Elements of Structure
The Hero’s Journey or ‘Monomyth’ is one of the most pervasive and well known formulas in fiction, yet many writers have never even heard of it. The Hero’s Journey is essentially a collection of common structural elements that recur in stories, and they have been used to create a formula for the narrative of a story. The formula is not limited to just the structure, but refers to the greater themes and meanings of the work, as well as the characters or archetypes that are present in the narrative.
It was primarily established by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces and adapted by Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey. The Hero’s Journey is divided into stages with an ultimately cyclical nature. In essence it can be boiled down to “a separation from the world, a penetration to some source of power, and a life-enhancing return.” (Campbell, 1993, p35)
Of the two best known versions below, I personally prefer Vogler’s interpretation as it is more streamlined and coherent; it also tends to be easier to apply to a story. Campbell’s version contains a number of more abstract and thematic concepts, stages like the Meeting with the Goddess, Atonement with the Father and Apotheosis – all of which can be thought of as aspects of growth and development for the hero, which are summed up through the tests and ordeals in Vogler’s interpretation.
The overall arc is called a journey, even if the protagonist doesn’t actually travel very far. The events listed in the stages can be physical or metaphorical, and subject to interpretation. Not every story will fit the pattern exactly, following the same progression, or even contain all the elements of the formula. An author should not feel bound by this idea, or feel that their story must conform to it, but at the very least they should be aware of the structure, and have a basic understanding of the different elements.
To begin with a story will present the Ordinary World where the setting, characters, and norms of life are detailed. Think of the establishment of the Shire in The Lord of the Rings.
The next stage is the Call to Adventure where something triggers a change that the hero must respond to; this can also be called the “inciting incident.” It could be the appearance of a monster, the kidnapping of a princess, or the rise of a dark empire. In Frodo’s case it is the discovery that the ring in his possession belonged to Sauron and the acknowledgement that it must leave the Shire. The event is a prompt to leave the ordinary world he is accustomed to and venture into the special world beyond.
It’s possible that the hero may respond with a Refusal of the Call and be unwilling to leave the safety of his home, or shoulder the responsibility for a task. When he first finds out its nature, Frodo attempts to give the ring to Gandalf, believing him more suited to deal with it.
In order to achieve his quest the hero often has a Meeting with the Mentor and receives Supernatural Aid. Frodo has already met his in Gandalf and has a form of supernatural aid in the invisibility granted by the ring. However some members of the fellowship such as Aragorn may take on a mentor role to him as well (an example of characters taking on different archetypes), and later Frodo does receive a sword and armour from Bilbo. This shows the variation of the formula in that the story does contain the elements but organises them in a way that suits the current tale.
To truly begin his quest the hero must proceed by Crossing the First Threshold. For Frodo this moment could be open to interpretation, it could be the point at which Frodo leaves the Shire, where he enters Bree and meets Aragorn, or when he leaves Rivendell on the quest to destroy the ring. These places have a variety of threshold guardians in the form of Farmer Maggot, the gate guard and the Ringwraiths.
The next stage covers most of the story; the hero is on the Road of Trials and encounters Tests, Allies and Enemies. This stage features the various ups and downs of the plot and provides the meat of the story, often containing various subplots. Frodo gathers more companions and allies, beginning with Aragorn and the fellowship, along with Elrond and Galadriel and later the armies of the west. They also face many challenges and battles, fighting off monsters and orcs.
The hero then advances to his greatest test yet in the Approach to the Inmost Cave. He has learnt and developed along the way and nears his objective. The journey may be treacherous and challenging, showing build-up of tension. In the first book it is Frodo’s descent into Moria where he draws close to a place of great danger.
After the approach the hero faces an Ordeal. This is not to be mistaken for the climax; it is not the final battle, but a prelude to it. This might be where the hero needs to slip past the dragon and steal the sword he will use against a dark wizard. The Lord of the Rings is filled with ordeals: there are battles, contests of will, and trials of cunning. Focusing on the first novel, the ordeal is where Frodo and the fellowship must escape the Balrog in Moria.
After the ordeal the hero usually earns a Reward of some sort. This may be literal in the form of a magic sword or talisman that is essential for the final victory. It may be knowledge, or a sense of realisation and accomplishment that allows the hero to develop. Though Frodo receives no physical reward, the fellowship does make it through Moria, and Frodo begins to learn the cost of the quest with the loss of Gandalf.
The next stage is known as The Road Back, it springs from the circular element of the idea where a hero may have left a monster-beset home, journeyed to retrieve an artefact and returned home to slay the monster with it. This stage is actually the final build-up to the climax and doesn’t necessarily require the hero to return home, it merely marks where all the sides begin to gather after the events of the past stages have disturbed them. This might be the point near the end of the series where Frodo scales Mount Doom and the armies of the west prepare to fight the orcs.
The penultimate stage is the climax where the hero undergoes a Resurrection. He faces a greater and more dangerous challenge than the ordeal stage and emerges reborn after the triumph. This may be a physical increase in power, or a show of personal development and growth. In The Lord of the Rings this is where the battle is fought at the Black Gate and Frodo tries to cast the ring into Mount Doom. Frodo emerges from the crisis free of the ring’s influence and a hero of Middle-Earth
The last stage of the story is called The Return with the Elixir, where the hero comes home in triumph. The important thing here is the idea of change, either in the hero himself, or the wider community. He may bring back a physical item that restores the land or the useful knowledge and experience his quest has provided. It may not even be a wholly positive return as with Frodo – Sauron may be defeated and the world saved, but Frodo has been scarred by his quest and changed by his experience. He no longer fits in the ordinary world of the Shire and leaves with the elves.
The Lord of the Rings is a solid example of fantasy, but despite the genre’s favour of this model, the actual story isn’t a perfect fit. There is always room for variation and the unique nature of the tale to come through. In addition, as a series with separate parts the trilogy features self contained stories for each book, which affect the narrative progression through the stages.
An author should always focus on the story they want to tell, but this formula can be helpful as a guideline and in solving plotting issues. It can provide a framework that is surprisingly flexible, even accommodating the current shifts in the genre. With the growing tendency towards grimdark in fantasy, it can be hard to imagine applying The Hero’s Journey to some of the stories and characters. Yet even if we take something very outwardly different like Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy, there are elements of the formula. A selection of protagonists leave the world they knew, accomplish a task and return to do battle with a deadly foe. There are elements of growth through challenges, development, and a transformative return – though they vary greatly from the traditional stages. In this case it is the different morality of the characters that alters the narrative, and while the series can be cast within the formula, it stills serves to create a unique story.
The Hero’s Journey can be a source of inspiration and understanding, it can be twisted into different shapes, or it can be ignored entirely. But it is definitely be useful to know. Hopefully the knowledge will enhance you writing, whatever path your set your stories on.