Friday, October 30, 2009

Hero's Journey

I made my song a coat
Covered with embroideries
Out of old mythologies
From heel to throat;
But the fools caught it
Wore it in the world's eyes
As though they'd wrought it.
Song, let them take it,
For there's more enterprise
In walking naked.
William Butler Yeats.

All stories consist of a few common structural elements found universally in myths, fairy tales, dreams, and movies. They are known collectively as The Hero's Journey.

At heart, despite its infinite variety, the hero's story is always a journey. A hero leaves his comfortable, ordinary surroundings to venture into a challenging, unfamiliar world. It may be an outward journey to an actual place: a labyrinth, forest or cave, a strange city or country, a new locale that becomes the arena for his conflict with antagonistic, challenging forces.

But there are as many stories that take the hero on an inward journey, one of the mind, the heart, the spirit. In any good story the hero grows and changes, making a journey from one way of being to the next: from despair to hope, weakness to strength, folly to wisdom, love to hate, and back again. It's these emotional journeys that hook readers and make a story worth watching.

The stages of the Hero's Journey can be traced in all kinds of stories, not just those that feature "heroic" physical action and adventure. The protagonist of every story is the hero of a journey, even if the path leads only into his own mind or into the realm of relationships.

Consider these twelve stages as a map of the Hero's Journey, one of many ways to get from here to there, but one of the most flexible, durable and dependable.


  1. Ordinary World;
  2. Call to Adventure;
  3. Refusal of the Call;
  4. Meeting with the Mentor;
  5. Crossing the First Threshold;
  6. Tests, Allies, Enemies;
  7. Approach to the Inmost Cave;
  8. Ordeal;
  9. Reward (Seizing the Sword);
  10. The Road Back;
  11. Resurrection;
  12. Return with the Elixir.

1. The Ordinary World.

Most stories take the hero out of the ordinary, mundane world into a Special World, new and alien. Roger is on board a ship in the Bay of Bengal; this is the Ordinary World.

2. The Call to Adventure.

The hero is presented with a problem, challenge, or adventure to undertake. Once presented with a Call to Adventure, he can no longer remain indefinitely in the comfort of the Ordinary World. The Call to Adventure establishes the stakes of the game, and makes clear the hero's goal: to win the treasure or the lover, to get revenge or right a wrong, to achieve a dream, confront a challenge, or change a life. What's at stake can often be expressed as a question posed by the call.

Roger's ship is captured by a privateer and is diverted to Mergen. He meets Samuel White, who offers him command of another privateer.

3. Refusal of the Call (The Reluctant Hero).

This one is about fear. Often at this point the hero balks at the threshold of adventure, Refusing the Call or expressing reluctance. After all, he is facing the greatest of all fears, terror of the unknown. The hero has not yet fully committed to the journey and may still be thinking of turning back. Some other influence--a change in circumstances, a further offense against the natural order of things, or the encouragement of the Mentor--is required to get him past this turning point of fear.

Roger refuses the offer and decides to travel to Ayuttaya to seek Phaulkon's help.

4. Mentor (The Wise Old Man or Woman).

By this time many stories will have introduced a Merlin-like character who is the hero's Mentor. The relationship between hero and Mentor is one of the most common themes in mythology, and one of the richest in its symbolic value. It stands for the bond between parent and child, teacher and student, doctor and patient, god and man.

The function of Mentors is to prepare the hero to face the unknown. They may give advice, guidance or magical equipment. However, the Mentor can only go so far with the hero. Eventually the hero must face the unknown alone. Sometimes the Mentor is required to give the hero a swift kick in the pants to get the adventure going.

Phaulkon becomes a Mentor; he is a close friend of Roger's brother and promises to help him.

5. Crossing the First Threshold.

Now the hero finally commits to the adventure and fully enters the Special World of the story for the first time by Crossing the First Threshold. He agrees to face the consequences of dealing with the problem or challenge posed in the Call to Adventure. This is the moment the story takes off and the adventure really gets going. The balloon goes up, the ship sinks, the romance begins, the plane or the spaceship soars off, the wagon train gets rolling.

Movies are often built in three acts, which can be regarded as representing 1) the hero's decision to act, 2) the action itself, and 3) the consequences of the action. The First Threshold marks the turning point between Acts One and Two. The hero, having overcome fear, has decided to confront the problem and take action. He is now committed to the journey and there's no turning back.

In return, Phaulkon asks Roger to undertake a dangerous mission to Patani. Roger agrees, thus Crossing the First Threshold.

6. Tests, Allies, and Enemies.

Once across the First Threshold, the hero naturally encounters new challenges and Tests, makes Allies and Enemies, and begins to learn the rules of the Special World.

Roger undergoes other tests, such as capturing the New Jerusalem, and takes part in suppressing the Makassar uprising. Makes allies and enemies, and learns the rules of the Special World.

7. Approach to the Inmost Cave.

The hero comes at last to the edge of a dangerous place, sometimes deep underground, where the object of the quest is hidden. Often it's the headquarters of the hero's greatest enemy, the most dangerous spot in the Special World, the Inmost Cave. When the hero enters that fearful place he will cross the second major threshold. Heroes often pause at the gate to prepare, plan, and outwit the villain's guards. This is the phase of Approach.

Approach covers all the preparations for entering the Inmost Cave and confronting death or supreme danger.

Roger assists Phaulkon in plotting to arrest Petracha and Sorasak.

8. The Ordeal.

Here the fortunes of the hero hit bottom in a direct confrontation with his greatest fear. He faces the possibility of death and is brought to the brink in a battle with a hostile force. The Ordeal is a "black moment" for the reader, as we are held in suspense and tension, not knowing if he will live or die.

This is a critical moment in any story, an Ordeal in which the hero must die or appear to die so that he can be born again. It's a major source of the magic of the heroic myth. The experiences of the preceding stages have led us, the reader, to identify with the hero and his fate. What happens to the hero happens to us. We are encouraged to experience the brink-of-death moment with him. Our emotions are temporarily depressed so that they can be revived by the hero's return from death. The result of this revival is a feeling of elation and exhaustion.

Every story needs such a life-or-death moment in which the hero or his goals are in moral jeopardy.

They enter Pra Narai's palace but are captured by Sorasak and his men. Phaulkon is murdered and Roger is thrown into prison.

9. Reward (Seizing the Sword).

Having survived death, beaten the dragon, or slain the Minotaur, hero and reader have cause to celebrate. The hero now takes possession of the treasure he has come seeking, his Reward. It might be a special weapon like a magic sword, or a token like the Grail or some elixir which can heal the wounded land.

From the hero's point of view, members of the opposite sex may appear to be Shapeshifters, an archetype of change. They seem to shift constantly in form or age, reflecting the confusing and constantly changing aspects of the opposite sex. Tales of vampires, werewolves and other shapechangers are symbolic echoes of this shifting quality which men and women see in each other.

The hero's Ordeal may grant a better understanding of the opposite sex, an ability to see beyond the shifting outer appearance, leading to a reconciliation.

The hero may also become more attractive as a result of having survived the Ordeal. He has earned the title of "hero" by having taken the supreme risk on behalf of the community.

Petch rescues Roger and tells him that Phaulkon is dead. They hurry to warn Lady Guimar, Wanlapa and Maria Osaki, and hide Phaulkon's treasure.

10. The Road Back.

The hero's not out of the woods yet. We're crossing into Act Three now as the hero begins to deal with the consequences of confronting the dark forces of the Ordeal. If he has not yet managed to reconcile with the parent, the gods, or the hostile forces, they may come raging after him.

This stage marks the decision to return to the Ordinary World. The hero realizes that the Special World must eventually be left behind, and there are still dangers, temptations, and tests ahead.

Roger, Petch, and the women flee to Bangkok, hoping to find protection with the French.

11. Resurrection.

The hero who has been to the realm of the dead must be reborn and cleansed in one last Ordeal of death and Resurrection before returning to the Ordinary World of the living.

This is often a second life-and-death moment, almost a replay of the death and rebirth of the Ordeal. Death and darkness get in one last, desperate shot before being finally defeated. It's a kind of final exam for the hero, who must be tested once more to see if he has really learned the lessons of the Ordeal.

The hero is transformed by these moments of death-and-rebirth, and is able to return to ordinary life reborn as a new being with new insights.

Sorasak gives chase to the fugitives. Lady Guimar is betrayed by the French commander.

12. Return with the Elixir.

The hero returns to the Ordinary World, but the journey is meaningless unless he brings back some Elixir, treasure, or lesson from the Special World. The Elixir is a magic potion with the power to heal. It may be a great treasure like the Grail that magically heals the wounded land, or it simply might be knowledge or experience that could be useful to the community someday.

Sometimes the Elixir is treasure won on the quest, but it may be love, freedom, wisdom, or the knowledge that the Special World exists and can be survived. Sometimes it's just coming home with a good story to tell.

Unless something is brought back from the Ordeal in the Inmost Cave, the hero is doomed to repeat the adventure.

Maria Osaki takes Lady Guimar's place and is surrendered to Sorasak instead. Roger and Wanlapa escape in their sloop to Mergen, taking Lady Guimar and her child with them. Petch returns to Ayuttaya to be with Maria Osaki.


In the world of fairy tales and myths, there are recurring types and relationships: questing heroes, heralds who call them to adventure, wise old men and women who give them magical gifts, threshold guardians who seem to block their way, shapeshifting fellow travelers who confuse and dazzle them, shadowy villains who try to destroy them, tricksters who upset the status quo and provide comic relief.

Looking at the archetypes as flexible character functions rather than rigid character types can liberate your storytelling. It explains how a character in a story can manifest the qualities of more than one archetype. The archetypes can be thought of as masks, worn by the characters temporarily as they are needed to advance the story. A character might enter the story performing the function of a herald, then switch masks to function as a trickster, a mentor, and a shadow. Another way to look at the classic archetypes is that they are facets of the hero's (or the writer's) personality. The other characters represent possibilities for the hero, for good or ill. A hero sometimes proceeds through the story gathering and incorporating the energy and traits of the other characters. He learns from the other characters, fusing them into a complete human being who has picked up something from everyone he has met along the way.


Dramatic Identification: The dramatic purpose of the Hero is to give the reader a window into the story. Each person reading a novel is invited, in the early stages of the story, to identify with the Hero, to merge with him and see the world of the story through his eyes. Storytellers do this by giving their Heroes a combination of qualities, a mix of universal and unique characteristics.

Heroes should have universal qualities, emotions, and motivations that everyone has experienced at one time or another: revenge, anger, lust, competition, territoriality, patriotism, idealism, cynicism, or despair. But Heroes must also be unique human beings, rather than stereotypical creatures or tin gods without flaws or unpredictability. Like any work of art they need both universality and originality.

A well-rounded Hero can be determined, uncertain, charming, forgetful, impatient, and strong in body but weak at heart, all at the same time. It's the particular combination of qualities that gives an audience the sense that the Hero is one of a kind, a real person rather than a type.

Growth: Another story function of the Hero is learning or growth. Heroes overcome obstacles and achieve goals, but they also gain new knowledge and wisdom. The heart of many stories is the learning that goes on between a Hero and a mentor, or a Hero and a lover, or even between a Hero and a villain. We are all each other's teachers.

Action: Another heroic function is acting or doing. The Hero is usually the most active person in the novel. His will and desire is what drives most stories forward. The Hero should perform the decisive action of the story, the action that requires taking the most risk or responsibility.

Sacrifice: People commonly think of Heroes as strong or brave, but these qualities are secondary to sacrifice--the true mark of a Hero. Sacrifice is the Hero's willingness to give up something of value, perhaps even his own life, on behalf of an ideal or a group.

Dealing with Death: At the heart of every story is a confrontation with death. If the Hero doesn't face actual death, then there is the threat of death or symbolic death in the form of a high-stakes game, love affair, or adventure in which the Hero may succeed (live) or fail (die).

True heroism is shown in stories when Heroes offer themselves on the altar of chance, willing to take the risk that their quest for adventure may lead to danger, loss, or death.

The most effective Heroes are those who experience sacrifice. They may give up a loved one or friend along the way. They may give up some cherished vice or eccentricity as the price of entering into a new way of life. They may return some of their winnings or share what they have gained in the Special World. They may return to their starting point, the tribe or village, and bring back boons, elixirs, food, or knowledge to share with the rest of the group.

Character Flaws: Interesting flaws humanize a character. We can recognize bits of ourselves in a Hero who is challenged to overcome inner doubts, errors in thinking, guilt or trauma from the past, or fear of the future. Weaknesses, imperfections, quirks, and vices immediately make a Hero or any character more real and appealing. It seems the more neurotic characters are, the more readers like them and identify with them.

Flaws also give a character somewhere to go--the "character arc" in which a character develops from condition A to condition Z through a series of steps. Flaws are a starting point of imperfection or incompleteness from which a character can grow. They may be deficiencies in a character. Perhaps a Hero has no romantic partner, and is looking for the "missing piece" to complete his life. This is often symbolized in fairy tales by having the Hero experience a loss or death in the family. Many fairy tales begin with the death of a parent or the kidnapping of a brother or sister. This subtraction from the family unit sets the nervous energy of the story in motion, not to stop until the balance has been restored by the creation of a new family or the reuniting of the old.

In most modern stories it is the Hero's personality that is being recreated or restored to wholeness. The missing piece may be a critical element of personality such as the ability to love or trust. Heroes may have to overcome some problem such as lack of patience or decisiveness. Readers love watching Heroes grapple with personality problems and overcome them.


An archetype found frequently in dreams, myths, and stories is the Mentor, usually a positive figure who aids or trains the hero. This archetype is expressed in all those characters who teach and protect heroes and give them gifts.

Dramatic Functions

Teaching: Teaching or training is a key function of the Mentor. Of course the teaching can go both ways.

Gift-Giving: Giving gifts is also an important function of this archetype. It may be a magic weapon, an important key or clue, some magical medicine or food, or a life-saving piece of advice. Nowadays the gift is as likely to be a computer code as the key to a dragon's lair.

Gifts Should Be Earned: Donor characters give magical presents to heroes, but usually only after the heroes have passed a test of some kind. This is a good rule of thumb: The gift or help of the donor should be earned by learning, sacrifice, or commitment.

The Hero's Conscience: Some Mentors perform a special function as a conscience for the hero, though the hero may rebel against a nagging conscience.

Motivation: Another important function of the Mentor archetype is to motivate the hero, and help him overcome fear. In some cases a hero is so unwilling or fearful that he must be pushed into the adventure. A Mentor may need to give a hero a swift kick in the pants in order to get the adventure rolling.

Planting: A function of the Mentor Archetype is often to plant information or a prop that will become important later.

Sexual Initiation: In the realm of love, the Mentor's function may be to initiate us into the mysteries of love or sex. Seducers and thieves of innocence teach heroes lessons the hard way. There may be a shadow side to Mentors who lead a hero down a dangerous road of obsessive love or loveless, manipulative sex.

Multiple Mentors: A hero may be trained by a series of Mentors who teach specific skills.

Placement of Mentors: Although the Hero's Journey often finds the Mentor appearing in Act One, the placement of a Mentor in a story is a practical consideration. They may show up early in a story, or wait in the wings until needed at a critical moment in Act Two or Act Three.

Points to Ponder.

  • Testing of the hero is the primary dramatic function of the Threshold Guardian. When heroes confront one of these figures, they must solve a puzzle or pass a test.
  • Heralds provide a motivation, offer the hero a challenge, and get the story rolling. They alert the hero (and the reader) that change and adventure are coming.
  • The Herald may be a person or a force. The coming of a storm or the first tremors of the earth may be a Herald of adventure. Often the Herald is simply a means of bringing news to the hero of a new energy that will change the balance. It could be a telegram or a phone call.
  • Heroes frequently encounter figures, often of the opposite sex, whose primary characteristic is that they appear to change constantly from the hero's point of view. Often the hero's love interest or romantic partner will manifest the qualities of a Shapeshifter.
  • Shapeshifters change appearance or mood, and are difficult for the hero and reader to pin down. They may mislead the hero or keep him guessing, and their loyalty or sincerity is often in question. An Ally or friend of the same sex as the hero may also act as a Shapeshifter in a buddy comedy or adventure.
  • The Shapeshifter serves the dramatic function of bringing doubt and suspense into a story. When heroes keep asking, "Is she faithful to me? Is she going to betray me? Does she truly love me? Is he an ally or an enemy?" a Shapeshifter is generally present.
  • A common type of Shapeshifter is called the femme fatale, the woman as temptress or destroyer.
  • Every hero needs both an inner and an outer problem.
  • How the reader first experiences your hero is another important condition you control as a storyteller. What is he doing the first time we see him, when he makes his entrance? What is he wearing, who is around him, and how do they react to him? What is his attitude, emotion, and goal at the moment? Does he enter alone or join a group, or is he already on stage when the story begins? Does he narrate the story, is it told through the eyes of another character, or is it seen from the objective eye of conventional narrative?
  • It can be very effective to show that a hero is unable to perform some simple task at the beginning of the story.
  • Fairy tale heroes have a common denominator, a quality that unites them across boundaries of culture, geography, and time. They are lacking something, or something is taken away from them. Often they have just lost a family member. Fairy tales are about searching for completeness and striving for wholeness, and often it's a subtraction from the family unit that sets the story in motion.
  • Heroes may possess many admirable qualities, but among them is one tragic flaw or hamartia that puts them at odds with their destiny, their fellow men, or the gods. Ultimately this leads to their destruction. Most commonly this tragic flaw was a kind of pride or arrogance called hubris. This fatal arrogance inevitably unleashes a force called Nemesis, originally a goddess of retribution.
  • Sometimes a hero may seem to be well-adjusted and in control, but that control masks a deep psychic wound. To humanize a hero or any character, give him a wound, a visible, physical injury or a deep emotional wound. The wound makes him edgy, suicidal, unpredictable, and interesting. Your hero's wounds and scars mark the areas in which he is guarded, defensive, weak, and vulnerable. A hero may also be extra-strong in some areas as a defense for the wounded parts.
  • For readers to be involved in the adventure, to care about the hero, they have to know at an early stage exactly what's at stake. In other words, what does the hero stand to gain or lose in the adventure? What will be the consequences for the hero, society, and the world if the hero succeeds or fails?
  • The Ordinary World is the place to state the theme of your story. What is the story really about? If you had to boil down its essence to a single word or phrase, what would it be? What single idea or quality is it about? Love? Trust? Betrayal? Vanity? Prejudice? Greed? Madness? Ambition? Friendship? What are you trying to say? Is your theme "Love conquers all," "You can't cheat an honest man," "We must work together to survive," or "Money is the root of all evil.?"


  • Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces;
  • Christopher Vogler, The Writer's Journey, Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd. Edition;