Writing

Writing 101: What Is the Hero’s Journey?

Written by MasterClass

Mar 7, 2019 • 7 min read

Hands up if you’ve heard this story before: A lonely hero who is trying to find himself. A sudden and unexpected journey, promising adventure and peril. A test of character, strength, and skill. An ultimate battle that tests the hero’s resolve. A triumphant return home.

If this sounds familiar, that’s because this exact narrative template has inspired countless stories from ancient myths to modern television shows and movies. It is the monomyth—colloquially known as the hero’s journey.

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What Is the Hero’s Journey?

The hero’s journey is a common story template—or narrative archetype—that involves a hero who goes on an adventure, learns a lesson, wins a victory with that newfound knowledge, and then returns home transformed. It can be boiled down to three essential stages:

  • The departure. The hero leaves the familiar world behind.
  • The initiation. The hero learns to navigate the unfamiliar world.
  • The return. The hero returns to the familiar world.

The classical version of the hero's journey was an “epic,” often written in poetic forms, like Homer’s Odyssey. Today, the hero’s journey is applied in different types of works, from fantasy or historical fiction. Joseph’s Campbell’s influential work, The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949), analyzes the concept of the hero’s journey, and its various stages.

Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell, a professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College, unpacks his theory that all mythological narratives share the same basic structure. He refers to this structure as the “monomyth”—or hero’s journey. He summarizes it like this:

“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.”

Campbell lays out 17 total stages of the hero’s journey structure; however, not all monomyths must necessarily feature all stages, or in the same order that Campbell described.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces has influenced writers across literature, music, films, and video games. Perhaps most famously, George Lucas credited Campbell for influencing the structure of the Star Wars films. In the late ‘90s, Christopher Vogler, a Hollywood film producer and writer, created a seven-page memo titled A Practical Guide to The Hero With a Thousand Faces which was supposed to help Hollywood writers wrap their heads around Campbell’s monomyth structure. The memo was later developed into a screenwriting textbook, The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers (1992).

Black and white silhouette of hiker on the top of the hill

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The 3 Stages of the Hero’s Journey

The 17 steps of the monomyth are grouped into three main categories:

  1. Departure. In brief, the hero is living in the so-called “ordinary world” when he receives a call to adventure. Usually, the hero is unsure of following this call—known as the “refusal of the call”—but is then helped by a mentor figure, who gives him counsel and convinces him to follow the call.
  2. Initiation. In the initiation section, the hero enters the “special world”, where he must begin facing a series of tasks until he reaches the climax of the story—the main obstacle or enemy. Here, the hero must put into practice everything he has learned on his journey to overcome the obstacle. Campbell talks about the hero attaining some kind of prize for his troubles—this can be a physical token or “elixir”, or just good, old-fashioned wisdom. (Or both.)
  3. Return. Feeling like he is ready to go back to his world, the hero must now leave. Once back in the ordinary world, he undergoes a personal metamorphosis in the realization of how his adventure has changed him as a person.

17 Steps of the Hero’s Journey

Here are all the 17 stages of the hero’s journey, as outlined by Campbell:

DEPARTURE
1. The call to adventure
2. Refusal of the call
3. Supernatural aid
4. Crossing the threshold
5. Belly of the whale

INITIATION
6. The road of trials
7. The meeting with the goddess
8. Woman as temptress
9. Atonement with the father
10. Apotheosis
11. The ultimate boon

RETURN
12. Refusal of the return
13. The magic flight
14. Rescue from without
15. The crossing of the return threshold
16. Master of two worlds
17. Freedom to live)

The Hero’s Journey In Film: Two Case Studies

Hollywood has embraced the monomyth in many different ways. These are two of the most popular films that explore the hero’s journey, broken down into the main stages of the monomyth.

Star Wars (1977)

  1. The ordinary world. Luke lives with his aunt and uncle on a farm on Tatooine. He likes to stare at the sunset and dream of “teleporting off this rock”.
  2. The call to adventure. R2-D2 plays Luke a message of distress from Princess Leia, who needs someone to transport the droid to Alderaan.
  3. Refusal of the call. Luke isn’t thrilled about leaving his home planet and getting in trouble from his uncle to go on a wild goose chase.
  4. The mentor. Obi-Wan Kenobi convinces Luke to follow his heart by showing him his father’s lightsaber.
  5. Crossing the threshold. Luke and Obi-Wan leave Mos Eisley for Alderaan.
  6. The ordeal. Leia’s rescue from the Death Star, and later, Luke using the Force to destroy the Death Star.
  7. The return. Luke joins the rebels and decides to become a Jedi.

The Matrix (1999)

  1. The ordinary world. Thomas Anderson is a bored computer programmer by day and the hacker “Neo” by night.
  2. The call to adventure. Neo receives a message promising him that everything is not as it seems. He is told to “follow the white rabbit”.
  3. Refusal of the call. Neo isn’t sure if Trinity is telling him the truth. He allows himself to be captured.
  4. Mentor. Morpheus gives Neo a choice: the blue pill if he wants to return to his old life, or the red pill, if he wants to know the truth.
  5. Crossing the threshold. Neo chooses the red pill and is shown what the Matrix is.
  6. The ordeal. Neo struggles to accept his new role but ultimately learns to become who he was meant to be, defeating Agent Smith inside the Matrix and saving Morpheus.
  7. The return. Neo tells the machines he will defeat them and save humanity.

The Hero’s Journey In Books: Two Classic Examples

Many authors have used the monomyth in literature and popular fiction. Explore the hero’s journey in Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings, two famous epics:

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (1954)

  1. The ordinary world. Frodo lives in the Shire, enjoying a nice, peaceful life with his friends.
  2. The call to adventure. Following Gandalf’s discovery of the ring of power, he asks Frodo to undertake a journey and keep the ring with him.
  3. Refusal of the call. Frodo is unsure of leaving the Shire, as he has no experience with the world outside.
  4. The mentor. Gandalf convinces Frodo that he has a pure heart and he is the one who must “bear this burden”.
  5. Crossing the threshold. Frodo and Sam leave the Shire behind, a moment that Frodo has mixed feelings about.
  6. The ordeal. Characterized by the many challenges Frodo faces along the way with the Fellowship, including the fight with the Balrog.
  7. The return. Frodo realizes that he can no longer be part of the Fellowship and must continue on the journey alone. He sets out for Mount Doom.

J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997)

  1. The ordinary world. Harry lives with his aunt and uncle, who make him sleep in the cupboard under the stairs.
  2. The call to adventure. Harry receives a letter from Hogwarts, asking him to attend.
  3. Refusal of the call. Harry is unsure of what is real and what isn’t and has trouble accepting he is a real wizard. As far as he knows, his parents were killed in a car crash—and not by an evil wizard.
  4. The mentor. In the first book, Hagrid serves as Harry’s mentor, but later in the series, it’s Albus Dumbledore who guides and advises Harry. Hagrid convinces Harry he is a wizard and takes him to Hogwarts.
  5. Crossing the threshold. Harry crosses a literal barrier—platform 9 ¾ at Kings Cross station, leaving the normal world behind and crossing into the magical one.
  6. The ordeal. Harry’s many trials and tribulations during his first year at Hogwarts, culminating in his first meeting with—and the temporary defeat of—Voldemort at the end of the first book.
  7. The return. Harry returns to his aunt and uncle’s house for the summer, happy and safe in the knowledge that he has a new home at Hogwarts.