when I was in the eighth grade, I learned about Joseph Campbell’s the hero of a thousand faces. we were studying the English renaissance, and learning about the imprisonment and execution of sir Thomas more. I remember making a group project—a nine-square-foot diorama with figures whose costumes we hand stitched, under a stone roof made of two pieces of plywood covered in gravel—glued one piece at a time.
the diorama was intense, with intricate details; it also weighed a lot. but the sad thing is, that’s what I took with me as a lesson from that unit. that’s not to say I forgot what the hero’s journey was, because I didn’t, but I didn’t exactly apply it to my fiction either.
the hero’s journey makes plotting easier
it’s true. not only does it provide inspiration, but it makes raising the tension and stakes easier. it’s a tool in the writer’s tool box, like a chisel. you have this rough story idea, and you take out the chisel and hammer, and you begin to shape that idea into a cohesive journey.
just like sculpture, no story is exactly the same, even if you use the same chisel. this is to say, one of the most valuable truths I learned from my mentor this past semester is the hero’s journey doesn’t have to be used in a strict order.
using the hero’s journey
if you’re creating a sculpture of a person, you might start from the top and carve the head first. or maybe, because of the shape or nature of the stone, you might start from the side with an elbow. you chisel away in the order that makes sense for that sculpture.
using the hero’s journey as a writer is no different. for example, it might make sense for your protagonist, your hero, to have to go through the same archetypal ordeal more than once, though the situation differs.
or, it might make sense that your hero (by the way, this includes heroines), experiences multiple resurrections. the point is you can use elements of this journey without feeling trapped into a specific order of events or cycle.
other reasons i’m now in love with using the hero’s journey
the reason I mentioned above—ease of plotting—is only one reason I’m glad I rediscovered the hero’s journey, this time as a writer. I have two main other reasons I feel merit mention.
the hero’s journey makes characterization easier, too
one of my favorite experiences as a fiction writer is when a new character drops onto the page. it’s exciting. but, it can also be confusing because they can be like a wrench thrown into the system that is your story if you don’t know what to do with them.
this is where the hero’s journey comes in. your hero meets archetypal characters along the way, like the mentor, who either help or hinder the hero’s journey. fitting a new character to one of these archetypes can help develop that character, allowing for more impactful interactions.
readers connect with the hero’s journey
one of the main reasons to write is to reach readers. it’s not the only reason, of course, but it’s one of the big ones—at least for me. if it wasn’t, i’d write only for my own edification. I wouldn’t ever think about publishing my work, and I wouldn’t keep a blog.
my readers—past, present, and future—matter to me, and I want them to connect with my story and characters. using the hero’s journey makes forging that connection easier. Joseph Campbell’s seminal theory is derived from the study of myths created by many cultures. what does it tell us, as storytellers, that so many cultures throughout history created myths with similar characters and similar plots, without first interacting?
people connect to certain archetypal characters and plots more than others.
those archetypal characters and plots comprise the hero’s journey.
the journey can be applied internally and externally
and it should be. this is not easy to do, but it’s one of my main goals for next semester in addition to finishing my book.
taking a protagonist through those archetypal events should happen externally, and simultaneously, internally. I think it’s almost impossible to do this simultaneously, while drafting. I think the internal journey must be honed during revision and editing.
let’s consider the sculpture analogy again. Michelangelo, as brilliant as he was at turning blocks of marble into lifelike sculptures, didn’t get the polished finish the instant he carved a block of stone into a figure. he then had to go back and refine.
writing is the same way. it takes multiple drafts—and there is no set number—to get a story finished and polished. and while this idea may frustrate novice writers, after years and years of practice I find it comforting to know my first draft doesn’t have to be everything my finished piece will be.
there’s time and ample opportunity to go back into the work and hone it, to craft that internal journey.
part of me wishes i’d been a fiction writer when I first learned about Campbell and the hero’s journey. but when I was in the eighth grade, writing fiction wasn’t something I ever thought I could do, or do well. I was still in my “i’m going to be a paleontologist” phase (which lasted into college).
but I did like to read, and there were certain stories that gripped me. there were some stories I read again and again. in that phase, raptor red by paleontologist Robert t. Bakker was a book I read over and over. it was a fictional work told from the point of view of a dinosaur, and it contained elements of the hero’s journey—perhaps not all of them, and not in the same order as Campbell identified, but they were there.
rediscovering the hero’s journey as a writer has been like looking at a tool I could previously identify, and going a step further by learning how to wield it. it’s empowering.
I can’t fault my eighth-grade English teacher for the way I learned about the hero’s journey the first time. i’m sure he’d have loved it if his students connected it to writing stories. but at that age, it was enough to demonstrate knowledge of what it was, like a kid learning what a chisel is. the child doesn’t know how to expertly use the chisel, but can identify it among other items in a tool box.
I wish i’d learned how to use this tool, as a writer, at a younger age. but one cannot reverse time so i’ll simply have to make the best of having that knowledge now.