Recently, a certain phrase has been circulating our online communities (typically amongst Gen Z crowds) which is ‘’main character syndrome’ – have you heard of it? It’s a modern-day version of what authors will know as the ‘Hero’s Journey’.
But what is a Hero’s Journey and how can a writer implement it to master the art of storytelling? That’s what we’ll be clearing up in this quick guide, including how you can structure the perfect Hero’s Journey story and which famous books and movies have used this framework.
Let’s get straight into it…
- What is a Hero's Journey?
- Stages of the Hero's Journey
- Benefits to Using a Hero’s Journey as an Writer
- Alternative Structures to A Hero’s Journey
What is a Hero’s Journey?
The Hero’s Journey is a popular storytelling structure that’s centered around one protagonist and their out-of-ordinary ventures. The template of this storyline involves the hero leaving their regular life to embark on an adventure which either transforms them completely or puts them in a crisis.
Examples of famous novels where we’ve seen the hero’s journey include Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
Let’s take a look at the 12 stages of the Hero’s Journey with the example of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone to showcase the story template in action:
Stages of the Hero’s Journey
1. Meeting the Hero in their ‘Ordinary World”
The first part of the story is introducing us to the hero – who they are, what’s going on in their daily life, and what their current struggles are. They aren't a “hero” yet, rather they are the protagonist of the story.
At this stage of the story, there is no indication to what their extraordinary adventure may be, and the author is simply building a personal connection between the reader and the hero.
For example, Harry is living in modern day England with his horrible aunt and uncle in just a small cupboard under the stairs. He has no friends and continues to be bullied by those around him.
2. The Call to Adventure
The second stage is what we know as their ‘call to adventure’. The hero is summoned (usually by a dangerous incident that has taken place) and they leave the ordinary world to encounter an action-packed adventure.
E.g. Harry is invited to Hogwarts and embarks on his journey as a wizard where he meets other wizards of a similar age to him.
3. Refusing the Call
The third stage of a Hero’s Journey is for them to initially refuse the invitation or call to adventure because of the harm they think it will cause them. They are fearful of what it will mean if they decide to step outside of the ordinary.
Before continuing on his adventure, Harry believes that this call is wrong, and his uncle even tries to burn the letters inviting him to Hogwarts.
4. Meeting the Mentor
At this stage, the hero meets their guide/mentor. Typically a supernatural being, a magical helper comes to the rescue to navigate the hero through their adventure. The mentor is often approachable, friendly and loyal and someone who stays with the hero for a long duration of time.
E.g. Hagrid shows up in Harry’s world to show him why he must join Hogwarts and accept the wizarding life.
5. Crossing the Threshold
This is the hero’s first step into their new, unknown world where the adventures are about to begin. The hero is unaware of what’s to come, and what dangers or surprises they can expect.
For example, Diagon Alley is Harry’s first step into the wizarding world where he picks up his magic wand and pet owl before witnessing their darker side of things.
6. Tests, Allies, Enemies
Now, the hero is faced with a series of obstacles and battles which proves to them who they can trust and who their enemies are. It’s common for a hero to slip up during these trials before ultimately landing on top.
This also becomes a test of the hero’s character and gives the audience a deeper understanding of their strengths and weaknesses. In Harry Potter, the rising action example is:
Harry finds his two best friends, Ron and Hermione, who join him for his adventures and support him when even the worst of trials befall – whether it’s a brutal Quidditch match or a battle against magic vines!
7. Approach to the Innermost Cave
At this point, the hero is getting closer to achieving their goal. The innermost cave refers to the most critical (and often dangerous) spot of this new realm, like the villain’s castle, a dark lair, or seeing the war ahead against the biggest demon of them all.
They haven’t reached the ordeal just yet but the hero is witnessing what their biggest challenge is going to be.
8. The Big Ordeal
This is the hero’s biggest test thus far and if they don’t make it past this, then everything fails. Also referred to as the ‘belly of the whale’, it’s the moment where the hero must confront their utmost fears in this deciding moment of the entire story.
This scene is often the climax of the narrative and is what enables the character to actually earn their hero title.
E.g. The ordeal for Harry is to defeat Voldemort single-handedly in which he manages to succeed and Voldemort is banished (until the sequel, of course!).
The mighty ordeal is over and the hero is finally reaping the fruits of their labor by being handed some sort of reward object, be it a sword, trophy or gigantic gemstone.
The reward often has a backstory, allowing the reader to feel elated knowing the hero has won back that which was rightfully theirs.
For Harry, the Philosopher's Stone has been saved and he no longer has the weight of this battle on him, finally being able to return to peace.
10. The Road Back
While we may believe the hero’s journey has come to an end, the story isn’t over just yet. The hero now wants to return back to their ordinary world after getting a tiresome experience in the magical one but now they must face the consequences of their ordeal.
Perhaps it’s the arch enemy who is enraged by the hero’s intervention, or a group of officials who are on the hunt for the protagonist – the hero has a lot more adventures ahead of them.
Think of this stage as the ‘final test for the hero to see whether they really have what it takes to beat the bad guy. This is where we see more of the near-death traps and moments where the hero just pulls through at the last minute.
12. Return with the Elixir
The hero finally gets to return home, or back to safety in their new world, but they’re a much different character than how we first met them. Often more mature (and with a few extra battle scars!), the hero gets to relax with their allies and bask in their own glory!
For example, by the end of Harry’s adventures in Philosopher’s Stone, he returns to Hogwarts with his newfound abilities and a whole lot more confidence than ever before. But that’s not to say there are not more adventures awaiting him… 6 more, to be exact.
Benefits to Using a Hero’s Journey as a Writer
Now that we’ve taken you through the structure of a hero’s journey, let’s look at what the benefits are for using it in our own stories.
- Invokes a “We Can Do It” Attitude: Because we expect the hero to overcome the obstacles they’re going to face, it allows for greater confidence in the character themselves.
- It’s a Clear and Comfortable Structure: This story template is well-known and recognizable for audiences everywhere so the readers won’t have a hard time immersing themselves into your narrative.
- Best for Character Growth: Like any storyteller, you’ll want your readers to fall in love with the character and appreciate them for all that they are. A Hero’s Journey is a great and safe way to achieve this!
- Draw in Sci-Fi Elements: Looking to open up a mysterious dystopia with epic fantasy elements? A Hero’s Journey lets you immerse your protagonist into any unknown world, no matter how creative it gets.
Just remember that a Hero’s Journey is pretty exclusive to – well – the Hero! It’s a story structure that doesn’t fit with any other type of character like, the anti-hero, the villain or the observer so be sure to keep the narrative focused on your good guy when using this template.
Alternative Structures to A Hero’s Journey
As this method may not work for every genre, you’ll want to know what other story structures are out there that you can use as you write your novel.
Alternative One: The Touchstone
In this story structure, you start with a moment of tension/ a big deciding moment and give very little context to it. You can even have all the characters present in this scene but at the same time, the audience has no idea as to what is happening and how they have reached this point.
The story then backtracks to fill the missing pieces and make sense of the starting scene. The idea is that you start in the present and move into the past to inspire curiosity!
Alternative Two: The Wagon Wheel Story Structure
Similar to the petal structure, this pattern involves examining one particular person, relationship or theme from different perspectives.
You may want the audience to find out how a tragedy happened to a person so you use the perspectives from surrounding characters and events to showcase how it happened. This evokes mystery and curiosity in the reader as they try to put together the puzzle of the story.
Alternative Three: Freytag's Pyramid
If you're writing a tragedy, it may be beneficial to use Freytag's Pyramid. This structure basically divides the story into two halves: everything leading up to the climax and everything after. Often times, in tragedies, it's important to bring a sense of resolve to the reader or viewer after witnessing the downfall of the hero.
Alternative Four: Dan Harmon's Story Circle
This circular storytelling method actually coincides with the hero's journey in many ways. But all writers connect to different structures, so it's worth mentioning as an alternative. Harmon's Story Circle often works for stories that are centered on the protagonist, but may be part of a series. The main character undergoes an external or internal transformation, but when the story ends, they are, in many ways back where they started.
Summary: A Hero’s Journey
Now we know the 12-steps of the Hero’s Journey as well as how some of the most famous novels have successfully utilized the structure!
We also looked at the benefits of creating one for the reader and the author, while seeing what alternatives are out there if you fancy trying something different.
Have you been inspired to write a Hero’s Journey? Let us know in the comments below!