Heroes exist all around us in reality and in fiction. Whether they’re part of our favorite books and movies or saving lives while on the job, regular humans become heroes all the time.
Acclaimed literary critic Joseph Campbell once said, “A hero is someone who has given his or her life to something bigger than oneself.” This simple definition is the profound gateway to Campbell’s famous breakdown of the hero’s journey, which he included in his book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces.
That breakdown is vital to the full meaning of the hero’s journey. It’s also a launching point for applying the concept to your own life and writing. Knowing what makes a transformational character opens the door to all kinds of creativity.
What Is the Hero’s Journey?
Simply put, the hero’s journey is an individual or character’s evolution through a process of:
- Embarking on an adventure
- Facing a challenge
- Overcoming the challenge to be a better person
Usually, the hero also does things for the greater good along their journey.
This archetype appears in literary classics, Disney features and elsewhere as a set of followed narrative designs, character types and images. Think Homer’s Odyssey, Arthurian legends and the Harry Potter series–in each you can pinpoint elements of the hero’s journey, despite the stories being written centuries apart.
Like the archetypes of death and rebirth or searching for family, the hero’s journey archetype reflects universal, primitive patterns that often evoke significant responses from an audience.
Joseph Campbell and The Hero With a Thousand Faces
People study the hero’s journey for its complexity and relevance to human life. Probably the most famous of these scholars is Joseph Campbell, an American literature professor during the mid 20th century. His book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, deconstructs the hero’s journey (also called the monomyth) and compares it to various religions.
Campbell developed a step-by-step guide to highlight the hero’s journey’s characteristic elements, making it easier to identify them in the real world. First, the archetype is segmented into three stages:
- Departure or separation: The hero is introduced before being presented with and preparing for their journey.
- The initiation: The hero crosses the point of no return and overcomes transformative changes.
- The return: The hero travels back to their regular world and finds contentment.
The three stages are then broken into 17 hero’s journey steps.
The Hero’s Journey in Fairytales and Folklore
As an archetypal plot with universal themes, the hero’s journey shows up in well-known fairy tales and folklore. Consider Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella.
These narratives teach lessons simple enough for children to comprehend, and the hero’s journey template provides the perfect design. It’s an ideal method to balance plot and character development.
Hero’s Journey Stages and Steps
The Joseph Campbell hero’s journey breakdown is three stages, each with a handful of steps. While some stories won’t include all 17, you can probably connect a well-known story to some version of the steps. Use the hero’s journey examples to get a thorough sense of each step.
Note that some step names are tweaked slightly to be less gender specific, and thus more relevant to 21st-century stories.
Stage One: Departure and Separation
First, the hero and their life are introduced before something comes along to present the opportunity for adventure. The hero is the main character of their story and things revolve around them from the beginning.
1. Call to Adventure
This interruption to the hero’s life is a call to action. It can take many forms, such as a threat to their family, livelihood or wider community. The hero cannot refuse the call to adventure to matter how much they want to. The challenge must be accepted.
For example, at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, the wizard Gandalf comes to hero Frodo Baggins, who lives a comfortable life in a pleasant community. Frodo learns that he possesses an extremely dangerous ring, and the only way to keep his friends safe is to journey far from home, carrying the burdensome piece of jewelry.
Heroes are often hesitant to leave everything they know, and so second-guess the call to adventure. Not only is the task hard–its outcome is uncertain. In some stories, this refusal leads to a consequence that only makes the journey more vital.
Renowned London detective Sherlock Holmes, for instance, tended to reject cases at the beginning of a story. It wasn’t that he found them too difficult, but rather beneath his skill set and a waste of his time. However, some important detail would always come to light to pique Holmes’ interest and set him on the path.
3. Supernatural Aid
The journey’s importance is quickly emphasized when the hero, having accepted the call to adventure, is visited by a magical helper or guide. As a mentor, the supernatural aid provides the hero with physical or metaphorical tools for the quest.
For example, in the Beowulf hero’s journey, Beowulf claims to get help from God himself. As he battles Grendel and later Grendel’s mother, God repeatedly helps the hero defeat the enemy and move toward his goals.
4. Crossing the First Threshold
The hero officially begins their journey at this point, with a step into a different world. Taking this step often invites danger and the unknown, but turning back isn’t an option.
Consider Jane Eye, from the novel of the same name. She crosses a threshold by accepting a governess position at Mr. Rochester’s home, Thornfield Hall. This is a turning point in her life. By literally walking through a door, she completely changes her life.
5. Belly of the Whale
After crossing the first threshold, the hero is at the point of no return and the first true obstacle on their journey. Like Jonah in the Biblical story of Jonah and the whale, the hero must face the obstacle despite being fully separated from who they once were and the world they lived in.
For example, Disney’s Moana hero’s journey features a scene where Moana leaves the island to solve the food shortage. Quite soon she is stuck in a storm and almost loses her boat.
Stage Two: The Initiation
Now firmly at the point of no return, the hero must navigate multiple challenges to begin their own transformation.
6. The Road of Trials
This step includes a series of tests and challenges designed to kickstart the hero’s transformation. Usually, the hero will fail a few of the trials to build and strengthen character, and increasing self confidence eventually enables them to overcome each challenge.
In Batman Returns, for instance, Bruce Wayne faces the loss of his parents, endures countless hours of grueling training and encounters truly evil opponents. The hardships ultimately help Bruce become an especially heroic Batman.
7. Meeting The Mentor
Heroes need reliable companions in the form of a guide, ally or friend. This figure generally sticks around to help the hero on the rest of their journey.
For example, take the dentist’s office fish tank in the film Finding Nemo. Although Nemo is terrified when he gets there and doesn’t know any of the other fish, they turn out to be kind and helpful for the rest of the movie.
8. Avoiding Temptation
Something comes along to distract the hero and tempt them to abandon their mission. In classical literature the temptations were often feminine in nature, as the heroes were almost always men, assumed to be easily distracted by their own lust. However, the temptation doesn’t have to be represented by a woman to be effective.
As an example, think of Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars hero’s journey. He’s tempted to abandon his quest by the beautiful Princess Leia, as well as the power of the Force. Or consider Dorothy and some of her companions in The Wizard of Oz. They’re lulled to rest and sleep in a field of poppies, but soon wake up and quickly leave the tempting respite.
9. Atonement With the Past
As a major turning point in the plot, this is when the hero faces the true purpose of their journey. Although it doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with the hero’s literal past, it tends to be something close to their heart, for better or for worse. Everything endured to this point was leading up to this moment of reckoning and coming face to face with power.
For example, in The Goblet of Fire, Harry Potter comes into direct contact with Voldemort, his archnemesis. Because he killed Harry’s parents and accidentally left a piece of himself with Harry, Voldemort maintains a deep connection with “the boy who lived” and holds significant power over his young life. It’s far from the end of the story, but it definitely feels like something the book was building up to.
Writing tip: Depending on the story, these scenes can be surreal. Build the tension with literary paradoxes and other mind-bending details.
10. Apotheosis or Climax
After confronting the symbolic “father,” the hero is now aware of their own true power, skill and purpose. This understanding is vital to their ultimate success. Although this is a climax, it’s far from the end of the story.
Continuing with the Harry Potter hero’s journey, Harry now grasps that he’s deeply connected to Voldemort. Knowing this is a huge step toward not only defeating the dark wizard, but doing it properly.
11. The Ultimate Boon
As the last step in the initiation stage, this step sees the hero finding fulfillment and accomplishing their original goal. The achievement might be as epic as immortality or great power, or as simple as a meaningful item or found loved one. Everything in the story was leading up to this.
Take Meg in the novel A Wrinkle in Time. Ultimately, she achieves what she set out to do: Find her father and bring him home. With the help of Mrs. Who’s magical glasses, she walks right through a portal to save her dad.
Stage Three: The Return
After the pivotal final steps in the initiation stage, the hero starts the long journey back to their regular world. This doesn’t mean the drama is over, but be assured that the tale usually ends with a hero in contentment.
12. Refusal of the Return
Finally the hero can begin heading back toward home, although by this time they might not want to. They’ve been changed by the journey and the uncertainties are not focused on the life they used to know.
For example, in The Chronicles of Narnia, the Pevensie children often hesitate to return to the human world and its trials after living in (and helping to save) the magic of Narnia.
13. The Magic Flight
While the major quest is over, other forces might still appear to challenge the hero. Now they have new skills and confidence to overcome them and continue the return leg of the journey.
Consider the horror film Poltergeist. After the Freeling family succeeds in the primary goal—bringing their daughter back from a frightening spirit world—the poltergeists try once more to take the girl back. Fortunately, the parents are prepared and escape from the house with their children in one last flight.
14. Rescue from Without
You’ve seen how heroes get help along their journey, and that continues as they head toward home. Guides and allies may appear as a hero approaches the end of the return stage.
Return to The Lord of the Rings, after Frodo Baggins sees the ring destroyed and is safe from the dangers of Mordor. He’s been through a lot, and gets much of the rest and healing he needs from the elves.
15. Crossing the Return Threshold
Recall the crossing of the first threshold in the departure stage. Now it’s time for the reverse, where the changed hero literally or figuratively crosses back into their regular world.
For example, Wolverine of the X-Men comics and films was originally from the human world. After being a hero along with his other mutant friends, he often returns to ordinary society to reconnect with his roots.
16. Master of Two Worlds
As a changed person, the hero can now inhabit two worlds at once. They’re back home with everything they knew before and also connected to their quest and the worlds and characters that came with it.
Think of Neo in The Matrix films. Upon completing his journey and being revived by Trinity’s kiss, Neo gains power in both worlds. He can observe and control the Matrix.
17. Freedom to Live
At the very last step, the hero can finally live freely. By accepting the quest, completing the task, escaping danger and evolving to be a better person, they’ve earned a period of peace and rest.
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.
Hero’s Journey Template
How to Use the Hero’s Journey Yourself
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.