Writing Excuses 8.2: Hero’s Journey

Beowulf didn’t kill Grendel on a day trip, Luke didn’t overthrow Emperor Palpatine in just one season, and here at Writing Excuses, we didn’t get around to properly discussing the Hero’s Journey until we were well into the second decade of this century.

Sorry about that.

The Campbellian Monomyth, as defined in Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces, is a system of comparative mythology that, for better or for worse, gets used a lot by writers. We talk about some of our favorite examples, and immediately begin arguing over terms. Hopefully this is delightful to you, and educational for everyone. Especially since the monomyth is not a checklist, and it should not be taken that way.


Take Goldilocks and the Three Bears, apply the Campbellian Monomyth, and give us a short story.

At the time we recorded this, Hero With a Thousand Faces was available on Audible. It’s not anymore. So… go find something else educational?

42 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 8.2: Hero’s Journey”

  1. Nice episode – if a little anticlimactic given the buildup.

    I have to say, though, that I believe Brandon is wrong about the “First Threshold”. The First Threshold is the first real step into the adventure, rather the the Belly itself. It is essentially the same as Dan’s Plot Turn 1, rather than Pinch 1. Campbell puts it in the “Departure” stage of the journey, which is basically Act 1. To continue what Mary was quoting before she was seemingly cut short,
    “With the personifications of his destiny to guide and aid him, the hero goes forward in his adventure until he comes to the ‘threshold guardian’ at the entrance to the zone of magnified power. [Beyond] such custodians…is darkness, the unknown and danger; just as beyond the parental watch is danger to the infant and beyond the protection of his society danger to the members of the tribe. The usual person is more than content, he is even proud, to remain within the indicated bounds, and popular belief gives him every reason to fear so much as the first step into the unexplored. The adventure is always and everywhere a passage beyond the veil of the known into the unknown…”

    Notice “the first step into the unexplored.” This makes it clear that the First Threshold is the first step into the New World. For Luke Skywalker this is the Cantina. For Harry Potter I would say it is either his first steps into Diagon Alley, or the entrance through the train station pillar. Most likely it would be the latter as he had to find the courage to trust he would go through the pillar; the platform attendant would then be a Guardian (as is his own unbelief in psychological terms).

  2. Might take a look at The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler. A bit less dense than Campbell.

  3. Agreed with ‘nother Mike. Vogler’s book is amazing. The way he covers not just the plot concepts, but the masks characters wear (and a character can wear different masks at different points in the story) really does a wonderful service in making sense of things in the light of modern storytelling.

  4. My current project is a Cold War era First Contact scenario, but I’m having trouble with tension. The aliens in question have a limited form of FTL (the version of it I came up with is about half of what got me interested in this project), so they’d certainly have the technology necessary to swat ICBMs out of the sky long before they reached their ship (and, for that matter, before the US burned the USSR or vice versa). A big problem I’m having is deciding how to handle conflict and tension. My aliens are benevolent (the other half of why I’m interested in the project – too much science fiction takes V’s approach (deceitful aliens posing as friends while infiltrating for insidious purposes – I’ve yet to see anyone explain exactly why the aliens decide to pick on this particular population of pre-interstellar sapients) or gloss over the first contact scenario by making things happen centuries later (Babylon 5, Andromeda, Schlock Mercenary….it’s a long list – in all cases, Earth is more or less welcomed into the interstellar community upon discovery to some degree or other). The only benevolent first contact stories I’ve come across thus far are things like Mote in God’s Eye, where humanity is the great power and the aliens are the technological inferiors. (Ringworld is somewhat weird in that respect – there is a race of extremely powerful beings around, but their society has essentially collapsed.

    One thought I’ve been turning over in my head is doing something along the lines of a Hero’s Journey, in which a capable-but-misguided individual assumes the aliens are deceitful and evil, and building him up in some way to make him a significant threat. (One of the reasons I like the Cold War setting – lots of paranoid and somewhat delusional individuals in positions of power on both sides of the Iron Curtain). My concern is that, given how strongly we’re drawn to identify with the Hero’s Journey, is making the antagonist the “Hero” really a good idea? The only story I can think of that does anything like this is (Spoiler warning for the rest of this paragraph) the Mistborn trilogy, though it’s done as a historical thing and is the reverse – the latter two books reveal that the Lord Ruler, antagonist of book 1 and evil overlord of the world for the past millenia, did everything he could to preserve humanity from total destruction, both by preventing the release of Ruin and by taking rather extreme measures to counteract the “Deepness.” One could even say that Vin’s choice in the Well of Ascension is a similar twist to the Hero’s Journey, but that’s less an antagonist “Hero” and more a clever (and extremely powerful) antagonist misleading a true Hero by twisting prophecy around.

    So, is turning the Hero’s Journey around to this extent a good idea or a terrible one? (And sorry I’m so long winded.)

  5. @Rashkavar

    “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”

    Keep in mind that what aliens may think of as benevolent acts may not, in fact, be benevolent. In our own history, wealthy Americans kept slaves because they believed that they were “exposing them” to a morally superior culture, regardless of what the people they enslaved actually thought of the matter (this is, of course, a gross oversimplification). Even if you don’t wish to go that far, it shouldn’t be hard to give these Aliens activities that could be misconstrued as domineering, patronizing, or simply applying a “fix” to a problem that only targets the symptoms and not the underlying causes. You can also find plenty of people who would want to inflame any misconceptions in order to advance their own agenda.

    But you’re probably looking at this the wrong way. Boiled down to it’s elements, the Hero’s Journey is just this:

    1. You have a person
    2. Who needs something
    3. and must go get it
    4. He searches for a solution to his problem,
    5. Finds it
    6. And then had to go about actually taking it,
    7. Then return to where he came from
    8. And make the changes to restore the status quo or create a new one.

    This is the plot of almost every story ever. That’s all the Hero’s Journey is. All the stuff about benevolent aliens and scheming Cold War spies is how you make this story interesting. The place we wind up at in the end need not be a good place (look at poor Oedipus). Just keep in mind that this is structure, not content. Sending your Cold War Spy into the base of the benevolent war-hating aliens to blow up the ray that keeps the two sides from shooting their missiles at each other is just as much a Hero’s Journey as Luke crawling through the Death Star to rescue Leia or Neo learning how to become The One in order to save humanity from the machines. It just winds up in a darker place at the end.

  6. I’m confused. I haven’t read Campbell in a while, but I thought the threshold was the boundary between the normal/community life and the liminal/adventure zone. Thus, Uncle Owen and Aunt Beru as threshold guardians: they kept Luke on Tattooine.

  7. I’m glad to see nobody can seem to apply these story theories to films or books lol

    I always find it difficult to identify the thresholds or ‘doorway of no return’. Star Wars is probably the easiest one to fit to the formula.

    It is fascinating that these narrative patterns repeat through history and across cultures though.

    I think your best episodes on format and plot structure usually involve taking one book (or usually a film) and deconstructing it. The Hollywood formula cast was genius.

  8. Man, the playback in the browser keeps timing out. I guess I’m not the only one who’s been waiting for this a long time.

    Downloaded the audio to listen locally. The first 3 minutes has me chomping at the bit for the rest.

  9. Thanks for this! Very much appreciated. I have “Hero with a Thousand Faces,” but I haven’t read it yet. I’ll definitely have to start.

  10. Nice to see others are recommending Vogler. For those who don’t know, Christopher Vogler was a story consultant for Disney and made The Lion King a much better story than originally conceived. I actually find The Writer’s Journey much better for writers than Campbell’s work. If WE had used that I think there would have been much less confusion. He distills the Journey down and applies it to every genre of film. He frees the Monomyth from the false notion that a Hero’s Journey is one type of story about farm boys becoming kings. Just look and the various forms a “Mentor” figure can take. They are not always “wise old men;” that is simply one classical version of a mentor. A “Mentor” can even be a villain in some stories. The expanded 3rd edition of Writer’s Journey is the best imo.
    One thing Vogler shows is that some of the steps can be out of order and repeated for multiple characters. What Campbell presented was an idealized Hero’s Journey rather than a stiff checklist, as the cast pointed out. As Campbell shows, a story, depending on length, may focus on one or more particular aspects and not touch on the others. I still believe that every story ever written can be mapped with the Monomyth if one realizes that it isn’t always a fixed pattern. It’s part of the fun to play with the steps. Some day I want to map out Brandon’s work as a Hero’s Journey.

  11. @ Sarah

    You are right. Uncle Owen is indeed a Threshold Guardian (I don’t think Beru was really holding him back, though). Luke makes the decision to Cross the First Threshold once he is forced to see that he has nothing left to keep him there. In Monomyth/psychological terms, it was his Refusal of the Call that lead to their deaths. If he had chosen to go when Ben asked him, there would have been no story reason for them to die. It is interesting that Luke’s Refusal of the Call caused the Guardian to be taken out of the way by outside forces, rather than be pacified and overcome by the hero himself. This is a good illustration of how the Refusal can lead to a much harsher push of the hero into the Adventure.
    Luke doesn’t actually Cross the Threshold into the new world until he enters Mos Eisley/the Cantina. So the Crossing the First Threshold stage encompasses the death of Owen and Beru and continues into the Cantina scene where he is immersed in the new world and the Adventure really begins for him. It’s good to keep in mind that any given stage of the journey can encompass several events in a story and cross over into other stages, rather than being one instantaneous event; this helps keep the story fluid.

  12. I can sort of understand the mentor representing the strange, however I don’t understand the return thing.

    One aspect of my world is that the characters never will return from the strange new world. Because the world is forever changed and become toxic, its becomes obvious overtime rather the heroes lack of potential, and life being meaningless.

    This is a different Sarah by the way.^^ That wasn’t me.

  13. @ New Sarah – The return home is just a way to talk abut the concept of returning to the new normal. Going back to the literal home from the beginning of the story has a certain benefit because meeting people from before their change is an excellent way to show how much the new Hero has grown. It is not, however, required. If you want to get the basic premise though, showing the aftermath when they don’t have to be a hero, but have been changed by their experiences AS that hero will get you the core intent.

  14. This was… edifying. I like the idea of expanding the hero’s journey out of epic tales into more normal day to day situational comedy and such like Dan said with that tv show. I think a lot of comedies these days are really lacking in the funny department and maybe this would improve it. Think of Spaceballs and how that was a really good use of the hero’s journey and still to this day a hilarious movie that has multiple things going for it. The MC is the orphan son of a king who is reluctant and gets the call to action but is only doing it for the money but he crosses a threshold when he falls for the princess and returns changed when he rejects the space bucks and becomes the prince. Very neatly tied up but it works so wonderfully.

  15. Very much appreciated. I’m glad you told us that the book is not meant for the novice writer to use as a story template. That was probably the finest advice in the episode. Thanks.

  16. I loved Campbell’s book, but you have to read it with one fact in mind, it is the product of early to mid 20th century thinking. Also a background in philosophy/psychology/history helps. :D

  17. Thanks for the tips, The Stray. That helps overcome several of the problems I was having. However, it’s one thing to have a misguided “Hero” who still succeeds and brings ruin to all he holds dear because of it; it’s quite another to have that same misguided hero set along the Hero’s Journey only to have him fail. A Hero’s Journey implies a successful conclusion _will_ occur (though sometimes the fallout isn’t what was wanted – in my case fallout being literal). If it’s recognized, it’s a promise to the reader, which should, at least according to this podcast, be kept. George Martin can break/bend that rule (Song of Ice and Fire does so repeatedly), but I’m reasonably confident that he’s a better author than I am by a significant margin.

    Still, at least now I’m at the point where I can try things out.

  18. GRRM DOES set promises to the reader. The story starts grim and shows regularly that death and pain/dismemberment is a common part of it, and no one is safe (reference the Push early in GoT).

    So long as you set a tone that there are no guarantees of a happy ending in some fashion, you’ve only promised the reader a tough ride, not a happy ending.

  19. @Rashkavar

    “A Hero’s Journey implies a successful conclusion _will_ occur”

    When the hero isn’t successful it just becomes a tragedy. There are several classical stories that Campbell mentions where the hero fails, such as Oedipus and Orpheus.

    I believe you can make your idea work (if I’ve understood it) by having your POV character see the antagonist as a hero and idolizes his selfless bravery. I would stay away from the POV of the antagonist so the reader is distanced from his thoughts. The reader senses that the character is following the Journey, but you plant small seeds early that he not what he seems. If you plan out the story right, the reader will not feel cheated when he is revealed as the antagonist, as long as you get the tone right and don’t wait until the climax to reveal that the “hero” is the real antagonist. I think you would need your POV character to begin to see the other side and believe that he can make the “hero” see the same way. Then he starts to doubt the “hero” when he refuses to listen, and eventually tries to stop him, but fails — though maybe there is a small, personal triumph somehow.

  20. @Patrick, re Song of Ice and Fire: That’s why I added bend in there. In addition to the real promises he makes, he also throws in a lot of red herrings. Ned, Robb and Jon all fit the Hero mold pretty well, and all seem like major characters for the entire series (even Robb, despite his lack of POV chapters)…right up until they die. It’s a much more complex form of the promises to the reader than the general premise (and yes, every decent author bends the concept to some extent – that’s what makes interesting stories interesting, but I find I’m often able to predict plot twists with most of the books I read. Martin is one of two I’ve come across that I couldn’t, the other being Steven Erikson.)

    @CM: An excellent distinction. I’m not very familiar with either of those stories; the oldest tragedies that I am familiar with are all Shakespeare, and two of the three I know involved the protagonist’s victory and nasty fallout thereof. Hamlet does avenge his father (but dies in the process, along with pretty much everyone else), Macbeth does become king (and is overthrown); Romeo and Juliet fail to elope, but the ties that particular play have to the monomyth are relatively minimal.

    And you seem to have understood my concept well enough – using POV to create distance is a good idea. As for seed planting, I’ll see what I can do. My writing experience is somewhat lacking as yet…but then, there’s only one way to fix that.

  21. One neat take on the threshold is that it is usually an object or action (rather than a big plot point) that takes the hero from the normal world to the adventuring world and/or back again.

    The second Luke sets foot on that Millenium Falcon, he is whisked away from the world he knew and his adventure begins. (35 year old spoiler alert)

    (Modern spoiler alert) The best treatment I’ve seen recently is in Disney/Pixar’s Brave. When Merida runs from her castle, she comes to a circle of stones. Her horse will not go in. It leads from her world to the witches cotage. Later, it leads from her world to the wrecked castle where Mordeux lives. Finally, it leads to battle with Mordeux, himself (spelling? sry). But in all cases, to cross through that circle of stones leads you out of normalcy and into exciting danger.

    Having it be an action rather than a place is rarer. Think of Clark Kent taking off his glasses. It’s a signal to the reader that the threshold is being crossed–mild mannered time is over; butt-kicking time has begun.

  22. @Rashkavar

    If by elope you mean marriage, rather than actually run away, then Romeo and Juliet did marry before they died. They were married off stage by Friar Lawrence at the end of Act 2 Scene 6.
    “Come, come with me, and we will make short work. For, by your leaves, you shall not stay alone Till holy church incorporate two in one.”

  23. Fair enough, CM. I’ve never read/seen the play (Romance stories aren’t really my thing); I’m only familiar with the basics. (Star struck lovers, try faking their deaths to get away from overly controlling families, but communications fail and they die.) (I really hope they never make a modernized version of this. That failed communication issue is pretty central to the plot, and in a modern setting of email, cell phones, etc, it’s far less plausible to have a message fail to reach the other person and have the sender not know about it.

    Sean, I’m sorry, but I did say “regarding Song of Ice and Fire.” I thought that would be sufficient warning that, if you aren’t up-to-date on the series, don’t continue reading. Dance with Dragons has been out 1.5 years now – I assumed anyone interested enough in the series to be concerned about spoilers would have found that sufficient time to acquire a copy, from the library if nothing else, to read. Obviously, I was mistaken. Sorry.

  24. @ First Sarah

    Thanks :)

    @ Rashkaar

    Hakuna Matata. I’m actually caught up on the series, so no harm done. I just know a lot of people who are just now finding the series cause of the show, so they are a bit behind. Some others I know can’t afford the new one till it comes out in paperback (I would be in that group if I hadn’t received the last book as a gift). The library is a good idea, but that wait list is loooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooong.

    I am kind of anal about spoilers myself, cause it ruins books for me. If I know one person dies or a twist or anything I won’t read it. I get your point that it has been out for a while, but what if somebody JUST found out about it? What if they were too young before or just discovered the book or even the genre? I know a lot of adults that didn’t get into fantasy until well into adulthood. Plus, even if you’re into the genre, there is so much material out there that it makes it impossible to read everything that you want. Personally I don’t think the time something has been out has anything to do with spoilers.

    That said, my comment was just kind of a knee-jerk reaction to reading the spoilers. I really didn’t mean to waylay your conversation. Thanks for your response.

  25. Here is a breakdown of the Journey of Goldilocks using Vogler’s steps. The point is to show that it has the Journey imbedded in the basic story (I’m too lazy to write a new short story of it anyway).
    Note that some of these may overlap or come in different chronological order (as they technically can even in Campbell), though I am keeping the steps in the original order Vogler presents.
    I am using a 1941 version of the story found on the wiki. I might do more research on other versions later, which will make for a more fleshed out Journey, but I think the basic version works fine.

    Goldilocks ordinary world is a simple one where she often goes into the woods to pick wild flowers.

    One day Goldilocks ventures too deep into the woods and gets lost. Rather than turning back she presses on hoping to find help. This could also come later when she sees the house itself.

    Goldilocks has no refusal and accepts the journey. Remember, not all classic heroes do refuse, and the Refusal is a variant She is a classic “Fool” in her blind movement forward despite danger.

    She has no particular mentor in this version, though she goes deeper into the woods in search of someone to guide her home. It is this search for a “mentor” that leads her to the house. She is her own mentor in this tale. There are other versions of the tale that include her mother, who may act as both a Guardian and a Mentor, but I’ll stick with this version.

    The Threshold is the literal threshold of the house. There are no Guardians to stop her (the bears have gone for a walk), and, after knocking several times, her hunger and fatigue lead her to make the crossing. The versions with a mother character may use her as a Guardian, pushing the crossing back to her disobeying her mother and entering deep into the woods.

    Goldilocks has no allies in this adventure, making it especially dangerous. She unknowingly makes enemies of the bears when she eats their food and destroys their possessions. Goldilocks is tested with the porridge, the chairs, and the beds. With each test she finds that she is only suited for the “just right” life of the baby bear. Even then she breaks the chair and messes up the bed. This is a signal that she is not ready for the dangerous adult life and must spend more time growing up in her own world.

    This may be the house itself (the “cave” of the bears), or the bed where she succumbs to her fatigue, which is a symbolic death.

    8. THE ORDEAL.
    The Ordeal comes when the bears return home and discover Goldilocks sleeping in the baby bears bed.

    9. THE REWARD.
    It is at this moment that Goldilocks realizes the real danger she is in. Her Reward is the knowledge she has gained: that she was not prepared for the special world and must remain a child for now.

    10. THE ROAD BACK.
    Once she realizes her mistake she flees back home to the safety of the Ordinary World.

    The Resurrection is her having escaped the symbolical death of falling asleep in the bedchamber of the bears. When she leaves the house she is a new person, better prepared for life.

    When she returns to the her own home, she carries with her the Elixir of the knowledge of the danger one faces in the special world. She will no doubt relay this knowledge to others, and one day to her own children.

  26. I headed over here after I heard Brandon Sanderson on Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy. I have to say–WOW. I’m officially a fan. And I “look forward” to reading the assigned tome.

  27. I think that they should just call this how not write like this crap again. The monomyth is the thing holding back great fiction. It’s done too much.

    I am really glad GRRM did away with this and provided a much more complex and integrated story line, where there isn’t a linear progression of character goes on an adventure, then rises to meet bad guy then kills bad guy and then cue sparkling rainbow.

    Stories need to get away from the linear progression and start embracing the dynamic and changing. It allows for more complexity and more interesting characters to develop. Plus it’s just down right more realistic.

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