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Heroes are all around us—in the books we read and the movies and shows we watch. Heroes even exist in real life, serving others, showing up, and doing their best each day.
According to acclaimed literary critic Joseph Campbell, “A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.” This simple yet profound definition is the gateway to his famous breakdown of The Hero’s Journey, as found in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
Continue reading below for a breakdown of the hero’s journey steps—17 in total!—and a hero’s journey template you can apply to your own writing and life!
The hero’s journey, simply put, is a character’s evolution. It is their process of embarking on an adventure, facing a challenge, and overcoming it to become a better person—usually improving the greater good along the way too.
Everything from Disney classics to literary classics follows an archetype—or a set of narrative designs, motifs, character types, images, or elements that every story inherently follows. Whether it is Simba’s journey back to Pride Rock in The Lion King, or Harry’s quest to defeat Voldemort in the Harry Potter series, literary critics and readers alike can pinpoint certain elements of these stories and trace them back to ancient precedents.
These recurring features reflect universal, primitive, and elemental patterns, which are meant to evoke profound responses from the audience. Some of the most common archetypes include death/rebirth plots, the journey home, the search for family, and—you guessed it!—the hero’s journey.
Joseph Campbell and The Hero With a Thousand Faces
This hero’s journey archetype has been studied in great detail for its complexities and simultaneous relatability to human life. American professor of comparative mythology and literary critic Joseph Campbell, best known for his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which deconstructs the hero’s journey, or the monomyth, and compares it to different religions, spent much of his career breaking down the archetypal hero’s journey.
Campbell devised an equation of sorts, a step-by-step guide delineating each of the characteristic parts, which allows us to identify elements of the hero’s journey in the world around us.
According to Campbell, there are three main stages, which consist of several steps: the Departure (or Separation), the Initiation, and the Return. During the Departure, the hero is introduced, as they are presented with and prepare for their journey. The Initiation stage is when the hero crosses the point of no return and overcomes transformative challenges. Lastly, the Return is the hero’s trip back to their regular world and a content ending.
The Hero’s Journey in Fairytales and Folklore
Because it is an archetypal plot with universally approachable themes, the hero’s journey is prominently used in fairytales and folklore, such as Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, and Cinderella. Fairytales and folklore alike are meant to be simple, lesson-teaching narratives for children and listeners to easily follow and comprehend—and the hero’s journey template makes it easy for them to do so.
Departure or Separation Stage
1. Call to Adventure
The call to adventure, also known as the call to action, can take many forms. Itl is an interruption to the hero’s daily life—a threat to his livelihood, his loved ones, or his community. The call to action is something the hero cannot refuse no matter how much he’d like to. It is a disruption to his ordinary world, a challenge that must be accepted.
Frodo Baggins, the hero in The Lord of the Rings trilogy, is called to action by the wizard Gandalf. Gandalf asks Frodo to take the Ring and destroy it, in order to save all of Middle-Earth. Frodo accepts the adventure in order to save his loved ones, his community, and ultimately, the world as they know it.
Scared to leave the comfort of everything he knows, the hero second-guesses accepting the call to action. The task seems daunting, and the outcome is unknown. It will completely remove the hero from all things familiar and comfortable. At this stage in the journey, he hesitates to accept the challenge. In some stories, this may result in a sort of suffering or punishment for the hero. The hero’s very human response to fear and the unknown makes him more relatable to the audience.
Sherlock Holmes, for instance, is a renowned detective. However, he often initially refuses to accept cases. Rather than finding them too daunting, Holmes finds them beneath his skill set, that is, until a certain element is revealed and piques his interest.
3. Supernatural Aid
After the hero has accepted the call to action, his guide or magical helper comes to him. This supernatural aid will serve as a mentor figure and provide the hero with the physical or metaphorical tools needed to embark on the journey.
In The Sandlot when “Benny the Jet” Rodriguez decides he must be the one to go over the Beast’s fence to retrieve the baseball signed by Babe Ruth, he is visited by a supernatural aid: an apparition of Babe Ruth himself. The legendary baseball player gives Benny the inspiration to accept this challenge and the metaphorical tools to conquer his fears.
4. The Crossing of the First Threshold
This is exactly what it sounds like—the moment when the hero officially begins her journey, the moment when she crosses the threshold into a world different than the one she knows. This step in the hero’s journey can invite danger and the unknown.
Jane Eyre, the hero of the novel by the same name, crosses the threshold when she accepts a governess position at Thornfield Hall. When she moves into the home owned and run by Mr. Rochester, everything changes for Jane. She crosses the threshold, both literally and metaphorically, and changes the course of her life.
5. Belly of the Whale
This is the point of no return. After the hero has crossed the first threshold, she enters the belly of the whale—or the first real obstacle of the journey. This step symbolizes the final separation between the hero and the version of themself and the world they once knew.
When Mulan accepts the call to war on behalf of her sick father, she enters the belly of the whale. The moment she steps foot on the field of the training camp, she will never be able to return to the person and world she once knew. During the musical number “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” in the Disney film, the audience sees Mulan change from an unsure, nervous girl to a strong, confident, self-assured woman.
6. The Road of Trials
In the first step of the initiation stage, the protagonist undergoes a series of challenges and tests that will kickstart his transformation into the true hero he is meant to become. It is common for the hero to fail a few of these tests before ultimately overcoming all of them. This builds his character, strengthens him, and establishes self-confidence.
In Batman Begins, Bruce Wayne loses his parents, endures endless hours of gruesome training, and comes across decisively evil opponents. These hardships ultimately produce the greatest heroic form Batman can obtain.
7. The Meeting with the Goddess
This is the moment in the story where the hero befriends an ally or guide. The person or entity helps the hero continue through their journey.
When Buddy the Elf leaves the North Pole for New York City, he is a fish out of water—or more literally an elf in the real world. No one in the human world believes him or his quest to find his dad and the place where he belongs. That is, until his half-brother, Michael, and coworker Jovie become his allies and help him fulfill his journey.
8. Woman as the Temptress
In this step, the hero is tempted to give up on her mission. Although classically portrayed as a woman because the original heroes were men tempted by lust, this stage does not have to be represented by a woman—the temptation can manifest in many forms.
In Star Wars, Luke is tempted to abandon his quest by the beautiful Princess Leia and the power of the Force. His journey symbolizes the power of temptation and the willpower of a true hero.
9. Atonement with the Father
This step represents a major turning point in the plot. It is in this moment that the hero faces the true purpose of his journey. Everything he has endured thus far has led the hero to this moment of reckoning with the person or entity that holds the power that rules his life.
In Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the protagonist, Harry, comes into direct contact with his archnemesis, Voldemort. Voldemort, who killed Harry’s family and accidentally left a piece of himself within Harry, devises a plan to get face-to-face with the “boy who lived.” Until this moment, Harry does not know how deeply connected the two are. He also learns the significant power Voldemort still holds over his life.
As a result of their confrontation with the symbolic “father,” the hero becomes fully aware of their power, purpose, or skill during the apotheosis or climax. This newfound knowledge is the key to the hero’s ultimate success.
During their meeting in Goblet of Fire, Harry learns of his deep connection with Voldemort. This new knowledge will ultimately enable Harry’s victory over the dark wizard.
11. The Ultimate Boon
This is the final step of the initiation stage. During this phase, the hero achieves her fulfillment, accomplishing the goal she set out to achieve. Everything the hero has endured has led her to this moment, to this victory. Oftentimes, this achievement is portrayed as the acquiring of some magical item, an item that grants the hero immortality or exemplary power.
In the young adult novel A Wrinkle In Time, the protagonist, Meg, achieves what she set out to do: bring back her father. Mrs. Who’s magical glasses allow Meg to walk through the portal to save him.
12. Refusal of the Return
This is the beginning of the Return Stage of the hero’s journey. During this step, the hero is now reluctant about returning to the life they once knew. The journey has changed them and they are hesitant to go back to the world they once inhabited.
The three Pevensie children in The Chronicles of Narnia are hesitant to return to the human riddled with war and the unknown after having helped rescue the magical world of Narnia from an evil queen.
13. The Magic Flight
Although the hero has completed their quest, some alternate powers may still chase or hunt them. This step is the hero’s chance to evade them and return from their journey.
In Steven Spielberg’s 1982 horror film Poltergeist, the Freeling family achieves the goal of their journey: bringing their daughter back from an alternate realm of spirits. However, the poltergeists make one last attempt to abduct the little girl. During this final attempt, the Freeling parents escape from their imploding house and rescue their children from the evil spirits in one final flight from danger.
14. Rescue from Without
Just as the hero received help from the “goddess” during the Initiation Stage, they receive help from an ally or guide to safely return home.
Moana, in the self-titled Disney film, is returned safely back to her home by the demigod Maui, who takes the shape of an eagle to guide her.
15. The Crossing of the Return Threshold
Once again, this one is exactly as it sounds—the hero crosses back over into the ordinary world they once left behind.
In many of the X-Men comics and films, Wolverine typically leaves behind the other mutants and Professor X’s school to return to the mundane world of humans. It is where he grew up and where he learned to fend for himself. Therefore, after saving the world alongside his mutant friends, he often crosses the return threshold back into ordinary society.
16. Master of Two Worlds
The hero, having successfully completed their quest, is now a changed person. She can acclimate back into the world she once knew as well as thrive in this new sphere of challenge and adventure.
In The Matrix, Neo nearly dies before being revived by Trinity’s kiss. Upon completing his journey, Neo gains power in the two worlds, meaning he can both observe and control the Matrix.
17. Freedom to Live
In this final step of the hero’s journey, the protagonist can finally live freely. In other words, the hero has completed their task, has escaped grave danger, evaded death, evolved into a better person, and has earned the freedom to live comfortably and peacefully.
At the end of The Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, Will Turner is left to live happily ever after with his true love Elizabeth Swan after having defeated Captain Barbossa and his cursed crew.
Because of the monomyth’s universality and primitively recognizable themes, it can be easily adapted to one’s own creative writing, as well as applied to one’s own life and journey. Campbell devised a comprehensive, malleable set of guidelines for how to write a hero’s journey. Aspiring writers can adapt his steps to fit their needs, using it as a guide to craft a truly heroic story.
Campbell’s approach to the monomyth can also be metaphorically applied to someone’s spiritual, psychological, or physical journey. Being able to identify elements of the hero’s journey in your own life can help you see things in a new light, providing solace and guidance through a transformative period.
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