Hero’s Journey 101: How to Use the Hero’s Journey to Plot Your Story
How many times have you heard this story? A protagonist is suddenly whisked away from their ordinary life and embarks on a grand adventure. Along the way they make new friends, confront perils, and face tests of character. In the end, evil is defeated, and the hero returns home a changed person.
That’s the Hero’s Journey in a nutshell. It probably sounds very familiar-and rightly so: the Hero’s Journey aspires to be the universal story, or monomyth, a narrative pattern deeply ingrained in literature and culture. Whether in books, movies, television, or folklore, chances are you’ve encountered many examples of the Hero’s Journey in the wild.
In this post, we’ll walk through the elements of the Hero’s Journey step by step. We’ll also study an archetypal example from the movie The Matrix (1999). Once you have mastered the beats of this narrative template, you’ll be ready to put your very own spin on it.
Sound good? Then let’s cross the threshold and let the journey begin.
What Is the Hero’s Journey?
The Hero’s Journey is a common story structure for modeling both plot points and character development. A protagonist embarks on an adventure into the unknown. They learn lessons, overcome adversity, defeat evil, and return home transformed.
Joseph Campbell, a scholar of literature, popularized the monomyth in his influential work The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949). Looking for common patterns in mythological narratives, Campbell described a character arc with 17 total stages, overlaid on a more traditional three-act structure. Not all need be present in every myth or in the same order.
The three stages, or acts, of Campbell’s Hero’s Journey are as follows:
1. Departure. The hero leaves the ordinary world behind.
2. Initiation. The hero ventures into the unknown (“the Special World”) and overcomes various obstacles and challenges.
3. Return. The hero returns in triumph to the familiar world.
Hollywood has embraced Campbell’s structure, most famously in George Lucas’s Star Wars movies. There are countless examples in books, music, and video games, from fantasy epics and Disney films to sports movies.
In The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers (1992), screenwriter Christopher Vogler adapted Campbell’s three phases into the “12 Stages of the Hero’s Journey.” This is the version we’ll analyze in the next section.
The 12 Stages of the Hero’s Journey
For writers, the purpose of the Hero’s Journey is to act as a template and guide. It’s not a rigid formula that your plot must follow beat by beat. Indeed, there are good reasons to deviate-not least of which is that this structure has become so ubiquitous.
Still, it’s helpful to master the rules before deciding when and how to break them. The 12 steps of the Hero’s Journey are as follows:
- The Ordinary World
- The Call of Adventure
- Refusal of the Call
- Meeting the Mentor
- Crossing the First Threshold
- Tests, Allies, and Enemies
- Approach to the Inmost Cave
- The Ordeal
- Reward (Seizing the Sword)
- The Road Back
- Return with the Elixir
Let’s take a look at each stage in more detail. To show you how the Hero’s Journey works in practice, we’ll also consider an example from the movie The Matrix (1999). After all, what blog has not been improved by a little Keanu Reeves?
#1: The Ordinary World
This is where we meet our hero, although the journey has not yet begun: first, we need to establish the status quo by showing the hero living their ordinary, mundane life.
It’s important to lay the groundwork in this opening stage, before the journey begins. It lets readers identify with the hero as just a regular person, “normal” like the rest of us. Yes, there may be a big problem somewhere out there, but the hero at this stage has very limited awareness of it.
The Ordinary World in The Matrix:
We are introduced to Thomas A. Anderson, aka Neo, programmer by day, hacker by night. While Neo runs a side operation selling illicit software, Thomas Anderson lives the most mundane life imaginable: he works at his cubicle, pays his taxes, and helps the landlady carry out her garbage.
#2: The Call to Adventure
The journey proper begins with a call to adventure-something that disrupts the hero’s ordinary life and confronts them with a problem or challenge they can’t ignore. This can take many different forms.
While readers may already understand the stakes, the hero is realizing them for the first time. They must make a choice: will they shrink from the call, or rise to the challenge?
The Call to Adventure in The Matrix:
A mysterious message arrives in Neo’s computer, warning him that things are not as they seem. He is urged to “follow the white rabbit.” At a nightclub, he meets Trinity, who tells him to seek Morpheus.
#3: Refusal of the Call
Oops! The hero chooses option A and attempts to refuse the call to adventure. This could be for any number of reasons: fear, disbelief, a sense of inadequacy, or plain unwillingness to make the sacrifices that are required.
A little reluctance here is understandable. If you were asked to trade the comforts of home for a life-and-death journey fraught with peril, wouldn’t you give pause?
Refusal of the Call in The Matrix:
Agents arrive at Neo’s office to arrest him. Morpheus urges Neo to escape by climbing out a skyscraper window. “I can’t do this… This is crazy!” Neo protests as he backs off the ledge.
#4: Meeting the Mentor
Okay, so the hero got cold feet. Nothing a little pep talk can’t fix! The mentor figure appears at this point to give the hero some much needed counsel, coaching, and perhaps a kick out the door.
After all, the hero is very inexperienced at this point. They’re going to need help to avoid disaster or, worse, death. The mentor’s role is to overcome the hero’s reluctance and prepare them for what lies ahead.
Meeting the Mentor in The Matrix:
Neo meets with Morpheus, who reveals a terrifying truth: that the ordinary world as we know it is a computer simulation designed to enslave humanity to machines.
#5: Crossing the First Threshold
At this juncture, the hero is ready to leave their ordinary world for the first time. With the mentor’s help, they are committed to the journey and ready to step across the threshold into the special world. This marks the end of the departure act and the beginning of the adventure in earnest.
This may seem inevitable, but for the hero it represents an important choice. Once the threshold is crossed, there’s no going back. Bilbo Baggins put it nicely: “It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.”
Crossing the First Threshold in The Matrix:
Neo is offered a stark choice: take the blue pill and return to his ordinary life none the wiser, or take the red pill and “see how deep the rabbit hole goes.” Neo takes the red pill and is extracted from the Matrix, entering the real world.
#6: Tests, Allies, and Enemies
Now we are getting into the meat of the adventure. The hero steps into the special world and must learn the new rules of an unfamiliar setting while navigating trials, tribulations, and tests of will. New characters are often introduced here, and the hero must navigate their relationships with them. Will they be friend, foe, or something in between?
Broadly speaking, this is a time of experimentation and growth. It is also one of the longest stages of the journey, as the hero learns the lay of the land and defines their relationship to other characters.
Wondering how to create captivating characters? Read our guide, which explains how to shape characters that readers will love-or hate.
Tests, Allies, and Enemies in The Matrix:
Neo is introduced to the vagabond crew of the Nebuchadnezzar. Morpheus informs Neo that he is The One, a savior destined to liberate humanity. He learns jiu jitsu and other useful skills.
#7: Approach to the Inmost Cave
Time to get a little metaphorical. The inmost cave isn’t a physical cave, but rather a place of great danger-indeed, the most dangerous place in the special world. It could be a villain’s lair, an impending battle, or even a mental barrier. No spelunking required.
Broadly speaking, the approach is marked by a setback in the quest. It becomes a lesson in persistence, where the hero must reckon with failure, change their mindset, or try new ideas.
Note that the hero hasn’t entered the cave just yet. This stage is about the approach itself, which the hero must navigate to get closer to their ultimate goal. The stakes are rising, and failure is no longer an option.
Approach to the Inmost Cave in The Matrix:
Neo pays a visit to The Oracle. She challenges Neo to “know thyself”-does he believe, deep down, that he is The One? Or does he fear that he is “just another guy”? She warns him that the fate of humanity hangs in the balance.
#8: The Ordeal
The ordeal marks the hero’s greatest test thus far. This is a dark time for them: indeed, Campbell refers to it as the “belly of the whale.” The hero experiences a major hurdle or obstacle, which causes them to hit rock bottom.
This is a pivotal moment in the story, the main event of the second act. It is time for the hero to come face to face with their greatest fear. It will take all their skills to survive this life-or-death crisis. Should they succeed, they will emerge from the ordeal transformed.
Keep in mind: the story isn’t over yet! Rather, the ordeal is the moment when the protagonist overcomes their weaknesses and truly steps into the title of hero.
The Ordeal in The Matrix:
When Cipher betrays the crew to the agents, Morpheus sacrifices himself to protect Neo. In turn, Neo makes his own choice: to risk his life in a daring rescue attempt.
#9: Reward (Seizing the Sword)
The ordeal was a major level-up moment for the hero. Now that it’s been overcome, the hero can reap the reward of success. This reward could be an object, a skill, or knowledge-whatever it is that the hero has been struggling toward. At last, the sword is within their grasp.
From this moment on, the hero is a changed person. They are now equipped for the final conflict, even if they don’t fully realize it yet.
Reward (Seizing the Sword) in The Matrix:
Neo’s reward is helpfully narrated by Morpheus during the rescue effort: “He is beginning to believe.” Neo has gained confidence that he can fight the machines, and he won’t back down from his destiny.
#10: The Road Back
We’re now at the beginning of act three, the return. With the reward in hand, it’s time to exit the inmost cave and head home. But the story isn’t over yet.
In this stage, the hero reckons with the consequences of act two. The ordeal was a success, but things have changed now. Perhaps the dragon, robbed of his treasure, sets off for revenge. Perhaps there are more enemies to fight. Whatever the obstacle, the hero must face them before their journey is complete.
The Road Back in The Matrix:
The rescue of Morpheus has enraged Agent Smith, who intercepts Neo before he can return to the Nebuchadnezzar. The two foes battle in a subway station, where Neo’s skills are pushed to their limit.
Now comes the true climax of the story. This is the hero’s final test, when everything is at stake: the battle for the soul of Gotham, the final chance for evil to triumph. The hero is also at the peak of their powers. A happy ending is within sight, should they succeed.
Vogler calls the resurrection stage the hero’s “final exam.” They must draw on everything they have learned and prove again that they have really internalized the lessons of the ordeal. Near-death escapes are not uncommon here, or even literal deaths and resurrections.
Resurrection in The Matrix:
Despite fighting valiantly, Neo is defeated by Agent Smith and killed. But with Trinity’s help, he is resurrected, activating his full powers as The One. Isn’t it wonderful how literal The Matrix can be?
#12: Return with the Elixir
Hooray! Evil has been defeated and the hero is transformed. It’s time for the protagonist to return home in triumph, and share their hard-won prize with the ordinary world. This prize is the elixir -the object, skill, or insight that was the hero’s true reward for their journey and transformation.
Return with the Elixir in The Matrix:
Neo has defeated the agents and embraced his destiny. He returns to the simulated world of the Matrix, this time armed with god-like powers and a resolve to open humanity’s eyes to the truth.
Writing Your Own Hero’s Journey
If you’re writing your own adventure, you may be wondering: should I follow the Hero’s Journey structure?
The good news is, it’s totally up to you. Joseph Campbell conceived of the monomyth as a way to understand universal story structure, but there are many ways to outline a novel. Feel free to play around within its confines, adapt it across different media, and disrupt reader expectations. It’s like Morpheus says: “Some of these rules can be bent. Others can be broken.”
Think of the Hero’s Journey as a tool. If you’re not sure where your story should go next, it can help to refer back to the basics. From there, you’re free to choose your own adventure.
Originally published at https://prowritingaid.com.