The Hero’s Journey Is Still the Only Hope for Good Stories

Recently I read 'My Cousin is Not a Hero,' an essay by M. Molly Backes, that unassumingly, though despondently, argues that most of our lives are not epics with plots reaching Hero's Journey proportions. She discusses how her cousin's zany anecdotes do not line up into a blockbuster series of events that he's hoping she'll ghostwrite for him, despite the fact that he traipsed through Africa and nearly got attacked by wild baboons. There's no character arc, Backes argues, only an immature boy experiencing the world's beauty without feeling its bite, and by extension, Backes implicitly suggests that all our lives likely fall into the same mundane camp: human, not the divine.

Though her philosophy is worth discussing, it's her take on the Hero's Journey that caught my attention. Having been brought down to Earth, her globetrotting cousin is dismayed, yet Backes suggests his story—like all of ours—may still be worthy to tell, not because it adheres to any Hero's Journey framework, but because it's "his own." Though seemingly harmless, claiming that a story not adhering to the Hero's Journey could ever be worth reading caught my attention. It's a misunderstanding of the model, I thought, one I've seen throughout the writing blogosphere. Backes is definitely not the first to dismiss Joseph Cambell's geriatric fixture of storytelling as dated, cliche and unnecessary. But after seeing it again, I wanted to explain why I'm still a devotee.

The Hero’s Journey Is Still the Only Hope for Good Stories

Perhaps it's because I stumbled on Joseph Campbell without the prodding of a weathered and wrinkled high school English teacher that I find it hard to see writers distancing themselves. After leaving an unrelated career and deciding to write fiction, I devoured The Hero of a Thousand Faces, watched Susan Sarandon awkwardly introduce a dozen episodes of Mythos, and listened to Bill Moyers sing Campbell's praises. I loved every part of Campbell's work I could find, but as I grew more familiar with it, one thing stood out that contradicted everything I had heard on the subject: Campbell's Hero's Journey is not a storytelling template; it's a reduction of the myths and legends he studied into a single "Monomyth," which at one time was consulted when analyzing and comparing the works of ancient cultures. It was never meant to be co-opted as a How To for writers.

Although most storytellers may know this in theory, many still talk as if The Hero with a Thousand Faces is the manual for crafting a perfect story or the book the plebeian masses think will help them achieve it. Half of writers delight in—while the other half bemoan— "guardians," "caves," "ordeals," and "boons" as if these are relevant elements in the modern stories writers need to tell. Whether misguided or misconstrued, Campbell's Monomyth—immortalized in any number of circular, clockwork diagrams, graphically conveying an epic—is not the Hero's Journey writers or critics should be discussing.

The Hero’s Journey Is Still the Only Hope for Good Stories

If it were true that writers exist who adhere literally to this framework, they would likely include dragons, a nonexistent father, and a magic carpet ride in every manuscript and screenplay they produced. (Half of you might be thinking: no one would be that stupid while the other half is muttering: welcome to my slush pile.) I can't say how many writers out there this applies to, but it doesn't help anyone when critics point to this crude model as the blueprint those of us who do respect the Hero's Journey still use. Campbell's version is by and large a relic. To critique fairly, one must know how it has evolved.

After realizing that Campbell's Hero's Journey was not a suitable way to help writers craft stories, an author named Christopher Vogler came along and repackaged the main principles in a way that made more sense to many storytellers. His book was called The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, and like the Hero's Journey it largely succeeded, it came with another circular model.

The Hero’s Journey Is Still the Only Hope for Good Stories

The Hero’s Journey Is Still the Only Hope for Good Stories

Gone is most of the arcane verbiage, and added is the notorious three-act structure. The hero still moves through a series of events, but the names and explanations of these milestones are much more comprehensible than before. This is the "Hero's Journey" that writers who use the term positively are likely referring to when they drop it in conversation. It's the framework for the last half-century of Disney films and perhaps for all Hollywood films being green-lighted right now, a notable, albeit daunting, fact. Screenwriters and novelists have found that it provides a flexible guide for constructing any number of story lines—comedies, drama, thrillers, sci-fi, etc—not just epics, and in fact, many thought-provoking analyses of modern classics such as Groundhog's Day, Forest Gump, or even Breaking Bad using this Hero's Journey framework will prove just how powerful this model really is.

The Hero’s Journey Is Still the Only Hope for Good Stories

But even this iteration is not where I think the cutting edge Hero's Journey model resides. Critics have developed a distaste for these films, regardless if they're written using Vogler's Writer's Journey over Campbell's Hero's. Though engrossing, these films come out too perfectly, as if writers have discovered the optimal recipe and never want to bake anything different again. The Vogler model of the Hero's Journey has certainly not exhausted its potential, however. Movies like Frozen and Edge of Tomorrow will still be made, proving that fresh vigor lies in the this framework, but mainstream audiences are growing fonder of indie and foreign films because they contain the imperfections and texture that are no longer allowed in Hollywood. (Two examples that come to mind are Under the Skin and Blue is the Warmest Color. Shows like HBO's Looking may even be a testament to television's willingness to adopt less structured stories where Hollywood has refused.)

These newly sought-after stories allow for wanderings, vignettes that lead to nowhere, extended developments of environment and ambiance, but don't be misled: the Hero's Journey is still there. It may be further diluted than how Vogler repackaged it, but it's present nonetheless. And it's this Hero's Journey that current writers should be aware of.

Gone are the stepping stones Vogler gave us and in are the general purposes of a story's beginning, middle and end. This model eschews the plot point approach and rather focuses on story as a metaphor for the way our minds solve problems. Characters choose and decide their path logically, step by step, not leaping from nodes like painting by numbers. As such their arcs resembles the same paths every one of us follows when we're faced with something that needs to change. This, I feel, was what Backes meant in her piece, but the Hero's Journey hasn't left, it's merely compressed into a new more subtle form.

In the Beginning ("Act One" if need be), we don't need a Call to Adventure, a Mentor, a Refusal of the Call, and a Crossing the Threshold. Our protagonist simply needs to want something without having the means to attain it. This could be a love interest, a career goal, or an emotion like happiness in general. Figuring out how to fulfill that want will become the basis of the story, but in this Beginning portion we simply need to see our protagonist struggling to decide how, when, and why she'll pursue this object of her desire. Campbell's and Voglers steps are not discrete like before, but often take place in one character's mind. This targeting of the want, mulling over consequences, hesitancy and ultimate acceptance to change could last one chapter, or it could go on for half the book or the movie. That's for the storyteller to decide. Once the protagonist has decided she's going to pursue what she wants, however, by definition she's entered the Middle or Act Two.

In the Middle act, we don't need tests, trials, allies, caves or ordeals to walk through like an endless series of MacGuffins; we simply need the protagonist to struggle. We need to see the protagonist desperately trying to achieve what she wants but unable to do so yet. She's learning—even if she doesn't know it—growing, and maturing, and at some point, she'll find that her old worldview was incorrect and that she needs to change course to get what she wants. This frustration and wandering need not be tectonic; it could be a single conversation with a lover where she vocalizes her confusion, unable to understand why things are the way they are. In the end she'll learn the precise means to obtain her "want," or perhaps that achieving it is impossible. She didn't know this before, and when she readies herself to manifest this new understanding, we know that we've entered the End or Act Three.

It's in the Ending portion when the protagonist, and likely the audience, knows exactly how the story will conclude. The storyteller has completed delivering all the logic, facts, and clues that the story needs to solve its mystery. The protagonist must simply carry out the lessons she has learned and walk into the rolling credits. Sometimes she'll discover that there's no way for her to win, and Act Three might consist of accepting that one must give up. Normally, however, the last scenes or chapters consist of the protagonist following through with the ample discoveries she has made, obtaining the want she set out for in the Beginning.

The Hero’s Journey Is Still the Only Hope for Good Stories

One can see how the Hero's Journey still looms today, in the stories that many people claim don't utilize it. It may be lighter and more fluid than Joseph Campbell's and Christopher Vogler's models, but it still guards the purposes of a story, that is, to watch a protagonist choose a want, pursue the want, and either obtain or lose this want. Knowing these components is crucial for any good writing. And although we've stripped away the funny plot points of goddesses and elixirs, it's still based fundamentally on the tenets we gleaned from Campbell's work.