In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell introduced the concept of the hero’s journey into the mainstream. What he was really doing was introducing the structure of story as seen throughout western mythology.
All stories have protagonists, but not all of them have heroes. Sometimes the protagonist of the story is an anti-hero, or even someone the reader doesn’t like. But the hero is the one we always want to win.
Heroes demonstrate the qualities we most admire: courage, determination, loyalty, nobility of nature, selflessness, conviction, and perseverance—to name a few. They are skilled at what they do, or are destined to become skilled in order to achieve their goals. Think of Harry Potter who, as a 12-year-old, isn’t capable of defeating Voldemort. However, he has a destiny and must grow and hone his skills through experience before he can defeat his adversary. In the meantime, or the 6 books leading to the finale, Harry goes on many quests, accomplishes many small wins, and makes many friends that teach him what he needs to know in order to achieve his main goal. The Harry Potter series follows the hero’s journey almost to the letter. As does Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, and many, many other popular stories. One could argue that their popularity is a result of the fact that they impact us on a deep cultural level that resonates with the archetypes introduced in mythology.
The steps of the hero’s journey are as follows:
- Call to adventure
- Crossing the Threshold
- Challenges and Temptations
- Entering the Abyss (facing death and rebirth)
- Atonement (realizing that something must change)
- Return with a gift
In these myths, Heroes are traditionally reluctant. Thus, they each receive a call to adventure. This call appeals to what they believe in, so that they become willing to face their greatest fears or even death itself to achieve their goals. This is how, as storytellers, we introduce the quality of courage, that the hero will need throughout the journey, for it takes courage to cross the threshold—especially when there are threshold guardians, or characters that remind the hero how dangerous the journey is.
Once the threshold is crossed, the hero meets helpers and mentors along the way. As the hero makes friends along the way, we learn of his or her loyalty and bravery in defending those friends.
As the hero is challenged and tempted, he or she demonstrates the qualities of determination and perseverance. It is here where they firm up with their goal.
As the hero enters the abyss, we learn of his or her selflessness and conviction as he or she faces losing something he or she values most. The hero could face death itself or a fate worse than death.
In the Atonement stage, the hero learns humility. And then the hero returns with the gift of their learning.
I’ve just touched on a few qualities of a hero and how the story structure itself introduces these qualities. Can you think of other ways the hero’s journey story structure itself demonstrates the hero’s qualities? Or other qualities of a hero that I’ve missed?