Saturday, 3 January 2015

The Hero's Journey - Heather Dyer

Most - if not all - contemporary stories are modelled around Joseph Campbell's classic 'Hero's Journey', which he says represents ‘the pattern that lies behind every story ever told’. It’s a pattern that maps both outer journeys and inner, spiritual journeys.

Joseph Campbell created this mythic pathway by travelling the world collecting myths from primitive cultures. He discovered that all myths had certain sequences of actions, or stages, in common.
Typically, The Hero’s Journey follows the protagonist’s progress as he/she crosses the threshold from the known world into the unknown. The protagonist then faces various challenges and meets archetypal characters who perform specific roles. Typically, the hero confronts a dragon or the equivalent, and either dies or appears to die in order to be resurrected. He/she may then receive a gift, which they take back to the known world to benefit humanity.

Personally, I wouldn't advocate crafting your story according to a formula like this - but it's fascinating how (even without intending it) when a story 'works' it does seem to follow this pattern.
It can be helpful, therefore, to superimpose this pattern onto our stories at the first draft stage and ask ourselves the following questions:
  1. Have we established our protagonist in the 'ordinary world' before we turn their lives upside down and make them venture out into the 'unknown'?
  2. Does our protagonist need to meet a mentor - or gain wisdom from some other external source - in order to help them on their journey of transformation?
  3. What is the 'dragon' that our protagonist has to face? Is it something or someone outside themselves? Or might the dragon be their own internal 'demons'?
  4. Does our protagonist face their dragon and reach a point of 'death and rebirth' - which could mean that they have to face their worst fears, relinquish their strongest beliefs or greatest dreams - and change and evolve as a result?
  5. What is the 'gift' that they get? Is it knowledge, courage or something more concrete?
  6. Does their new insight or situation then allow them to overcome an old problem, or help somebody else?  
Finally, can you relate The Hero's Journey to your story? Or even to stories in your own life? Or is it possible to create a story that doesn't follow this pattern at all - but still works?

Heather Dyer - children's author and Royal Literary Fund Consultant Fellow


Sue Bursztynski said...

I've used a simplified version of The Hero's Journey in class, with my Year 8 students. They got the idea soon enough when I went through trailers for some of the movies based on it. Star Wars, of course, plus Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, Up and anything else we could come up with. One of the students even said "Doctor Who!" and thinking of the average DW companion, could see the connection and praised the student for thinking of it. :-)

Then I used it as a template for their own writing. And it worked.

Heather Dyer said...

Interesting - I haven't tried it in class yet, but intend to use it in my next course. Glad to hear it worked for you, Sue.

Susan Price said...

Hi, Sue and Heather - yes, it does work" Especially, as Heather says, if you don't try to impose it as a formula from the beginning, but use it as a sort of check at the first draft stage - you know, that stage when you know you've got some things right, but also have an uneasy feeling that the thing isn't working.
If you apply the 'blue-print' of the Hero's Journey to it at this stage, it helps you to see where your story is wandering off on tangents, or failing to build in enough reversals.
Sue - very interested to read about your classes. I've been doing workshops in schools recently, where I do something which sounds very much like what you're doing - that is, demonstrating how similiar ALL stories are. I used Billy Goats Gruff and the film, Alien, and showed how the plot of both is built around the same steps.
I then helped them to construct their own stories around this plan, so that they had a complete, satisfying story.
The feedback was very good, and one teacher said, 'They loved having a plan they could work to.'

Heather Dyer said...

Yes, Sue, I'm glad to hear the students liked it - have been afraid to try it before now because I've always felt stifled by imposing it before 'creating' anything. Thanks for the examples too - Billy Goats' Gruff would be a good one to try in a workshop for children.

I wonder if anyone can think of a story that doesn't fit this pattern? I'd love to find one...

Sue Bursztynski said...

You know, it never occurred to me that you could use it with anything other than adventure of some sort. I see your point, Heather, though I suspect it might be a bit confusing for kids. I just need to get them started and often that's the hard bit. But this year I have been ordered to teach creative writing, something for which there is no outline, nothing, and this isn't like doing a school visit workshop, where you can get them started and go away to your next gig, leaving the regular teacher to finish it. I AM the regular teacher. So it might be handy for me to think about these points you make when I make them stop writing and start editing. I have one student this year who was in my English class last year, a passionate writer - she threw herself right into the Hero's journey with a story about a boy's quest to find his mother and the eventual reward was finding her safe at home when he returned. It was wonderful, but it was 9000 words long and she really needed to stop and work on what she had. And she went right on and wrote something else without stopping! She may be publishable some day if I can persuade her to edit.

Dear me, Billy Goats Gruff and Alien? I will have to think about the similarities there...;-)

Heather Dyer said...

I agree with you Sue, I think that starting is most important, I'd never recommend that children try and plan first, it's more important to be creative and explore. But patterns can be useful in retrospect - I also found Mary Carol Moore's 'W plot' incredibly useful, and perhaps easier to apply to stories. Interestingly, it works with nonfiction too. I wrote a blog post on it two or three months ago.

Sue Bursztynski said...

Anywhere I can find this W plot?

Sue Purkiss said...

Thanks a lot for this - am going to use it with my students!

Heather Dyer said...

Sorry for late reply Sue Bursztynski (is this comment list made up only of Sues/Susans?!) I wrote about the W plot and gave some links to it in my ABBA blog post here: