The Hero’s Journey is just as the name implies - it is a plot structure that follows the protagonist’s journey into an unknown world where he gains new skills and friends, face enemies who he eventually defeats, and receives a reward and returns home a changed person.
It is a common story structure that has been used by many writers for their novels, plays and screenplays.
Examples include Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Lord of the Rings, The Mortal Instruments (City of Bones), The Lion King and so much more. Just think about the latest movie you’ve watched or the last book you’ve read, can the story be plugged into this particular pattern?
Campbell: The Hero’s Journey
Joseph Campbell, a scholar coined the term “The Hero’s Journey” to describe stories that follow a particular pattern - the hero sets out on adventure, seeking something. During this adventure, he faces conflicts and enemies who he eventually defeats, and returns back with a prize.
According to Campbell, the 17 steps can be sorted into three different acts - Departure, Initiation and Return.
- The call to adventure
- Refusal of the call
- Supernatural aid
- Crossing the threshold
- Belly of the whale
- The road of trials
- The meeting with the goddess
- Woman as temptress
- Atonement with the father
- The ultimate boon
- Refusal of the return
- The magic flight
- Rescue from without
- The crossing of the return threshold
- Master of two worlds
- Freedom to live
Stages 1-5 belong to Departure act, stages 6-11 belong to Initiation act and stages 12-17 belong to Return act.
While these 17 stages act as a guide for writing a story, this article will be focusd on Christopher Vogler’s approach to The Hero’s Journey.
Vogler: The Hero’s Journey
Christopher Vogler is a screenwriter who built on Campbell’s approach and offered a tweaked structure which will be further elaborated.
It contains 12 steps, split into three phases - Departure, Initiation and Return
- The ordinary world
- The call to adventure
- Refusal of the call
- Meeting with the mentor
- Crossing the first threshold
- Tests, allies and enemies
- Approach to the inmost cave
- The ordeal
- The road back
- The resurrection
- Return with the elixir
Stages 1-5 belong to Departure act, stages 6-9 belong to Initiation act and stages 10-12 belong to Return act.
12 Stages of the Hero’s Journey
These 12 stages serve as a guide and model for you to plan and structure your story. Do keep in mind that your protagonist will go through both a physical and internal journey - where they actually travel, and how they evolve throughout and after this adventure. This means that your protagonist will go through changes, so remember to write it in the story!
This article will use The Mortal Instruments series as an example for each stage for ease of understanding and application.
1. The Ordinary World
This is where you introduce the hero to your readers.
In the ordinary world, it gives your readers a chance to see how your hero has been living, whether he is satisfied with his current way of life, his personality and certain characteristics.
Additionally, it is in the ordinary world where readers can start to form a connection with the hero as they may be able to identify and relate to the hero’s goals, desires or even traits.
Here, readers are given the chance to know the hero as someone ’normal’, before the adventure and once it has ended, the reader can compare and see how the hero as changed over the course of the story.
With an ordinary world, it also serves as a contrast to the other world where the hero will begin his adventure. The ordinary world is thus, the stage that sets the beginning and the end of the story.
In The Mortal Instruments, Clary was a regular girl living in New York City with her mother. She also has a passion and talent in the arts, taking classes at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.
2. The Call to Adventure
This is where the hero’s journey begins.
At this stage, your hero should be given an opportunity to venture outside of the ordinary and known world.
This can be due to a challenge or task that they have to take on and confront, or it can be an adventure that started as a result of an accident.
Over here, you should show what exactly it is that is prompting the hero to go on this journey. Do note that it has to be something that disrupts the comfort of the ordinary world.
Clary was prompted to enter and be part of the Shadow world by her mother’s disappearance and her desire to remove the block to recover her memories.
3. Refusal of the Call
Not every hero will automatically jump on the opportunity to go on an adventure and leave the comforts of their surroundings.
While he may have acknowledged the call to adventure, your hero could still have doubts (about his abilities for instance), or is fearful of the unknown.
As a result, your hero may not be setting off on his journey yet as he is reluctant to.
Over here, readers can further empathize with the hero as his fears and worries would be similar if they were placed in his shoes.
Clary did not exactly refuse the call. However, she didn’t believe that a whole other world existed at the beginning. It was only because of her desire to find and save her mother did she change her mind.
4. Meeting with the Mentor
Although your hero is ready and has decided to go on this journey, he is probably not as well-equipped with skills and knowledge that is necessary for his adventure.
This is the part where you should introduce the mentor. He or she will offer your hero advice, train your hero or simply provide them with knowledge. It is totally up to you!
The mentor may not even be human, and can be an inanimate object.
As long as it/they help prepare the hero for his journey, it/they are considered a mentor.
Clary had a couple of mentors in the series, but one main mentor was Jace. He trained and taught her how to be a Shadowhunter. Another mentor is Hodge, who gave her an introduction about the shadow world when she first entered the Institute.
5. Crossing the First Threshold
This is where the hero moves from the first act (Departure), to the second act (Initiation).
Here, the hero is ready to embark on his journey.
It also serves as a check-in point for you to see if your story is following the plot structure so far, if your characters are well-developed and if themes have been well-established.
Make the necessary changes before moving on to the second act.
In The Mortal Instruments, this is seen when Clary gets ready to search for the High Warlock, Magnus Bane with her allies (Jace, Alec, Izzy and Simon) in hopes of retrieving her memories. It also shows how she has accepted the call as she steps into the Shadow world.
6. Tests, Allies and Enemies
What is a story without any of these elements?
It is at this stage where your hero gets familiar with the new world, tries to overcome certain obstacles with allies he makes along the way and identify the enemies he will have to defeat one day.
Allies also give the hero more knowledge about this unfamiliar world and guide them along.
This stage tends to be longer as compared to others as writers will introduce more characters, as well as show the process that the hero goes through to recruit allies for instance.
When Clary enters the Shadow world, she has allies such as Jace, Alec and Izzy with her. Along the way, she gains more allies who are Downworlders such as Luke and Magnus Bane.
Meanwhile, she identifies enemies such as her father, Valentine, as well as the vampires who kidnapped and turned her best friend, Simon.
Clary goes through tests such as having to break into the vampires’ residence to save her friend, and fighting off threats from demons. One of her main quests however, was to retrieve the Mortal Cup hidden in a deck of tarot cards.
7. Approach to the Inmost Cave
It is at this stage that your hero gets closer to his goal.
The inmost cave refers to the most dangerous place in the new world, which is where your hero will probably venture to in order to achieve his goal and complete his quest.
However, do note that this stage is not where the action takes place, but rather, it is a planning stage.
It is where your hero, along with his allies (most of the times) prep and plan out how they will approach and fight the enemies.
One of Clary’s objectives in the series was to locate the Mortal Cup and retrieve it.
After deciphering the location, she and her allies planned out how they were going to approach Madame Dorothea to retrieve the cup that is hidden in one of her tarot cards.
8. The Ordeal
This could be seen as one of the main events of the story (it is not always the climax) where your hero will face the most important or biggest test so far.
The ordeal could be in the form of a physical battle, an inner conflict or a major loss.
It is at this stage where the hero has to use the knowledge or skills he has gained thus far in the journey to help him emerge victorious from the ordeal. However, it is not necessary for the hero to win the ordeal.
Usually, after going through the ordeal, your hero will learn from his mistakes and change into a better version of himself.
Clary had to fight against Valentine (her father) over the Mortal Cup in the institute. It was during the fight where they talked and Clary uncovered some information regarding her mother and Jace.
The hero will be rewarded after facing the ordeal, and this reward tends to be a physical object, a relationship or new knowledge and skills.
The reward also signifies the end to the hero’s trials and tribulations.
The book and movie differed in the reward that Clary received at the end.
In the book, Clary managed to find her mother, although she was still in a coma.
In the movie, Clary not only managed to find her mother, but she also kept the Mortal Cup.
10. The Road Back
This marks the end of the second act (Initiation) and the beginning of the third (Return).
It is at this stage that the hero has already achieved the goal he initially set out to meet, and thus, is intending on returning back to his original world.
However, after the journey, the hero might feel that he does not belong in the first world anymore. Additionally, there might be more complications and consequences that he has to face as a result of the ordeal.
The story is thus, not over.
Clary has to find a way to wake her mother from her coma, as well as figure out if she is going to become a Shadowhunter or return back to being a regular girl (although that seemed unlikely).
11. The Resurrection
Here is where the hero will face his final test. It also happens to be the actual climax of the story.
This stage pushes the hero to go through another challenge with whatever skills and knowledge he had acquired after the ordeal.
Should the hero fail in this challenge, there would be dire consequences for both him, as well as others.
While Clary did not go through another challenge after the fight with Valentine in the institute, the story set her up to continue on her journey to become a better Shadowhunter.
Her goals had changed and prompted her to face more tests as the series progress.
12. Return with the Elixir
This is the final stage and is where the hero returns home, back to his original world.
However, the hero has matured and changed because of the lessons he have learnt. It is important to show exactly how the hero has grown since the beginning as static characters do not make for a good story.
At the end City of Bones, Clary, along with her mother, went to live with Luke, back in New York.
She also accepted her new role as a Shadowhunter, became braver, and also less impulsive.
Beyond the Hero’s Journey
The Hero’s Journey is one plot structure that you can adopt when writing your novel or screenplay as it helps you to properly visualize your story.
Download the Hero's Journey template to use as a guide while you plan and plot out your story.
However, keep in mind that this is not the only structure that you can refer to. A quick search online and you can find other plot structures such as Freytag’s Pyramid, Fichtean Curve and In Media Res.
Play around and find out which structure suits your story best and continue from there.
Remember, writing is a process filled with trials and errors!