Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Hero's Journey

A great deal has been written over the years about the Hero's Journey. It can provide a blueprint for the writer in the construction of their novel.

Orphan --- Wanderer --- Warrior --- Martyr

As a writer, it’s your daunting task to take your character, and your readers, through these stages in the hero's journey by creating that wonderful plot around which everything revolves and evolves. Let’s take a brief look at these four stages and discuss some examples to provide a better idea of the progression.

ORPHAN: This can be a literal or a figurative situation for the hero. Sometimes it’s both. It puts the hero into a more vulnerable position, with no one to help them, so they have to think things out for themselves. Two examples are immediately obvious: Annie and Dorothy. These two characters are literal examples. One is living in an orphanage (like Lilly White in my most recent middle grade paranormal novel Skullhaven—pardon the shameless promotion) and the other resides with her Auntie Em. A more recent example can be found in the Harry Potter books.

Figurative orphans may be more common. Gordie LaChance in Stand by Me is one example. He lives with his parents (who are now totally consumed with the death of his older brother) and Gordie is more or less isolated and forgotten. He finds companionship with his friends and a degree of solace in his writing. Other examples include Homer Hickam from the movie October Sky, Carrie from Stephen King's novel by the same name, and Neil Gaiman's Coraline. In Finding Nemo, both Nemo and his father could be classified as figurative orphans, each of them searching for the other. In Lost in the Bayou, Robin Sherwood is a figurative (and perhaps literal) orphan. In the opening chapter, we learn that her parents have disappeared—fate unknown.

Within this “orphan” environment, the main character is presented with a problem, an obstacle, something that's wrong and simply has to be fixed. That’s where your wonderful plot begins. Usually this occurs with a “situation-changing-event,” such as Gandalf’s visit to Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit. When that occurs, they become a…

WANDERER: The hero, dissatisfied with their current situation (whatever it may be) embarks on a quest to resolve it and make it, or the world, better. Your hero may wander through many pages and numerous chapters, or they may only wander for a short time until they come up with a solution. When that happens, they become a…

WARRIOR: This is where things begin to change. Your hero comes up with a plan, figures out what needs to be done and how to do it. But it’s never easy, or at least it shouldn't appear too easy. There must be some struggling, internally and/or externally. Obstacles come flying out of nowhere, slowing and stopping your hero's progress. They have to summon their courage, use their brains, or figure out what can be done to overcome whatever, or whomever, is blocking their success. Typically there is a “darkest moment” where things take a drastic turn for the worse and success and a happy ending seems all but impossible. Your hero may have to make a huge sacrifice, and sometimes put themselves into the most dangerous situation imaginable. This is when they reach the status of…

MARTYR: This is the point where the hero risks everything, faces the danger and lays their life on the line if necessary in order to solve the problem and/or achieve their objective. They may have to dig down deep inside to find the courage to do what's necessary. As the writer, you need to make certain we feel their pain, their fear, their desperation. This is typically the climax chapter where the hero stands up and delivers. This is the defining moment, and the event that changes everything. The dark clouds separate, and the sun shines brightly. As readers, we are relieved that our hero has managed to escape the villain, the jaws of death, their loneliness, or whatever situation you (the writer) have placed them in. Problem solved. All is right with the world.

So there you have it. This is the basic progression. For a much more detailed explanation, check out Joseph Campbell’s narrative at the following LINK.

Your comments are always welcome!


  1. See to me, that fourth thing is not accurately described as "martyr". In most books, the hero is not gonna die and the reader knows it. As a side note, for my first novel, that's why I came up with multiple "main characters" so I could kill a couple of 'em off. Probably the kiss of death for a traditional book deal, but I didn't have a single podcast listener complain about it.

    Aside from that, I think it's a good summary. I actually try to avoid fitting into patterns like this, but at some level it's hard to avoid. And readers do respond to it.

  2. My novel's lead character, John Pilate, definitely follows Campbell's narrative...and he has fun doing it! I never planned it that way--it just happened as the characters took control of the story when I wrote it:

  3. If you really want to immerse yourself in the Hero's Journey, the Highlights Foundation offers an excellent workshop at Boyd's Mills in PA. I "highly" recommend it!

    Check out my website for more details:

    Great post!

  4. Great post! I used a hero's journey format as the underpinings for the Complications Worksheet I use when plotting. (The worksheet is up on our blog.) The journey format is such a versatile and powerful tool, and your post makes it easy to nail down the hero.

  5. You make it sound so simple. Great post.

  6. A great post - and now I get to look up a Ghiradeli square!


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