With this week marking the beginning of not only a new year but a brand new decade, I wanted to write a post fitting for that occasion.
Some people like to think of January 1st as the start of a new journey, so we’re kicking things off by exploring the Hero’s Journey.
The Hero’s Journey is used to describe a common storyline in which a hero sets off on an adventure, overcoming obstacles culminating in a victory before returning home changed by those experiences.
Common examples include Frodo of The Lord of the Rings, Katniss in The Hunger Games, and Luke Skywalker in the original Star Wars trilogy.
This story arc is one that we are all likely familiar with, though I had not heard the term until I reached college.
It was made popular by Joseph Campbell in his 1949 work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he explores the structure of myths and the role archetypal hero plays within them. Famously, Campbell described the Hero’s Journey as, “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”
The Hero’s Journey is something that has been explored and developed many times over. Among favorite interpretations is that of Hollywood film producer Christopher Vogler, who broke the story arc structure into twelve steps.
For the purpose of this article, I’ll be breaking them down a bit further with references to one of my favorite Hero’s Journey examples: The Hunger Games.
Ordinary World ~ Where the story begins. This helps set up what the hero’s life is like before the story beings, what the “Usual” or the “Norm” entails. The protagonist and the world they live in. In The Hunger Games, this is the opening chapter where Katniss is introduced and goes about her day in District Twelve before the Reaping, showing she is a skilled hunter and archer though only kills to provide for her mother and sister. Readers are also introduced to what The Hunger Games are.
Call To Adventure ~ This refers to the inciting incident, or the moment that sparks the hero’s journey. At the Reaping, Prim’s name is pulled and Katniss volunteers as Tribute, taking her place.
Refusal Of The Call ~ At this stage, the hero may experience second thoughts or doubt in themselves, which can make the conflict feel overly daunting. It’s that What did I get myself into? moment.
Meeting The Mentor ~ Mentor figures are often present in the Hero’s Journey and help guide the hero towards accomplishing their mission. This can be through something like a device or object, advice, or, in the case of The Hunger Games, training. Tributes are given access to a space to practice crucial survival skills they will need to have any hopes of faring in the arena, as well as former victors like Haymitch mentoring the Tributes from their respective Districts.
Crossing The Threshold ~ It is at this point the hero is ready to accept the call and take a leap of faith. This moment can have many effects depending on the tone of the story and the author’s intentions. As for the hero, this crossing may not always be by their own volition and require a bit of a shove from the mentor figure or other outside forces, but this is the point that the hero begins to take those first steps on their quest.
Tests, Allies, Enemies ~ Here, obstacles begin to get in the way of the hero’s path and present them with all sorts of challenges. This is abundant throughout The Hunger Games, from the other Tributes to the Gamemakers watching from afar and controlling what the environment in ways that raise the stakes higher and higher, and deadlier and deadlier. These challenges must be overcome along the way. Additionally, the hero might find themselves making allies and enemies, but may also become unsure of who they can trust. We see this occur in The Hunger Games as Katniss finds friendship with Rue and riles up the Career Tributes like Cato. She also begins to question how much she can trust Peeta, the boy from her home District.
Approach To The Inmost Cave ~ This can stand for a multitude of things from an actual location to an inner conflict which the protagonist has avoided confronting up until that point. In this moment, the hero begins to ready themselves for the story’s climax. This point in the story is sometimes used for reflection on past events and how the hero has come to understand them and what lessons they have learned along the way. It’s often a way for authors to slow things down before the big moment that the story has been leading up to all the while and heighten the anticipation.
Ordeal ~ This can be both physical and emotional depending on the course of the journey that tests the hero. In The Hunger Games, this is the moment in which Katniss and Peeta find themselves in the final three with Cato and put into a fight to the death not only with him, but mutts created by the Gamemakers. On top of the physical element, there is an emotional aspect, as the mutts are wolves infused with the DNA of the fallen Tributes; Katniss spends a good deal of time describing notable features, singling out the wolf that resembles Rue, the girl she allied herself with because of the similarity to Prim but ultimately failed to save. It’s a vicious form of survivor’s guilt I loved in the book and sincerely wish they explored in the film adaption (though that’s a topic for another day).
Reward or Seizing The Sword ~ Once the challenge is conquered, the hero may start to feel relief, but in some cases some level of remorse as a result of the consequences of their actions. The key factor at this point in the story is showing a change in the hero, that they are not the same person the reader met in the “Ordinary World” phase of the arc. With every risk comes a reward, most often the hero accomplishing their goal or at the very least being rewarded in some capacity (maybe they didn’t get what they wanted but instead got what they didn’t realize they needed all along). For Katniss, this means having survived The Hunger Games and being able to return home to her family in District Twelve.
The Road Back ~ In most instances, defeating the enemy is not the end, and there are often repercussions amid the celebrations. Authors will typically begin to wrap things up at this point, allowing the protagonist more time to reflect on their journey and come to terms with their actions, while also exploring the fallout. For Katniss, this appears in several forms from her beginning to understand that the Games do continue in a different capacity upon leaving the arena as well as seeing how fragile her relationship with Peeta really is once they no longer have to keep up their starcrossed lovers showmance. I would mark this point in The Hunger Games as the scenes detailing the Victor interviews and the train ride back to District Twelve.
Resurrection ~ This phase can be described as representing the far-reaching effects of the Hero’s Journey and marks a rebirth in the hero, a change that occurs within them that signifies they are no longer the same person they used to be. With the example of The Hunger Games, I feel this step blends in with several of the others, but the moment this is found is with the Nightlock Berries. If you’re unfamiliar with the novel or its film adaption, once Cato is defeated and literally thrown to the wolves before Katniss ends his life out of mercy, the Gamemakers go back on their promise to allow two victors from the same District to leave the arena, meaning either Katniss or Peeta must die so the other can leave. Katniss decides to challenge this and stages a suicide pact with Peeta with a plan to consume poison berries. However, the Gamemakers decide that having two victors is better than none at all, so they put a stop to it. This to me signifies Katniss’s rebirth as a rebel leader and what really starts to put her on the path to lead the revolution later on in the trilogy.
Return With The Elixir ~ Here, the hero makes their valiant return home, bringing a conclusion to the story.
The Hero’s Journey is by no means an exact line to follow when crafting your narrative. Especially true for those in the middle, the steps might be shuffled around depending on the story’s direction. Some moments might be explored in greater depth, some might even be skipped or altered.
It’s a common plotting device in the realms of fantasy as seen in The Lord of the Rings, but it’s something worth experimenting with in other genres as a way to help develop the path from your characters.
Moving forwards with Forged in the Salle I want to lean more into a semblance of the Hero’s Journey arc with Nancy’s character. Even though she isn’t setting off on an epic quest, she does have a mission to accomplish alongside Marcus. Looking at the points outlined in the Hero’s Journey, it might help to shape the plot for Forged in the Salle now that I’m in the process of reworking the storyline and making tweaks to it.
Want to learn more about the Writer’s Journey I have planned for myself in the new year? Check out this post where I break down my goals for 2020.