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6:30pm on Tuesday, 2nd April, 2013:

How it Works: the Hero's Journey (part 1)


[This is too big for one post so I've split it across two]

One of the final-year undergraduate assignments I set for my virtual worlds module concerns the Hero's Journey, or monomyth. Students have to write a plot that fits it. They don't have to write an actual story, with dialogue and characterisation and fancy turns of phrase: they just have to construct a plot that follows the format. It takes me about 45 minutes to do it on-the-fly in a class using suggestions shouted out by those students who don't regard interacting with the lecturer as a sign of uncoolness. Left to my own devices, I could create one from nothing in 20 minutes. It's not hard — if you follow the format.

Having marked many, many such assignments, I thought it might be a good idea to explain the concept in some detail. Who knows, those of my students who Google the term on the morning their assignment is due in might find this document and manage to pick up some marks as a result.

So, what is the Hero's Journey?

OK, well it's a 17-step formula that is used in pretty well all mythical stories, whatever the source. It's not the only way of telling a story, but it's the one that evolved to cover self-actualisation. I teach it because it explains why people play MMOs (just about — MMOs are now so anodyne and have so many external ways to help you "win" that we're in danger of losing this connection). The Hero's Journey was first outlined by American academic Joseph Campbell in the 1940s in his book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. This book is borderline impenetrable, but hey, you don't have to read it — you merely have to read what someone who made the effort to read it wrote (in this case, that would be me).

So, the first thing you need to know is that when I say 17 steps, I mean 17 steps. I don't mean the 12-step bastardisation that the movie industry uses (which mislabels some of the steps). If you write your story to the 12-step model, you're all kinds of wrong. It might suffice for 90-minute movie plots, but it doesn't work for an actual path to self-understanding. I don't mean any of the assorted 8-step models either. The full Hero's Journey has 17 steps. If 17 is too big a number to hold in your head, don't worry, we'll break it down a little shortly.

The basic outline of the Hero's Journey is this: there is something wrong with the mundane world; the would-be hero needs a thing to fix it; the would-be hero goes to a world of danger and excitement to get this thing; the would-be hero returns to the mundane world with the thing; the would-be hero fixes the problem they went to the other world to get the thing to bring back to fix. At that point, the would-be hero becomes an actual hero. You're only a hero if you complete your Hero's Journey.

This is important, by the way. Completing the Hero's Journey is what makes you a hero; nothing less will do. When people say things like "he saved the dog from drowning — he's a hero!" then they're using the term "hero" metaphorically with respect to its mythical meaning. They're saying that the qualities that you need to exhibit to endanger your own life rescuing a drowning dog are those which you would associate with a hero (plus stupidity, but that's just my opinion). However, saving the dog doesn't make you a hero; only completing your Hero's Journey does that. Bravery is a quality many heroes possess, but then so is masculinity; simply being brave doesn't make you a hero any more than being male does. Putting your own life at risk to save a drowning dog makes you a metaphorical hero; completing your Hero's Journey makes you an actual hero.

Now there's a reason for this. The thing is, the Hero's Journey isn't simply an ancient format that leads to exciting stories (although it is and it does): that's just its surface appearance. Underneath, it's actually something far more profound: a path to self-discovery. By undertaking your Hero's Journey, you can become your true self — the you you really are, rather than the you that people want you to be. It's a journey of self-discovery, the end result of which is that you understand who you are and what your place is in the world. Yes, this does all sound like airy-fairy psychological mumbo-jumbo, which is why it is usually unwise to tell anyone following a Hero's Journey narrative what's going on. Suffice to say, a hero in these terms is someone who has self-actualised and that rescuing a drowning dog is probably not an act of self-actualisation.

So, the Hero's Journey is divided into 17 steps, which are split into 3 phases. If you follow these steps, at the end you're a hero. You can't fail any of them (although there's one you can fail at the surface level); if you do fail one, you don't complete your journey and you're not a hero. The three phases concern: the Mundane World in which you live your normal life; the Other World where you go for your adventure; and the return to the Mundane World from the Other World. These phases are called Departure, Initiation and Return. This means that if you have some "initiation rite" in the Departure Phase, it shows you didn't even get as far as reading the phase titles.

Let's look at these phases, then. Oh, a quick note first though: I'll refer to the would-be hero as a "he", because it's a Hero's Journey, not a Heroine's journey; there is a Heroine's Journey but it's a pits-of-despair affair that does not make for a pleasant reading experience (it also has some rather dubious justification to parts of it in my view, but I don't want to turn this into a critique). Anyway, although I do let my students write plots with female would-be heroes in them — and indeed write such stories myself — formally, the protagonist of the Hero's Journey should be male so I'll refer to him as, well, him.

On to the phases...

Departure. In this opening phase, the would-be hero is troubled by a problem with the Mundane World that someone ought to fix. It could be a long-standing problem (such as famine) or a new one (such as war); it could be something he's aware of or something that has to be pointed out to him. Whatever it is, it needs something to fix it. That something is the boon. The boon is actually a proxy for the transformed would-be hero; what the Mundane World really needs is for the would-be-hero to fix the problem, but right now he can't because he's a nobody. The boon represents the self-actualised would-be hero who can fix the problem. So, the would-be hero goes off to the Other World in order to get the boon he needs, which is to say to become his true self and therefore be capable of fixing the Mundane World's problem.

Initiation. In this phase, the would-be hero acquires the boon. The boon is the gift of an unbeatable individual, the Father, who is powerful enough to kill the would-be hero on a whim. To get the boon, the would-be hero has to go to the Father and be given the boon, knowing that the Father could squish him like a bug but trusting that he won't.

Return. In this phase, the would-be hero comes back to the Mundane World from the Other World and uses the boon to solve the original problem. End of Hero's Journey: the would-be hero is now a bona fide hero.

OK, so that's an overview of the format. Even at this level, many of my students contrive to get it wrong. They'll do things like solve the Mundane World problem in the Other World, so there's no reason to come back from the Other World to the Mundane World. They'll have the Mundane World and the Other World be the same world. A particularly common mistake is not to have a boon, which means there's no reason to go to the Other World in the first place and the Mundane World has no pressing need for the would-be hero to return.

Right, so now I've described the phases, let's look at the individual steps. Important: these are not all the same length. Some of them can be half a sentence long; others can occupy an entire novel's worth of material. Most mythical stories only use fragments of the Hero's Journey, not the whole sequence (indeed, failing a step can itself be a self-contained story: see Actaeon failing the Meeting with the Goddess step when he encounters Artemis). I'm going to describe the fully monty, though.

Step 1 (Departure): The Call to Adventure.
The purpose of this step is to demonstrate that the would-be hero is not already a hero. In it, the would-be hero is presented with a symbol of his destiny. If he's destined to become a king, then he may find a crown or a sword — something that represents rulership. If he's destined to be a peacemaker, he may come across a broken bridge — something a "bridge-builder" might fix. If he's destined to become a famous movie actor, he may see a shooting star in the night sky. Whatever he encounters, the important thing is that it's symbolic of his destiny. He is destined to become a king, or a peacemaker, or a movie star, but he doesn't yet realise he is.

Step 2 (Departure): Refusal of the Call.
Because he doesn't know he has a destiny, the would-be hero doesn't interpret the Call to Adventure as a symbol of said destiny. He treats it as an ordinary object. Arthur pulls the sword from the stone because he wants a sword, not because he wants to be king. He gives the sword to his foster brother: he Refuses the Call.

Now there's an issue here, in that the Mundane World has to have some problem that the would-be hero is destined to solve. This means that this situation has to be set up somehow in the narrative. There is no step in the Hero's Journey that does this; how could there be, when the problem might have prevailed for centuries before the would-be hero was even born? Just as there's no prescription that says the would-be hero should start off as a farmboy or blacksmith (although two thirds of my students choose one or the other), there's nothing to say what the Mundane World should be like nor what its problem should be like. All we need is for the Mundane World to be introduced, the would-be hero's place in that world to be established, and for there to be a problem. This problem has to have been outlined by the end of step 3. If there wasn't already something out of whack at the start, then some disruptive event must occur in one of the first three steps. Perhaps the would-be hero's village is attacked, or there's a monster that demands a sacrifice, or there's a leak at the chemical works. If there is such an event, it sets up the story. Fair enough?

Alert: this event is not the Call to Adventure! The Call to Adventure is symbolic, not literal. The world must have something wrong with it that the boon will make right, but the event that makes the world wrong is not the Call to Adventure. How could it be, when in some stories the world starts out wrong from the beginning and doesn't even need such an event?

If you see the President being shot, that's not a "call to adventure". You don't have to hide in fear as a "refusal of the call", because there wasn't a call in the first place: the President's being shot is the setting up of the problem that needs to be solved, but it's not the Call to Adventure. The Call to Adventure was when you turned the radio on in the car on the way to the inauguration, heard the song America the Beautiful then switched channels.

Unfortunately, there are many descriptions of the Hero's Journey that confuse the literal "the world is now coming apart and you need to fix it" event (that is, the set-up) with the "can you see your destiny?" test (that is, the actual Call to Adventure). Wikipedia's entry on the monomyth does this, for example. My students seem to trust Wikipedia more than they do me, which may well be advisable in general; however, it's not advisable when it's me who's marking their assignment. Properly, the Call to Adventure is the symbol, not the set-up. Camelot was in trouble before Arthur was born, not because he pulled a sword from a stone.

Step 3 (Departure): Supernatural Aid.
As Fate has failed to attract the would-be hero's attention using subtlety, it now takes a more direct approach. Someone who has some level of understanding of the Other World (typically a crone or a wizened old man) will come to the would-be hero and outright tell him his destiny. It's possible that this giver of Supernatural Aid could refer to the Call to Adventure as evidence, but this step is the very latest in which the Call to Adventure can play a part (exception: the would-be hero can re-encounter the Call to Adventure in one of the final two steps of his Hero's Journey and this time recognise it for its symbolism). If the would-be hero finds a strange metal orb in his garden and decides to eBay it, he can't use it later in the story to bamboozle a guard.

Two points about Supernatural Aid are important: it has to be supernatural (in that it's not something just anyone could do — there has to be a hint of Other-Worldliness about it); it has to be aid (in that it actually helps the would-be hero understand his destiny). Being supernatural doesn't mean it has to be magical, it merely has to be beyond the experience of the would-be hero. The aid can be overt if you like (the giver rescues the would-be hero from some predicament) or be for the future (the would-be hero is given something he can use in the Other World) or be straight (the giver of Supernatural Aid just explains how things are); so long as the end result is that the would-be hero is appraised of his destiny and not just left to feel that there's something weird going on, it's all good.

By the end of this step, the would-be hero must know what the problem is with the Mundane World. It can be vague ("there is injustice!") or it can be specific ("your sister is dying") or it can be something in between ("the king is corrupt"). The would-be hero must know what boon is required to remedy the situation ("the helm of truth", "the blossom of silken night"), which is in the Other World. The would-be hero must have some idea of how to get to the Other World, if not actually what the nature of the Other World is just yet.

If the hero doesn't know what's wrong with the Mundane World, then he has no reason to go to the Other World. Being told he has to go because "it's your destiny" is useless, because when he gets to the Other World and fulfils his destiny he has no compelling reason to come back. It is possible for the would-be hero to be seeking a vague boon — "a cure for the king's sickness", say — but he does have to have a boon in mind. It's also possible for him to go for one boon and find a greater one, but he still needs to bring back something that fixes the original problem. Ideally, that something should be what he originally went to fetch.

If you simply send your would-be hero to the Other World "on a mission" or "on a quest" or similar, you're probably going to have problems. Yes, in real life special forces soldiers are sent behind enemy lines to blow up railway lines, but if your would-be hero is in the SAS then that's his day job — it's the Mundane World for him. If you know what you're doing, you can possibly have the would-be hero realise in the Other World that there's a boon he needs to bring back to mend the Mundane World, but this does mean he has to be valuable to the Mundane World from the outset; if he weren't, there would be no incentive for the Mundane World to help him come back (in step 14). It's very hard to get the symbolism right with this, though: if the Mundane World wants the unreconstructed would-be hero back, rather than the boon which represents the self-actualised would-be hero, then the Mundane World is going to need persuading that the former is inferior to the latter when the latter arrives.

Step 4 (Departure): Crossing the First Threshold.
In this step, the would-be hero commits to go to the Other World. He has to do something proactively to get there. Perhaps he has to cross a border line he's never crossed before, or he has to push his way through clothes in a wardrobe. Quite often, he'll need to defeat a guardian (who doesn't have to be malevolent, just someone the would-be hero has to get past to continue into the Other World — a passport control officer at an airport, say). The objective of this step is committal: the would-be hero could turn back, but he doesn't; he could duck out of confronting the guardian, but he doesn't. He shows he's made of stern enough stuff to survive in the Other World. He's off on his adventure.

Now sometimes it may seem that the would-be hero Crosses the First Threshold by accident. He doesn't. He committed to his journey already, before the accident. He can have an accident to arrive in the Other World, but that's part of the next step, not this one. If your would-be hero is walking in the woods one day, minding his own business, when suddenly he falls down an outsize rabbit-hole, well that may be the makings of an ordinary story but he's not on his Hero's Journey. If he sees a rabbit with a pocket watch and pursues it into a rabbit-hole down which he then falls by accident, he has made the decision to Cross the first Threshold: he is therefore on his Hero's Journey (or at least he could be).

Step 5 (Departure): Belly of the Whale.
This final step of the Departure phase is easy to get right but even easier to get wrong. What has to happen here is that the would-be hero arrives in the Other World completely cut off from the Mundane World. His old identity is lost or irrelevant. He's being reborn as someone else in this Other World of excitement and adventure. The Other World is like the Mundane World, but different in strange and unusual ways; things don't all work the same way there. The would-be hero has to start from scratch, as a new person. He'll be in the Other World to become his true self, which he can't do if he's still his Mundane World self. His Mundane World identity therefore has to be erased, so only the would-be hero himself knows who he was. Although his official reason for being in the Other World is to get the boon, his real purpose will be to find his new self through his actions and reconcile it with his old self (symbolised by the Father). This will happen in step 9. He'll get the boon soon after as a physical symbol of his reconciled identity.

The reason this step is called the Belly of the Whale is because a disproportionate number of myths have the hero swallowed by a large creature (such as a whale) then spat out barely alive into the Other World. The Belly of the Whale is like a womb, from which the would-be hero will be reborn into the Other World. In practice, any dark or damp space will double up as a womb, so caves and wells and the like are also good. If you read a mythical story and someone goes into a cave, whether it's a cave of wonders or a regular cave, then the chances are that this is from where they're going to be emerging as a new person with a blank slate. If you're really stuck, have the would-be hero go to sleep and wake up in the Other World.

The Other World is normally physically disjoint from the Mundane World, but it doesn't have to be; it merely has to be separate from the Mundane World. It could be "the world of high finance" or "the world in which I command a genie" or "the Mundane World but I'm shrunk to the size of a penny". More often than not it will be a foreign country. My students seem to like it to be in the same country but in a different time period, which also works. To emphasise the fact that the would-be hero's past life is irrelevant in the Other World, he might invent or be given a new name or rank there. Hey, if you were to start a new job and told everyone your nickname is Pinky, that's what people would call you regardless of whether anyone has ever called you that before.

Important: this is the Hero's Journey, not the Heroes' Journey. If the would-be hero goes in with someone else, that someone else is not going to make it out. It's just about feasible that the giver of Supernatural Aid could enter the Other World to set the would-be hero on his way while still making it out alive, but anyone from the Mundane World who stays in the Other World as a companion is signing their own death warrant. There's one hero only: you can't start afresh with no-one knowing who you are if someone who does know who you are came with you.

Step 6 (Initiation): The Road of Trials.
When the would-be hero arrives in the Other World, he doesn't know how to behave. He doesn't know how the Other World works or what its limitations are. In the Road of Trials, the first step of the Initiation phase, he finds out. He undergoes a number of tests that allow him to establish where the physical and social boundaries are. Can he fly? Can he see dead people? Can he speak to unaccompanied women? Because there are infinitely many ways in which the Other World can be different from the Mundane World, normally the individual trials that the would-be hero undergoes will address some character flaw that he demonstrated in the Mundane World. Perhaps he was frightened of snakes? OK, so there's a MONSTER snake here he has to get past somehow. Perhaps he exhibited a touch of arrogance? Very well, but he's not going to get the water he needs after he stumbles from the desert unless he's suitably humble.

The number of trials isn't fixed, but it's usually three. Those are three temporally separate trials, though. If the hero has to climb a fence, walk along the top of a wall and then swim a moat to get into a castle, that's one get-into-castle trial, not three independent trials (even if he has previously been shown to be incapable of climbing and possessing both a lousy sense of balance and a morbid fear of water).

The trials are obstacles that the would-be hero encounters as he strives to find the boon. They are not formal tests. If your would-be hero has joined some secret cabal of wizards, you can't have them give him three arbitrary tests to "prove his worth" which you hope to pass off as a Road of Trials. Passing all their stupid tests could conceivably be one trial, but just one.

Unlike all the other steps of the Hero's Journey, the would-be hero is allowed to fail this one. Well, sort of. The Road of Trials is how he finds his feet in the Other World; so long as he learns something of the Other World's ways as a result, it's fine for him to screw up a trial — even all of them. The purpose of this step is for him to learn what he can do in the Other World so that he becomes confident enough to be able to act within its parameters. If his attempt to bribe an official fails and he takes a beating, OK, well at least he now knows that the people of the Other World have higher moral standards than those back in the Mundane World. He can't fail the contextual goal of the Road of Trials (that is, he must come out of the Road of Trials appraised of the ways of the Other World); he can, however, fail the textual goals (the individual trials).

Step 7 (Initiation): The Meeting with the Goddess.
The would-be hero should now be well on his way to finding the boon. He knows how to act in the Other World and what his (and its) limitations are. He doesn't yet understand the full magnitude of what is required of him, though. In the Meeting with the Goddess step, he finds out. Either it'll be too much for him to cope with (in which case he fails) or he'll understand it but will carry on nevertheless.

The Goddess is a (typically female for male would-be heroes) character who represents and embodies knowledge. She is often beautiful and pure, but this is because she's a mother figure (so no heavy petting, please). She explains to the would-be hero what he has to do to get the boon. The boon is the gift of the Father, whom the Goddess understands implicitly. The father can not be beaten and can destroy the would-be hero with ease. The primary job of the Goddess is to make this crystal clear to the would-be hero. She can't help him overcome the Father, because the Father us unovercomeable; however, she can help him get to the Father. The path to the Father can involve much adventure, but the Goddess can supply the would-be hero with charms to make it easier (as could the giver of Supernatural Aid way back in step 3). When the would-be hero gets to the Father, though, he's on his own.

Note that the Goddess here is not someone who has appeared in the plot beforehand. You might be able to have her be the giver of Supernatural Aid if she were sufficiently disguised back then, but if you're reading this then you'd probably need to level up first before you trying that (bearing in mind that if anyone comes from the Mundane World into the Other World with the would-be hero, they have to stay out of the picture so as to allow him to be the star).

Aside: the Goddess is a good person to do any info-dumping you require for non-monomyth plot reasons, as she represents knowledge. She just knows all this stuff.

[OK, that's part 1: the concluding part is in the next post]

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