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  • Writer's pictureRussell F. Hirsch

The Hero’s Journey – An Introduction

So far, as a writer, I have found no theory more useful or compelling than that of the “Hero’s Journey.” When I go to writing conferences to hear tips from other authors, many speak of the Hero’s Journey. While I volunteered at a youth writing camp earlier this month, several guest presenters delved into the Hero’s Journey with the aspiring teen authors in their classes. The Hero’s Journey is a sort of magic map underlying stories from ancient myth to the modern bookstore shelf and it is a key tool authors use to help craft their plot arcs.

Those who have studied literature, writing, film, or theatre have probably come across the Hero’s Journey concept before, but many people have not heard of the idea. So, I invite you on a blogging quest over the posts to come, while I explore what exactly the Hero’s Journey is all about, and especially how it is used in books and films for youth.

What is the Hero’s Journey?

Stories--religious and secular--from around the world have remarkable similarities.

Stories–religious and secular–from around the world have remarkable similarities.

The Hero’s Journey was an idea first expressed by a scholar named Joseph Campbell in the 1940s. Over his career, Campbell studied myths from diverse cultures all over the world. The more widely he studied world mythology, the more similarities he noticed in the stories produced by completely different cultures in different places at different time periods. In a book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces, he outlined what he called the monomyth—commonly known as the Hero’s Journey—a sequence of plot events that he thought nearly every story in the world was likely to contain.

JOSEPH CAMPBELL at Esalen 1982 photo @ Kathlean Thormod Carr

JOSEPH CAMPBELL at Esalen 1982 (photo @ Kathlean Thormod Carr)

George Lucas used Campbell’s ideas to help him create the plot of the first Star Wars film, bringing Campbell’s ideas to the attention of many more authors and screenwriters.

The essential idea behind the Hero’s Journey is that it thrusts a character out of their everyday situation and into a new set of circumstances, which they must face before returning to their normal life (hopefully as a more capable and fulfilled person).

The character’s ordinary life is essentially the Beginning of a story. The new situation they are thrust into—and their successes and setbacks along the way—the Middle. And their final climactic test in that new situation and potential return to their “ordinary” life, is the End.

Often, being thrust into a new situation literally involves going on a journey or quest before eventually returning home. The subtitle of The Hobbit, “There and Back Again,” basically sums up the general cycle of a Hero’s Journey plot. But the Hero’s Journey doesn’t have to involve a quest or a road trip or an actual, physical journey. There are lots of ways to get caught up in a new situation without actually going anywhere! And the Hero’s Journey plotline occurs in realistic stories as well as fantastical ones.

There and Back Again

Christopher Vogler, who I’ve mentioned on the blog before, introduced Campbell’s ideas to Disney while working on films like The Lion King, and has synthesized the Hero’s Journey into 12 key plot events. I have in turn simplified and renamed some of Vogler’s steps into 10 that I use. In the coming posts, I’ll examine these 10 plot events with examples from well-known works of Children’s and YA Lit. We’ll see how authors continue evolving and improving the Hero’s Journey model to provide ancient, resonant ideas in fresh, innovative ways.

Russell’s steps of the Hero’s Journey (based on the work of Christopher Vogler):




9. Climax

10. Resolution

Thanks to the links below for great photos!


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