The Hero’s Journey Simplified
The Hero’s Journey is a popular plot structure made by Joseph Campbell after he studied many mythological tales and found there was a pattern and most of the heroes on their journeys followed the same steps. It’s a twelve step circular journey where the hero starts off in their ordinary world before they are called to adventure and then whisked away on a journey of transformation. It’s extremely helpful for writers to help set a foundation to build their own plot and characters.
If you haven’t noticed most people use the Hero’s Journey for stories within particular genres such as fantasy and action, but I want to show how the Hero’s Journey steps can be simplified and applied to just about any story out there. Whether it be fantasy, romance, or comedy, the Hero’s Journey can be used and I’ll break down each step to show you how.
Let’s start simplifying the Hero’s Journey by taking away the word hero and replacing it with the protagonist. Though in this context, the hero is synonymous with the protagonist, I think we instinctively think of an actual hero, like the Chosen One who needs to save the world, instead of other character archetypes like the Dreamer or the Pretender. So to erase this idea, I won’t be using the word.
1. Ordinary World
In the Ordinary World, we have our first introduction to the protagonist in their normal life. This step is about finding out who the protagonist is. We learn their occupation, what their strengths and weaknesses are, how other people think of them, and more importantly, how they function within the world they live in. The ordinary world isn’t about the protagonist living on Earth wishing they were on another planet because Earth is so plain. It’s about the normal daily life the protagonist lives every day, and what’s even more important about the ordinary world is what the problem is with the world.
There should always be a problem with society itself or a problem with the way the protagonist fits within society. This will be the fundamental problem that the protagonist must overcome throughout their journey.
Simplified: The everyday life of the protagonist is shown along with their fundamental problem within society.
2. Call to Adventure
After seeing the protagonist in the ordinary world, something happens, an event, that throws off the balance of this world. It changes everything for the protagonist and places them in a predicament that they must face. This event will present the call to adventure where the protagonist will be faced with an opportunity, challenge, or dilemma.
Simplified: The balance of the ordinary world is disrupted by an event that results in the protagonist being faced with an opportunity, challenge, or dilemma.
3. Refusal of the Call
Though the Hero’s Journey is a template that can fit most stories, there are some steps that can be skipped and Refusal of the Call is one of them. Refusal of the Call is when the protagonist refuses to accept the opportunity, challenge, or dilemma given to him. They have hesitations or feel that they are not worthy enough to take on the task, and in some cases, they just don’t want to do it. But not all protagonists will be that way.
Some of them are going to be willing, even eager to accept whatever they are faced with. Some of them will have no choice at all in the matter. This is why this step can be skipped depending on the protagonist.
Simplified: If the protagonist isn’t eager or doesn’t have a choice, they will refuse the call to adventure.
4. Meeting the Mentor
After the protagonist declines the call to adventure, they meet a mentor to help gain the confidence, training, weapons, or insight they need to cross the threshold and accept the call to adventure they once declined. But in some cases, the protagonist won’t ever meet an actual mentor, but they will still need to find something to push them over the threshold and start their journey. This step is not about meeting an actual mentor but about finding the motivation or gaining the confidence needed for the protagonist to take on the call to adventure.
If you’re hungry, that motivates you to cook even when you don’t feel like it. This happens with the protagonist. Remember, everyone is motivated to do something, so even if the protagonist doesn’t decline the call to adventure, they have a reason to take on the task.
Simplified: The protagonist finds the motivation, courage, or training they need to accept the call to adventure through a mentor or an event.
5. Crossing the Threshold
Once the protagonist has accepted their call to adventure, they need to take their first steps crossing the threshold to embark on their journey. The call to adventure should be accepted wholeheartedly (avoid passive protagonists who don’t take action) and the protagonist will do something that finalizes this decision. This is the end of the beginning and the beginning of the middle of your story. It’s a defining moment where there will be no turning back and changes the course of the protagonist’s story.
Simplified: The protagonist has accepted the call to adventure officially taking their first step on their journey, where there is no turning back.
6. Tests, Allies, Enemies
Once the protagonist embarks on their journey, they will be tested, find allies and enemies. Tests are obstacles that stop the protagonist from achieving their goal. These obstacles will be implemented by the allies and enemies surrounding the protagonist. The enemies are the antagonists and antagonists are not villains trying to take over the world; they are people who have a different viewpoint and moral code from the protagonist. That means the antagonists can be anybody, lovers, friends, or foe.
Simplified: The protagonist will be tested in achieving their goal by enemies who give them obstacles and allies who help them along the way.
7. Approach to the Inmost Cave
After being tested by enemies and helped by allies, the protagonist must face their biggest test yet. It’s where they must face what they have feared, worried, or hesitated about since they first embarked on their journey. Though the protagonist took on the call to adventure and may have been trained, it does not mean they are yet ready. This is the moment before they face their test.
To further explain in case the Approach to the Inmost Cave is confusing, let’s break it down with an example. Let’s say you’ve never ridden a bike before. One of your friends dares you to join a biking competition and to save face you say you will do it. But of course, you’re not ready for this biking competition because you’ve never ridden a bike before. But because you said you would do it, you practice and practice though you can’t balance yourself on the bike yet. You feel so defeated that you finally admit to yourself that you’re afraid of falling. After that moment of honesty, you take a deep breath and get prepared to ride the bike even if you fall.
As you guessed, practicing is Tests, Allies, Enemies. When you feel defeated, admit it, and mentally prepare yourself for the ride even though you’re afraid to fall that is the Approach to the Inmost Cave. If your protagonist has a fear of flying, the Approach to the Inmost Cave will be them looking at the plane in fear right before they get ready to board it.
Simplified: The beginning of the protagonist’s first transformation as they begin to confront the fundamental problem (fears, worries) they have avoided.
8. The Ordeal
The Ordeal is never too far behind the Approach to the Inmost Cave for the protagonist. Once they have decided to confront their fears, they will take on their first big challenge. Their fears are usually connected to their fundamental problem. This challenge can either break the protagonist or make them stronger. If the protagonist looked at the plane in fear in the Approach to the Inmost Cave, in the Ordeal, he’ll be on the plane taking off despite his fears.
Simplified: The protagonist must overcome their fears and take on their first big challenge at the midpoint.
9. Reward, Seizing the Sword
After the protagonist overcomes their first challenge, they receive a reward which can be an object, hence seizing the sword, or it can be new insight that they did not have before. The protagonist seizes the tool they needed all along to fix their fundamental problem whether they were defeated in the Ordeal or not. It’s something the protagonist would have never received if they did not go through the ordeal.
For the protagonist scared of flying planes, it could be that he gained the confidence he needed to enter the flying competition that he wouldn’t have had before had he not overcome his fear of flying in the ordeal.
Simplified: After the protagonist fights their first challenge, they gain new insight or a tool that will help them overcome the rest of their journey.
10. The Road Back
The Road Back marks the beginning of the end where the protagonist now has what he needs to return back to the Ordinary World. But of course, it won’t be easy. They need to recommit to the call of adventure. Sometimes, they need to make a choice between a personal gain for themselves and what’s better for the world. Think of a romantic comedy where the female lead must choose between a job in another country or the man she loves. What’s important about the road back is that the protagonist recommits to their goal.
Simplified: After gaining the reward, the protagonist must use that tool to fix or achieve their goal (call to adventure).
The Resurrection is similar to the Ordeal, but in this case, the protagonist will be facing their final test. This is the climax of the story, the last test the protagonist must face to go back to the ordinary world. Everything the protagonist has learned since the beginning of their journey will be utilized to overcome this challenge. The protagonist can either be victorious or defeated by their last battle. But this step is important no matter the outcome because the protagonist will ultimately be changed by this challenge. If it was action or fantasy, the Resurrection would probably be a physical battle, but remember the Hero’s Journey can be applied to different genres. In some cases, the Resurrection can be a battle of unresolved conflict that the protagonist has avoided or a final confrontation with an antagonist.
Simplified: The final battle or confrontation for the protagonist to use all the skills they have learned over the course of their journey.
12. Return with the Elixir
With all the lessons the protagonist has learned and the power they’ve gained, they have gone through their transformation and can now return back to the ordinary world with something new or something changed. This can be a new item or new wisdom, but it will be certain that the protagonist is now changed by the events they have gone through on their journey. It’s the end of the story for the reader but a new beginning for the protagonist.
Simplified: The protagonist has returned back to the ordinary world changed by all the lessons they have learned on their journey.
I’m going to be doing a series called the Hero’s Journey Applied where I will be applying the Hero’s Journey plot structure to different stories. I’ll be starting off with To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before by Jenny Han. Go check it out!
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