A while back, a dude named Joseph Campbell wrote a book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces where he presented the idea that most myths, legends, folk tales and stories are all inherently dealing with the same themes and telling the same tale. He drew this up in a map of The Hero’s Journey, which has been adopted as a nigh-essential tool for story mapping and writing ever since, and details the archetypes that run through a lot of powerful stories from all around the world. It ties nicely into the screenwriting Three Act Structure, which is also a really useful tool for writing stories and character arcs effectively, so they’re both worth studying if you’re interested in knowing what, by tried and true practice going back many thousands of years, seems to make a good story. This archetypal map is the foundation for my thesis, so this post is mostly me trying to get my head around my research, but this stuff is fascinating and a really useful writing tool, so I’m sticking it here for anyone who needs a quick-and-dirty guide.
Campbell divides The Hero’s Journey into three parts: separation, where “the hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder”, initiation, where “fabulous forces are encountered and a decisive victory is won”, and return, where “the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” It’s all strongly tied into rites of passage, coming of age narratives, and a whole lot of Freudian stuff, because this was written in 1949 when people at large still thought Freud was a good idea. I think Campbell has an Oedipus Complex Complex because he brings it up so damned often.
In any case, here are the (first few) elements of the Hero’s Journey as Campbell outlines them, which are easy to recognise in both modern and ancient media:
Call to Adventure
The ordinary world is established—often Our Hero will be dissatisfied with this in some way. Maybe they have their eyes set on bigger dreams than their provincial life can give them, maybe they’re in an abusive situation, maybe they’re just an ordinary kid going through some angst. And then something happens that steers the Hero off the path of the ordinary. When adopted into screenwriting it’s often called your “inciting incident” and is a pretty basic part of any storytelling: a thing occurs that starts the story. For Heroes, this thing “signifies that destiny has summoned the hero” (p.58) and destiny, in whatever form, says “oy, you’re the protagonist, let’s go!”
This can be quite literal, like Gandalf showing up on Bilbo’s doorstep and asking him to come on an adventure. It’s often associated with a magical animal companion (which ties into Supernatural Aid, which we’ll get to in a moment), and Campbell uses the fairy tale example of The Frog King, where the princess’ ordinary life is established, and then a big old talking frog arrives and breaks the mould and starts the story. Other examples of this could be Fionn Mac Cumhail running off after a particularly stunning deer, which is the start of all sorts of magic shenanigans that eventually results in him getting a son, or Usagi rescuing purple talking space-cat Luna, who then informs her of her destiny as Sailor Moon. You could even count the radioactive spider who bit Peter Parker and set him on his path as Spiderman, or the dog that Setanta killed (a more gory and less quaint example) to set him on his path to become Cuchullain.
Refusal of the Call
Gandalf shows up out of nowhere with a bunch of dwarves and is like “Come to the mountain and steal stuff with us, Bilbo, it’ll be sick as!” and Bilbo goes “No! Get out of my pantry!” Though not every Hero turns opportunity down, the refusal of the call is another fairly standard beat in stories now—it’s that one part where the main character fights destiny and says that they either can’t or don’t want to interrupt the flow of their everyday life by Being The Main Character. They put their own interests first, which can be selfish or can be an act of self-preservation, and according to good ol’ Freud is symbolic of not wanting to grow up and leave the safe and familiar confines of Mum and Dad’s backyard. The Hero is, inevitably, somehow crowbarred into their adventure anyway, because without that there’d be no story.
It’s Peter Parker saying “I missed the part where that’s my problem” then finding his uncle dead and realising that crime very much is his problem and it’s time to accept his superhero status, as indeed it’s every teen protagonist saying “I just want to be normal!” before that chance is ripped away from them by the very abnormal reality of their supernatural fate (eg, vampires up in your business, and you’re the only one with the power to save your friends, see Buffy). If all else fails, you can always burn your Hero’s house down with his entire remaining family in it a la Star Wars IV: A New Hope, so they have nothing tying them to their old life and no choice but to venture forth with the robots and that weird old space monk. Fun!
“The first encounter of the hero-journey is with a protective figure (often a little old crone or old man) who provides the adventurer with amulets against the dragon forces he is about to pass.” (p.69) Whether or not it’s literally a tiny elderly person or literally a dragon (or literally “amulets”–Steve Rogers’ supernatural amulet could be considered the super serum that makes him buff enough to be Captain America, for example), a mentor character detached from the beats of ordinary life is pretty much essential in any story where the protagonist doesn’t already know everything about the world. And if they did already know everything about the world, they’d make a pretty boring and unrelatable protagonist, wouldn’t they?
Examples of supernatural aid include helpful wizards, fairy godmothers, whatever the hell Yoda is, helpful superpower-and-gadget-making scientists (you could even consider Alfred Pennyworth Batman’s supernatural aid by many means), and again, talking animal companions like Luna (or any magical girl’s mascot) who guide the hero on their journey, being in a way a personification of “the benign, protective power of destiny.” (p.71)
Of course, a less benign but still fitting example Campbell brings up is Mephistopheles, the demon from Faust, who certainly gives plenty of supernatural aid to the hero, but does so in an effort to consume the hero’s soul rather than represent his grand destiny. As a less magical example you could even consider Victor Nikiforov the supernatural aid in Yuri!!! On Ice, since Yuri’s call to adventure is embodied by this somewhat pixie-like man appearing unexpectedly and offering him mentorship. As well as literally coaching Yuri, Victor’s the “manifestation of destiny” in that he’s arrived because of a chain of events Yuri unwittingly set in motion himself months before which kickstarts and ensures Yuri’s character arc/coming of age (and, as the opening song tells us, Yuri was born to make history, so Victor’s appearance is the key to this apparent destiny). Saber is definitely a personification of Shirou’s heroic destiny when she appears to save him at the start of Fate/Stay Night, not only going on to act as his aide and mentor but because she was summoned (not that any of them know it yet) by the magic sheath that’s been protecting Shirou and tying him into the story since before the main plot even began.
What appears as an ordinary life often has an undercurrent of magic anyway, because that’s what destiny is—it’s always lurking around for the right time to appear, in Harry Potter’s case at age 11 when Hogwarts letters start raining from the sky and the chimney gets stuffed full of owls. The supernatural aid figure is here to close to gap and not only confirm the Hero’s heroic fate, but help ease them into it (and thus help them grow up, which is probably why the mentor is often an already-wise grandparently figure).
Crossing the First Threshold
This chapter talks a lot about folk tales of the “here be monsters” variety, detailing various fantastic and awful creatures and threats that live outside the realm of everyday life… which heroes leaving the safety of their village (or, Freudian-like, letting go of mama’s hand to face the world as an adult) will literally and metaphorically have to face. Crossing the first threshold is often your “point of no return” story writing wise, or at least that’s how it’s been adapted—it’s your protagonist’s dive down the rabbit hole with no immediate option of scrabbling back up into their ordinary life, either because their ordinary life has been torched a la Star Wars or because the Holy Grail War is happening whether they do anything or not, so they’re morally committed to doing something so that people don’t get hurt.
It could be your first brush with the villainous forces of the story, who have now noticed you and won’t leave you alone, or it could be you and your friends all being dumped into the Hunger Games arena, or it could be you qualifying in the first leg of an international competition. You can’t go back, you’re officially in the fantastical realm of whatever your story holds. In terms of the Three Act Structure, this (sometimes combined with the next step) marks the end of the first act of your story. Which means it’s time to get booted, hard, into the adventure.
Belly of the Whale/Symbolic Death and Rebirth
This one time, says Campbell, Heracles went to rescue a princess from a sea monster, and did so by letting the sea monster eat him. Heracles then sliced the beastie into sashimi from inside its stomach, saving the day as usual. The imagery of being swallowed is ancient and prevalent, from the Greek gods being eaten by Kronos to Red Riding Hood being swallowed by the Big Bad Wolf. The chapter’s title is a reference to the Biblical story of Jonah and the Whale, where, again, someone gets eaten (but not killed in the process of eating, necessarily) but eventually escapes. No doubt the rest of their life will be shaken by this experience, and people will be asking them “weren’t you that guy who got swallowed by a sea monster?” at parties for the rest of their days. It’s a symbolic death and rebirth, a metaphorical (but sometimes literal, depending on the story) trip to the Underworld from which your Hero returns to tell the tale.
“The popular [swallowing] motif gives emphasis to the lesson that the passage of the threshold is a form of self-annihilation” (p.91) says Campbell, meaning that if your hero hasn’t had some sort of terrible time as they’re learning the ropes of the fantastical world they’ve walked into, they’re probably doing it wrong. Again, a protagonist who already knows everything is boring and hard to connect with. This symbolic death, swallowing, or getting the sauce kicked out of them, is a rite of passage that shows the Hero isn’t super strong and amazing yet, but destiny intervenes so this defeat isn’t the end of their story so much as an experience to learn from. In the case of Osiris that Campbell brings up, the Egyptian god is literally killed and diced up, but ascends from his body, as yet another sign of leaving the ordinary life (and the confines of childhood) behind.
It’s Shirou’s first battle where, no matter what route you’re in, he inevitably nearly dies in some horrific way (but is healed by the sheath which Saber has activated—personification of destiny!), it’s the underdog team of your sports story badly losing a match (but you know they’ve learnt from this and are going to be more determined next time), it’s your magical girl warrior very nearly losing a climactic battle but then coming through with a brand new shiny transformation and weapon. In a lot of religious stories it’s where your saintly figure makes their first step to martyrdom, and indeed this element calls in a lot of Christian symbolism if your Hero “dies” to save other characters but comes back because they’re the Hero. It’s that travel memoir I read where the writer nearly died from a skin disease in Mexico, but enjoyed it because she knew that great sheets of her skin coming off was a symbolic shedding of her old life and the petty vices of the material world. And also because she was a bonkers rich white lady.
So that’s your “separation” period done and dusted—your Hero is firmly planted in the realm of the adventure with their home life and symbolic childhood left far behind, and now they’re a symbolic gangly teenager trying to figure it all out with the power granted to them by a wise little wizard and/or that time they nearly died but came back. Next time we’ll look at the “initiation” section, because I don’t want to terrify readers with walls of more than 2,000 words of text all at once. Stay tuned! There will be dragons!