Christopher Vogler’s book, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers was first published in 1992. Since then it’s not been out of print and has been revised and updated three times with the latest update having been published in 2007. It’s based on Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces.
There are twelve steps in the Hero’s Journey:
- The Ordinary World– the hero is seen in his/her everyday life
- The Call to Adventure– the initiating incident of the story
- Refusal of the Call– the hero experiences some hesitation to answer the call
- Meeting with the Mentor– the hero gains the supplies, knowledge, and confidence needed to commence the adventure
- Crossing the First Threshold– the hero commits wholeheartedly to the adventure
- Tests, Allies and Enemies– the hero explores the special world, faces trial, and makes friends and enemies
- Approach to the Innermost Cave– the hero nears the center of the story and the special world
- The Ordeal– the hero faces the greatest challenge yet and experiences death and rebirth
- Reward– the hero experiences the consequences of surviving death
- The Road Back– the hero returns to the ordinary world or continues to an ultimate destination
- The Resurrection– the hero experiences a final moment of death and rebirth so they are pure when they reenter the ordinary world
- Return with the Elixir– the hero returns with something to improve the ordinary world
I find the Hero’s Journey very useful when I’m first starting on a writing project as a way to wrap my head round the story’s entirety.
You don’t have to follow the steps in order or all of them, of course. You never should when using any plotting schema. It’s just a way to get a road map of your story and see if, possibly, you’re missing something or want to include something.
I’m going to use Avatar again as an example.
1 – The Ordinary World – the hero is seen in his/her everyday life
2 – The Call to Adventure– the initiating incident of the story.
In the extended version, Jake is thrown out of a bar. He’s lying in an alley in the street staring up at the rain. Two men in long coats appear. They are the Heralds. They’ve been looking for Jake because Jake’s twin brother has been murdered and they want to offer Jake the job of piloting his twin’s avatar.
3 – Refusal of the Call– the hero experiences some hesitation to answer the call.
As I mentioned before, all the steps in the Hero’s Journey don’t have to be addressed. In Avatar, Jake doesn’t refuse the Call to Adventure, but we don’t actually see him accept it either. The movie cuts from Jake staring at his brother’s burning body to him on the spacecraft heading to Pandora. The point of the Refusal of the Call, however, is to show that whatever call the hero has received it’s risky or even dangerous. A classic example is Luke’s refusing initially to help Obi-Wan Kenobi.
4 – Meeting with the Mentor– the hero gains the supplies, knowledge, and confidence needed to commence the adventure
In Avatar, Jake meets Dr. Grace Augustine, played by Sigourney Weaver. She’s not happy she didn’t get Jake’s twin brother, the Ph.D. who trained to become an avatar pilot. But over the course of the movie she warms up to Jake and guides him as he moves back and forth between the human world and the world of the Na’vi.
5 – Crossing the First Threshold– the hero commits wholeheartedly to the adventure
You’ll find in movies and books that the hero will cross over many thresholds. There are quite a few in the movie; Jake’s initial arrival on Pandora and his first excursion in his avatar body when he stumbles out into Pandora’s landscape without the need for a breather mask. But the most important crossing of a threshold for Jake is when he’s separated from the others and meets Neytiri as this is not only his initiation into the world of the Na’vi but into his romance with her.
Having been accepted by the Na’vi Jake explores this new world with the help of another mentor, Neytiri. He learns to ride, to fly, to hunt andalso, most importantly, about the beautiful interconnectedness of this world. He’s tested and he also makes enemies in the form of Tsu’tey, the Na’vi warrior whom Neytiri has been promised, and allies like Trudy, one of the few soldiers sympathetic to the Na’vi and Norm, another avatar pilot.
7 – Approach to the Innermost Cave– the hero nears the center of the story and the special world.
As Jake spends more and more time with the Na’vi he finds himself growing more and more conflicted. He’s been ordered to spy on them in order to gain intelligence but he’s learning to appreciate what kind of life they have.
The Ordeal usually happens midpoint in the story. Jake has to tame his own banshee in order to prove himself to the Na’vi. If he fails to do so, the banshee will probably kill him.
9 – Reward– the hero experiences the consequences of surviving death.
Jake is rewarded for having survived taming the banshee by the joy of riding it, being accepted as one of the People and earning Neytiri’s love and trust.
10 – The Road Back – the hero returns to the ordinary world or continues to an ultimate destination.
There’s a scene in Avatar when Quaritch, the military commander of the base, tells Jake that it’s time to “come on home.” To stop pretending to be a Na’vi and return to the human world. But Jake has changed as a result of the Ordeal Stage and the Reward Stage. He’s not the same person and he demonstrates this when he attacks the soldiers and bulldozers that destroy a sacred grove.
Jake must now deal with the consequences of having attacked the soldiers and interfered with the company’s plans. Quaritch, based on the intel Jake provided him. goes forward with his mission to destroy the Na’vi’s home, a giant tree called Hometree, which is located over a very rich source of the mineral the company wants to mine. Jake tries to stop them but, having revealed he’s been spying on the Na’vi in order to convince them of the threat from the humans, the Na’vi reject him. Hometree is destroyed, the Na’vi are forced to flee and Jake is imprisoned along with the others who are sympathetic to the Na’vi.
11 – The Resurrection– the hero experiences a final moment of death and rebirth so they are pure when they reenter the ordinary world
Trudy helps free Jake and the others and they escape to a mountain hideout. After wandering alone in the wilderness, which reflects his earlier lonely and empty existence in the Ordinary world back on earth, Jake decides to tame a toruk, a fearsome predator that the Na’vi both fear and honor. When he successfully does so, he “resurrects” the Na’vi’s faith in him and Neytiri’s love.
12 – Return with the Elixir– the hero returns with something to improve the ordinary world.
Campbell considered this an important step in the hero’s journey. If the hero goes out into the Special World and encounters and overcomes dangers and evil, if he or she is doing it for something greater than themselves it’s even more heroic. This is seen in The Matrix when Neo brings the elixir of how to defeat the machine mind that has enslaved humanity. It’s also being seen in The Hunger Games movies as Katniss uses her ordeals in the games to inspire others to rebel against an oppressive government.
In Avatar the elixir that Jake brings to the Na’vi is his knowledge and experience of how humans operate, especially militarily.
The best way to learn about the Hero’s Journey is to read Vogler’s book. It’s very accessible. Campbell’s book is not as accessible and can be a bit of a tough read but I’d recommend doing so if you’re interested in how myth and stories intersect.