My Hero's Journey

As can be seen on the page ‘history and variations of the hero’s journey’, this structure is open to interpretation – and rightly so, as it should be as part of an author’s toolbox not as a law to be dogmatically adhered to.

Over the years I’ve refined my favoured version of the hero’s journey and that’s what I’ve put down here. I’m certainly not saying it’s better than any others, it’s just what works for me. And even I wouldn't consider following it to the letter in every novel.

However, I did follow it to the letter in my second novel, and the difference between that and the first, which waffles from one point to another, is hard to overstate.

Introduction to the protagonist’s world

This is fairly self-explanatory. The reader needs to know what world they’re in, and who they’ll be following through it.

Call to action

At some point the protagonist must be called to do something. This may be explicit, or subtle. It usually happens quite early on, but in some cases might happen later (for example in The Lion King, Simba isn’t called to save his pride until almost halfway through the film). It could be saving someone, finding something, exploring somewhere, helping a friend - the main thing is that it involves activity on the part of your lead, preferably something challenging.

The lead may refuse the call at first (like Luke turning down Obi Wan) or they may immediately spring into action.

Crossing the Threshold

In order to increase tension and make sure your readers are really worried about your hero, it’s a good idea to make them ‘cross the threshold’. This means they put themselves into a situation from which there’s no going back. This adds pressure, because it removes the option that the lead can just decide to drop everything and go back to how she was living before. Some common examples are travelling somewhere with no way back, getting in trouble with the police, or sharing some secret information that cannot be unshared.

The hero can be forced into crossing the threshold, but it’s often more satisfying if they consciously make the decision and do it themselves.

Mentor Teaches the Lead

This stage is particularly flexible and moves around in the plot much more. In movies, you might have a montage, showing the hero learning  some skills that they will need later on, or they may learn some life words of wisdom from a kooky ancient (Yoda, The Oracle, Rafiki). However, the mentor’s teaching may be more spread out, or it may come from many sources or happen only later on.

First Challenge

The protagonist should face challenges early on, which they may fail, or partially pass. It may be cronies of the main big bad, or physical or mental challenges, quests, interviews or auditions, etc. They should not ace these challenges.

Temptation

Adding an element of temptation gives flavour and depth to your character and therefore story. This could come in the form of a question that pits principles against prizes.

For example, the hero can win the love interest, the treasure, the contract – everything, but only if she betrays her best friend. On the other hand, if they are loyal to her best friend, not only will she not win, but she’ll be: thrown into jail, fed to the tigers, shamed in front of her family. You get the idea.

In most cases, the lead will choose principles (that's what makes them a hero!) over personal gain, though not always.

Rock Bottom

Once your protagonist has made his choice, they should hit rock bottom, where it seems like all is lost, and there’s absolutely no way things can ever be good again. All is bleak and hopeless. If they chose based on principle, then the expected terrible consequences are now unfolding. If they didn’t choose well, then something unexpected happened (maybe they got double crossed) and they were still denied their prizes. Or perhaps they did get their prizes, but suddenly it all leaves a really bad taste.

In any case, they huddle in the dark and rain for a while, possibly considering ending it all.

Final Conflict

But then something happens to give them that last boost of energy and passion and they rise, ready to make things right again. They’ve got nothing to lose, so they’re filled with determination and they go at the final challenge with bells on.

Return Home

In the majority of popular fiction, the protagonist will triumph – although that doesn’t mean they get the thing they have been chasing all along. It may be that they realise that the high value contract won’t make them happy after all, and what they really want is to settle down in a  log cabin and write a novel, guaranteeing poverty, but happiness. Or the beautiful love interest turns out to be ugly under the surface and it’s the best friend that’s been there all along that’s the true love. Or you could just go ahead and give them the big pile of treasure. It’s up to you.

 

So there you have it! My version of the hero's journey. If you've enjoyed reading it, and / or found it useful, please show your support by liking or tweeting this page - but no worries if you don't want to - just having you as a reader is reward enough.

 

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