Hero’s Journey/Villain’s Journey :
When I was very young and first learned about story formulae, it distressed me, as I was worried very much about originality at the time. But once I grew into my writership and my voice and became more and more well read, I realized that formulae like Campbell’s Hero’s Journey function as skeletons, a strong (and yes, necessarily same) structure that a storyteller can then hang original flesh and clothing on top of. See Kirby Ferguson’s Everything Is A Remix episode wherein he talks about the materials George Lucas used to build the bird’s nest that is Star Wars, and you’ll have a new appreciation for the recycled, and a new view of what it means to be “original.”
The Hero’s Journey
Joseph Campbell, in his book The Hero With a Thousand Faces, laid out the basic structure for all story, something he called the Monomyth. The original Journey consists of 17 different phases or stages the hero goes through, from the Call to the Apotheosis to the Magical Flight, and so on. Many writers have shortened this formula down to a more manageable three stages: The Call, Road Of Trials, and Return. Personally, I prefer an 8-stage version a teacher concocted from the original 17, in that with the 8 stages, we get the detail of the Journey more specifically than the very simplified 3-step version, but it is much easier to swallow (and more versatile) than the full 17. And I have taught my writing students this 8-stage version in my own Jenn way for many years (part Campbell’s words, part pop culture/my own. And ain’t that just so postmodern of me?).
(Only thing better is my 3 Rules for Protagonists, based on Stanislavsky’s acting “Method.” And it is better. But this piece of writing is specifically about the hero’s and villain’s Journey, so I digress…)
Anyway. This is my take:
8-step version Hero’s Journey
1. call to adventure
Our hero (oh, and, side note: I eschew use of the word “heroine,” as it is merely the diminutive form of the noun. I don’t use the word “actress” for the same reason. The feminine should not be diminutive. A person is a hero or an actor, no matter what gender they express) gets whisked away on the adventure. The snug norm of regular life is disrupted, and it’s time to embark upon the unknown. Very often, the hero resists the Call (or even outright refuses it), but no matter if they do, they end up running after those dwarves without a pocket-handkerchief, or taking the red pill, or falling down the rabbit hole regardless.
This is the gateway to the Magical Realm. In old stories (and often In new fantasies), this is where the hero enters the Forest. Usually there’s some kind of terrifying guardian at this gate, and the hero must use their own bravery and wit (and often, help and/or gifts from a wise mentor or fairy godperson) in order to get through. The doorway to nirvana is guarded by two fearsome swordsmen, for example, and the way back to the Garden of Eden is flanked by terrible (also sword-wielding) seraphim. But crossing the threshold is only the first challenge for the hero…
3. Jedi trials
Once the hero is in the Other Realm, away from the normal world as we know it, they’re immediately in mortal, life-changing danger. They must undergo a series of challenges in order to move on, each one tougher and more dangerous than the one before. And each test makes the hero stronger, and teaches them more. This stage is the one where our hero may meet other characters like the Temptress/Goddess and the Trickster, and may or may not lose their magical guide here. The first Star Wars movie follows this precisely, as once Luke crosses through the threshold (Mos Eisely spaceport; you will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy), he meets Leia, Han, Chewie, and loses Obi-Wan. Sorry, did you need a spoiler alert?
This is the worst, darkest, direst of the Jedi Trials. This is the most difficult test the hero goes through, the one where they almost give up, or nearly perish. If our hero is in a video game, this is where they must fight the Boss Monster, and it’s uncertain whether or not they’ll succeed.
5. A-ha moment
This is the moment when the hero puts their hands on the Holy Grail. When they attain their objective, or realize it’s not attainable. Indiana Jones literally did this in the third movie of that trilogy (yes, the Indiana Jones franchise is only a trilogy lalalalala I can’t hear you what are you saying about a crystal skull)….
Sometimes this happens right with the a-ha moment, or the a-ha moment happens because of this. This stage is where the hero changes irrevocably—no longer are they the hapless teenager, scared little girl, or impatient farmboy. That abyss was the straw that broke the hero’s back and transformed them into an actual hero.
7. Atonement w/father
Often if the hero is female, this stage is an atonement with the mother figure instead, but just as often it’s a father figure regardless of heroic gender. Even more usually, the father figure is the highest god, The Father, as it were. The Norse and Greek myths were all about this stage, though usually the atonement comes in the form of punishment in those tales.
8. Return w/boon
The hero must return with all the wisdom and superpowers and whatever else they’ve gained along their journey, to bring the boon of their new heroship to benefit the community. This return is often where you’ll find the stage called Magical Flight, where the hero continues to have help in order to cross back over the threshold into the regular world. Now the hero is what Campbell called Master of Two Worlds, able to exist both in the enchanted realm and the world of workaday reality.
Stay tuned for Part II, where I will introduce and discuss the concept of the Villain’s Journey.