By now you’re probably familiar with the Hero’s Journey. It’s a plot archetype that forms the building blocks of most modern movies, books and TV shows. Once you’re familiar with the 12 stages of the Hero’s Journey, it’s hard not to identify it in any movie you might be watching, no matter the genre or setting.
That’s because the Hero’s Journey is a plot formula that works. It makes for stories that are character-driven, focusing on overcoming a supreme obstacles and experiencing a fundamental change. The Hero’s Journey takes the protagonist from the mundane “ordinary world” we can all identify with in some way to an unknown “special world” where they must face challenges and overcome obstacles, both external and within themselves.
This chart does a pretty good job of illustrating the cyclical stages of the Christopher Vogler’s version of the Hero’s Journey:
What does this mean for writers? Well, if you’re looking to write a compelling story, the hero’s journey is a good place to start. The archetypal plot can be used as a foundation for a wide variety of stories. The problem is that a lot of writers don’t make their stories original enough, leading to cliched rehashings of the same story over and over again. While many stories may have the Hero’s Journey at their base, their unique characters, settings and themes are what make them unique from one another.
A couple of quick tips for using the Hero’s Journey to plot your story:
1. Use the Hero’s Journey as guide, not a blueprint. The 12 stages can help you figure out how you will set up the conflict of your story and how you will propel the characters forward, but if you have a creative idea that strays away from the plot but makes total sense for your story, go in that direction.
2. Create new and flawed characters. Characters are the driving force of the Hero’s Journey. Remember that a hero can come in many forms, even as an anti-hero (Deadpool, anyone?). Don’t focus on making your characters fit the Hero’s Journey plot; create characters that will engage with the plot (and maybe end up rejecting it altogether).
3. Draw from your own experiences. They say you should write what you know. This doesn’t have to mean inserting biographical events, but look for your own monomythical experiences and see how they can color your portrayal of events in your story. This will help you discover how the Hero’s Journey doesn’t have to be interpreted necessarily as an epic adventure—it can also be an ordinary day-in-the-life of someone.
This infographic tracks the hero’s journey in six of the most popular movies from the last 50 years. While the very bare bones of the stories follow the same formula, they are vastly different movies:
What do you think of the Hero’s Journey? Can you think of any movies or books that don’t follow the Hero’s Journey?