The Hero’s Journey | Why Campbell’s Monomyth Still Matters / by Kyle Winters

The blog you're about to read was written on assignment for another publication, but because of the mysteries of web content, it ended up a post without a home. Do I 100% agree with what I wrote about Campbell's Monomyth? Eh...not really. I tried to distill it to its constituent parts enough that the Hero's Journey would be near-universal, but I also see the many, many issues with Campbell's analysis. Ok, enough of that, on with the post!


The Hero’s Journey

If you Google anything about writing structure, from “Writing, how?” to “I can’t break this story, help, I need relief,” you will almost always see the same results pop up. Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, E.L. Jame’s Sexy Fanfic for Fun & Profit, and thousands of results about them.

It can be a lot to wade through, and often it’s easy to dismiss traditional story structure as an outdated concept or a surefire path to making the same story over and over again. These criticisms are most often flung at the granddaddy of story structure, Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, known simply as the “Monomyth.” If that isn’t the name of a metal band, it should be.

People On the Internet™ like to talk about how the Hero’s Journey makes for cookie cutter stories, boring rehashing of old plots, and stifles creativity. It’s as cool as turmeric kombucha to pretend like there’s a better way once you break the chains of the Hero’s Journey, but I’m here to tell you to ignore them. 

The Hero’s Journey is popular and used over and over again not because it drains the color from a good tale and makes it easy to digest, but because it outlines how humans have been telling stories since Ogg the Caveman caught a fish thaaaat big. If you apply the Hero’s Journey to your story you can tap into those universally human themes to make something truly resonant.

What is the Hero’s Journey?

Or, How My Life Got Flip Turned Upside Down.

This is how Joseph Campbell, the man himself, gave the Hero’s Journey definition:

"A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man."

Thanks, Wikipedia!

The Monomyth can seem a bit intimidating at first. I mean, most of my Ikea furniture didn’t even have 17 steps to assemble, but there are really only three Hero’s Journey steps to be aware of.

The Call to Adventure

The Monomyth begins with a Call to Adventure or Departure, like all stories do. If it’s the story of my day, it begins with me departing my warm, comfortable bed. Star Wars, the classic Hero’s Journey tale of the modern age, begins when the Droids depart the Rebel ship for Tatooine, or when Luke leaves the moisture farm. This can either be a physical departure, like me from my bed this morning, or a less physical departure, like when Luke heeds the call to adventure and goes seeking Old Ben.

This is a universal story trait, and it’s one of the reasons why The Hero’s Journey is so good. All tales take you from status quo to status uh-oh, otherwise we’d just be watching movies about normal, boring life. Wake up. Work. Sleep. Repeat. That’s just no fun. If your story lacks a clear Call to Adventure, whether it’s a kingdom in need or a text invitation to a wild party, it can come off as weak and aimless. The Call to Adventure sets up the entire road ahead, so put some serious thought into yours.

The Initiation

You want to be a Jedi, right? Well, you don’t just become one, you have to do stuff first. This isn’t like being a fitness coach on Instagram! The Initiation is the middle section of the Hero’s Journey where the character is trying to solve the problem or accomplish the goal from the Call to Adventure, and keeps failing at it.

Luke tries to use his Father’s lightsaber and keeps getting zapped by the disco ball robot because he isn’t focusing. The rescue of the Princess doesn’t go as planned and she has to show the boys how to do a proper rescue. Darth Vader confronts Obi-Wan and the old man dies in front of his student. Failure. Failure. Failure. The Hero’s Journey isn’t kind to the character in this middle section because you need tension, failure, and stakes to give the ending impact. If the Hero hasn’t paid their dues in the fire of the story, their turn towards the heroic at the end can feel unearned.

Joseph Campbell's Monomyth, and the Hero’s Journey steps, are there to ensure that you put your characters through hell and force them to learn. Again, looking at this we can see that it's a universal part of telling a good story. If I just woke up, made coffee, and had a productive day, it might be a great day for me, but it makes for a lousy story. Luckily I woke up and then spilled my coffee everywhere, bringing some much-needed tension and loss into the story of my morning. Will I make another pot of coffee and successfully drink it? Have I learned from my failures?

The Initiation takes the character from the beginning, unwise and weak, and transforms them through suffering into the Hero needed to defeat the problems in the final act. Remember that becoming the Hero is earned by the character’s journey, so really put your characters through the wringer and make them organically change for the better.

The Return

Wouldn’t 'The Return' be a killer name for the first Monomyth album? Sorry, sidetracked.
This is the part of the Hero’s Journey that gets the heart racing and fists pumping in the air. The Hero has learned their lessons and decided to accept the heroic mantle that they refused before. They’re ready to kick some ass, take some names, and probably look cool while doing it. 

In Star Wars (I swear I’ve seen more movies than just this) you have a Heroic Monomyth Return for both Luke and Han. Luke leads the strike on the Death Star, and Han gives up his old scoundrel ways and returns to fight for something bigger than himself. Sure, stories about Space Samurai Wizards and their exploding of big things is all well and good, but the Hero’s Journey applies to smaller stories closer to home, too.

Hero’s Journey examples can also include personal stories of love and loss like Kumail Nanjiani’s amazing true tale The Big Sick. Kumail has spent weeks worrying about whether Emily will pull through an awful and sudden coma. He’s bonded with her parents and feels like he’s changed something in himself, and wants to reconnect with Emily. Unfortunately for him, Emily hasn’t had those experiences and woke up with the same resentments she had from earlier in the story. Hero’s Journey step two into step three, baby.

That doesn’t stop Kumail, though. He returns after being rebuffed by his future wife and defeats the issues in his personal life that kept him from love before his Return. His family dynamic, his career, his stagnation in life, all held him back in the beginning, but the Initiation of Emily’s illness and his interactions with her parents changed him. His journey (see what I did there?) is complete and leaves him open to love at the end of the story.

We’ve all felt that final temptation to go back to old ways before we made a change for the better, and your characters experience the same thing. The old ways are seductive, easy, and would allow your character to get out of the final, hard work needed to bring the journey to a close. The sense of excitement from this part of the story comes from the characters refusing that final, very appealing temptation and rising above.

Why the Hero’s Journey?

Lasers and love, spaceships and small gestures all track onto the Hero’s Journey, and at the same time manage to be unique, refreshing stories all their own. The Hero’s Journey gives you, the storyteller, a framework to think about your story that is as universal as breathing oxygen or wondering who the hell likes Kim Kardashian.

I remember watching The Power Of Myth on PBS with my Dad while growing up. Bill Moyers interviewed Joseph Campbell about the Monomyth, stories, and how our shared human storytelling tradition maps onto the Hero’s Journey for six hours. This should have been very, very boring to an eight-year-old boy and his Father on a warm summer Sunday, but we were hooked. Why? Because stories have always been told like this and always will be.

The Hero’s Journey is universal.

The People On the Internet™, as mentioned before, will try and tell you that the Hero’s Journey movies don’t work, or the Monomyth is outdated, or cumbersome, and they might be right about parts of it. I mean, one of his 17 parts is called “Woman As Temptress” which comes off as profoundly un-woke to our modern sensibilities, and it is. I’d argue that behind that early 20th-century garbage is the gold that we’ve been talking about this entire article. The three main parts are an outline, and they can help you to translate your story into universal themes that appeal to an old, deep part of our humanity.

Use the storytelling tools that humans have been perfecting for tens of thousands of years and you might write the next Star Wars.