, overcoming his fears, and becoming the hero he was always meant to be.
Or, take “Amorpho & The Leering Freak,” a short story by Jason Baltazar, for example. The protagonist, Amorpho, begins the story feeling uncomfortable at being observed “like an ant under a magnifying glass” as he performs his set at a freak show. He hates being watched and lacks personal connection to most people. By the end of the story, Amorpho has come to accept his new roommate “The Leering Freak” as a friend and has even stood up for him, relishing in The Leering Freak’s watchful gaze.
The Monomyth in Action
Many famous stories adhere to the Hero’s Journey framework. You may begin to notice them all around you. The most popular examples include The Odyssey, Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Hunger Games, Star Wars: A New Hope, and many more. If you recognize and enjoy any of these stories, consider revisiting them and examining how they adhere to the monomyth. Or, pick one of your favorite stories and track it to see if it follows the monomyth’s structure. If it does, how? When does the hero get called to their journey? When do they enter the belly of the whale? How do they return home? If it doesn’t, what makes it different from the Hero’s Journey? What does the story do, or not do, that makes it a different narrative?
As outlined with Pride and Prejudice above, the Hero’s Journey is not only used in fantastical stories, but can also apply across genres. Filmmakers, writers, and storytellers all around the world constantly use the framework of the monomyth to create compelling stories that capture an audience and make us care about their characters and plots. Utilizing the monomyth is a sure way to create an engaging narrative, as it truly lends itself to rich character development, drama, and a strong ending that feels complete.
Alternatives to the Hero’s Journey
However, just because the Hero’s Journey is a popular framework for storytelling doesn’t mean it’s the only one out there. Alternative narrative structures, from the three-act structure to a classic tragedy to the anti-hero’s journey and more do exist.
The three-act structure divides a story into three parts, often called the setup, confrontation, and resolution. Films and screenplays often use this structure and it can feel very similar to the Hero’s Journey as it is also made up of three parts that mirror the separation, initiation, and return. However, in the case of the three-act structure, not all of the elements from the Hero’s Journey may be present. Examine classic movies like Jaws, Jurassic Park, and Titanic as prime examples of the three-act structure in action.
Classic tragedies tend to fall into five stages: anticipation, dream, frustration, nightmare, and destruction or death wish. In these stories, the tragic hero has a goal but ultimately fails to get what they want, and the result is complete undoing. In this way, a tragedy may reflect a Hero’s Journey but end in its opposite: the monsters win, the hero dies. Classic examples would be Shakespeare’s tragedies, such as Macbeth, Hamlet, and King Lear, but modern examples such as horror movies and organized crime films also often follow this structure.
Deviating From the Hero’s Journey
The Hero’s Journey provides a solid structure for telling a story that is recognizable across cultures and time. It has been amply analyzed and used to tell all kinds of stories for all kinds of characters. In this sense, the Hero’s Journey has pros and cons to using it as a writer. The pros are that you know it will result in a compelling story. The cons are that it may not feel original. Because of this, we don’t recommend viewing the monomyth as a paint-by-the-numbers template, but rather as a roadmap for sketching out a particular kind of story—one focused on a “hero” character who goes through an impactful change. In the end, storytellers can use what they like and change what they need to to tell their best version of their story.
Crafting Your Own Journey
It’s good practice to study and even create your own Hero’s Journey narrative if you plan to be a writer. Like with all skillsets, storytellers must first master the basics and fundamentals in order to refine and upgrade their craft. Try using the outline below to determine the course of your next story, no matter what world you set it in. Come up with a character who you envision embarking on the monomyth and see how your story develops from there. You may find it’s the easiest story you’ve ever written. You may struggle to differentiate it from others you have read. In the end, doing it for yourself is the best way to see how it serves as such a great formulation for a story—and how it can be adapted to suit many genres and themes.
Hero’s Journey Template
- Step 1: Ordinary World
- Establish your hero and what their everyday life is like.
- Step 2: Call to Adventure
- Have your hero encounter an event, problem, or person that forces them outside of their comfort zone/everyday life.
- Step 3: Refusal of the Call
- Make your hero reluctant to leave behind their everyday life to embark on the adventure.
- Step 4: Meeting the Mentor
- Have your hero meet with a mentor who will help them face the challenges ahead.
- Step 1: Crossing the First Threshold
- Have your hero officially depart on their journey and fully commit to entering the new world.
- Step 2: Test, Allies, Enemies
- As your hero enters this new world, have them encounter obstacles, enemies, and allies to help them on their journey.
- Step 3: Approach to the Inmost Cave
- Have your hero approach the place where they will encounter their greatest fear or biggest threat/foe.
- Step 4: Ordeal
- Have your hero confront whatever it is they were approaching above and overcome it.
- Step 5: Reward (Seizing the Sword)
- Provide your hero with a light at the end of the tunnel: some kind of tool, belief, or resource that they need to finish their journey.
- Step 1: The Road Back
- Take your hero on the journey home—but have them encounter more dangers along the way.
- Step 2: Resurrection
- Make your hero face a final test before getting a happy ending.
- Step 3: Return with the Elixir
- Finally, have your hero return home, changed in some way and with some kind of prize—either an insight or physical object.
Once you have mastered—or at least played with—the Hero’s Journey, try other narrative structures. Experiment for yourself to see what suits your style of writing and your characters. If you find yourself getting stuck, or not liking where a structure is taking you, change it up. There are many diverse narratives to explore.
Think about your favorite short story, novel, movie, or series. What style of narrative does this work employ? Break it down into the “steps” of the Hero’s Journey as outlined above to get a better understanding of why and how it works as a story. An example you could use is Star Wars: A New Hope, which famously follows the Hero’s Journey very closely.
Beyond the Monomyth: Exploring Diverse Narratives
Non-traditional narratives include the circular narrative, parallel plotlines, or a story told from an unconventional perspective, or that plays with time.
In a circular narrative, for example, the story ends where it began. The characters still transform, but they return to the same place they began the story. While this may feel similar to the Hero’s Journey and, in some cases, a Hero’s Journey is cyclical, in a circular narrative the characters don’t necessarily go through all the trials and tribulations of the hero. A great example of circular narrative is One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.
In parallel structure, the story follows multiple storylines that are tied together through an event, character, or theme. Parallel narratives can be found everywhere throughout popular media, but a strong famous example would be “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” by Shakespeare. In this play, multiple plotlines take place at once: the love entanglement of Helena, Hermia, Lysander, and Demetrius; Titania and Oberon’s quarrel; the play being put on by Bottom and the other players; and the wedding of Theseus and Hippolyta. By the end of the play, these plotlines have connected and been resolved.
Another type of story is interactive in which the reader chooses their own adventure, and the choices they make determine how the story proceeds and what narrative it takes. Video games often use this to make a compelling game that may end poorly for the player if they don’t make the right choices. The next blog in this series takes you on a choose your own adventure that will determine a hero’s fate—and hopefully help exemplify the Hero’s Journey as well as these other narrative structures!
We must acknowledge that the Hero’s Journey and many of the other narratives discussed today largely come from a western understanding of storytelling and literature. Although Campbell brings up non-Western examples of folklore and stories in The Hero With A Thousand Faces, there is debate over whether his analysis truly applies. Narrative structures outside of Western influence do exist.
The East Asian four-act structure, for example, also called kishōtenketsu (Japanese), qǐchéngzhuǎnhé (Chinese), and gi seung jeon gyeol (Korean), is sometimes described as a “story without conflict.” This isn’t necessarily accurate, but it does pinpoint how this structure does not employ conflict to drive the story forward as it does in Western narrative structures. Instead, self-actualization, self-realization, and self-development drive the story. The four acts include the introduction, development, twist/turning point, and conclusion/result, although these can vary depending on the specific culture and story. Many popular manga, anime, K-dramas, and C-dramas utilize this story structure. Popular examples include the Studio Ghibli film Spirited Away, the Korean Movie Minari, and Nintendo’s Super Mario. Some argue that Pulp Fiction uses this structure and Michel He argues that BTS’s “Love Yourself” album trilogy also employs this.
Aside from East Asian four-act structure, Kim Yoonmi outlines multiple worldwide story structures that fall outside of the Hero’s Journey, including Bildungsroman (the coming of age story), Crick Crack or Kwik Kwak from the Caribbean Black community (a performance-based storytelling tradition that utilizes audience interaction), and Harawi from South America (storytelling through lyrical and other forms of poetry). We won’t go into every possible story structure here, but recognize their existence and that a story is a story whether or not it follows a structure we expect.
On Choosing A Story Structure
I encourage you to experiment with multiple story structures but to always keep in mind one thing: be purposeful. Whether you’re choosing to form a narrative around conflict, actively avoiding it, or doing something else entirely, make sure that whatever you choose lends itself to telling the story you are trying to tell. This will result in your best-told and most compelling story.
The Hero’s Journey, Joseph Campbell’s famous monomyth, can be broken down into its nuclear unit of separation, initiation, and return. The hero is called to adventure, must overcome trials and challenges, and returns home changed for the better. The most important aspect of this journey is the way the character develops over it. In storytelling, the characters will always be the most important part of the story as they are what keeps readers reading.
However, while the Hero’s Journey is a common and popular structure, it is not the only one out there. It can be used and adapted as the storyteller wishes for the sake of the story. As you write your own stories, explore multiple narrative structures and see what lends itself to telling your story the best way possible.
In the end, Joseph Campbell’s work, The Hero With A Thousand Faces, has changed forever how we view and analyze literature. It has framed the way we see heroes and the journeys they face. This work has left an indelible mark on storytelling and continues to be an important part of learning how to tell great, compelling stories. After doing the exercise above, consider submitting your own take on the monomyth to F(r)iction and continue revisiting this series to learn more about the fundamentals of storytelling!
Author’s Note: It’s worth pointing out that The Hero With A Thousand Faces does not just detail the Hero’s Journey that we have discussed in depth today. Although Campbell’s major argument and the majority of the work is dedicated to the monomyth and its role in storytelling, he also connects this to psychology in ways that we don’t often acknowledge or discuss today. This is in part because these connections don’t help us tell better stories. It is also because Campbell intertwines them with the Freudian take on human psychology in a way that is often rejected today for lacking evidence and considered a pseudoscience. To learn more about this, I encourage you to read The Hero With A Thousand Faces and check out this article. That said, the monomyth is still important to study when learning how to create stories and, importantly, how to write compelling character arcs.