A person leaves their everyday life behind, meets new friends, embarks on an adventure filled with trials and challenges, overcomes opposition, and changes their life and surroundings.
Did I describe Star Wars: A New Hope, John Green’s Turtles All the Way Down, or Shakespeare’s “The Tempest”?
It’s a trick question. I described the basic plot structure of not just all three works, but also the key plot structure outlined in Joseph Cambell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, originally published in 1949. In his monumental — and monomythic — work, Campbell coins the phrase “the hero’s journey” to describe a universal pattern found in stories throughout the world’s cultures.
The hero’s journey is a familiar map for readers, film fanatics, and storytellers of all formats. This archetype consists of 3 stages, where the hero:
1. Leaves their ordinary life behind (The Departure)
2. Encounters various obstacles to reach their final goal (The Initiation)
3. Returns home and shares their victory or treasure (The Return)
The 3 stages comprise individual steps. Although not every story involves each, the steps themselves are iconic enough to be recognized when pointed out.
Campbell’s writings directly influenced George Lucas’s creation of the Star Wars franchise, which in turn contributed to Campbell’s description of the hero’s journey becoming almost a prescription for movies, TV shows, and books in the 21st century.
Whether the story is on the big screen, streaming services, or your bookshelf, the hero’s journey is almost certain to make an appearance.
But what can the reader take away from the hero’s journey? Are we to assume stories that don’t perfectly follow Campbell’s descriptive structure should always be received like the last season of Game of Thrones? Should editors and publishers turn down any book that doesn’t involve the protagonist literally or metaphorically slaying a dragon and restoring peace to the kingdom?
Simply put, the hero’s journey is one of many ways to understand a story’s plot. It’s also worth remembering the tried-and-true saying: rules were made to be broken.
Intentionally subverting the hero’s journey can create an unexpected and entertaining adventure. Being familiar with Campbell’s described 3 stages and steps means the reader can more intentionally follow and appreciate the story’s plot, whether it breaks with or adheres to the hero’s journey.
- The heroine doesn’t always end up in a relationship: The Cruel Prince by Holly Black
- The hero’s confidant may be a traitor: One of Us is Lying by Karen McManus
- Not all protagonists return home The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller
- And sometimes, a villain becomes something more Vicious by V. E. Schwab
Campbell believed all stories echo each other. But key differences, subtle nuances, and surprise twists are what makes each story unique.
Understanding the hero’s journey can unlock another level of enjoyment for readers and audience members. And although the hero’s journey is a popular trail to follow, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to plots. No storyteller should be afraid of breaking the pattern.
Explore the hero’s journey and Campbell’s landmark work here.