The Hero’s Journey: A 12 Step Guide

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The Hero’s Journey: A 12 Step Guide

You’ve heard the story a thousand times. The protagonist embarks on an adventure, makes some new friends, overcomes obstacles and returns home a changed person. In short, the Hero’s Journey.

This classic story structure is shared by stories around the globe from Theseus and the Minotaur to Rocky Balboa and as a result is lodged firmly into our cultural DNA. It was, though, Joseph Campbell, the academic who first coined the term way back in 1949, who provided its original structure:

  • The Departure Act: The Hero leaves the “Ordinary World”.

  • The Initiation Act: The Hero ventures into the unknown “Special World” and is birthed into a true champion through various trials and challenges.

  • The Return Act: The Hero returns in triumph.

A little over half a century later, screenwriter Christopher Vogler released his book The Writer’s Journey, in which he refined Campbell’s three phases by identifying the 12 steps that make it up. 

Though they are not necessarily always carried out beat-for-beat, let’s now take a look at Vogler’s 12 steps in more detail and see how the Hero undergoes inner and outer transformation in each one.

The 12 Steps of the Hero’s Journey

  1. Ordinary World (we meet our Hero)

This opening leg sets the stage, showing the Hero’s mundane, relatable reality. It provides the juxtaposition with the strange new world yet to be discovered.

Example: Rocky Balboa working as an anonymous debt collector and underground boxer in downtown Philadelphia.

  1. Call to Adventure (the adventure begins)

This stage takes the Hero out of their comfort zone, confronting them with an unignorable problem. The catalyst can take several forms. With the stakes of the adventure set, the gauntlet is thrown down for our hero: will they rise to the challenge?

Example: Dorothy being swept up in a tornado in The Wizard of Oz. 

  1. Refusal of the Call (the Hero digs in their feet)

It’s certainly not always a simple case of our Hero putting on their shoes and heading out the door. Often, they require quite a nudge. 

Example: Luke Skywalker initially refusing to join Obi-Wan on his mission to rescue the princess, only changing his mind once he finds out stormtroopers have killed his aunt and uncle.

  1. Meeting the Mentor (the Hero acquires a personal trainer)

With the Journeys carrying with them significant dangers far too risky for our as yet unproven Heroes, we are often introduced to a mentor. The mentor ensures our Hero has the tools to carry out their adventure, usually through a mixture of practical training, seemingly limitless wisdom and some, let’s say, carefully chosen words of tough love. Although, the mentor can be something as faceless as a map, preparation for the Hero’s next step is still the case.

Example: Mickey Goldmill in Rocky. The time-worn, but not time-beaten old trainer, who takes Rocky under his wing in preparation for his world title fight with Apollo Creed.

  1. Crossing the First Threshold (the Hero enters the other world in earnest.)

The central conflict has been launched, the theme has been established and the characters are developing nicely.

As Vogler writes: “This is the moment that the balloon goes up, the ship, the romance begins, the wagon gets rolling.” Our Hero is ready and there’s no going back.

Example: Stitch crashes on Earth in Lilo & Stitch.

  1. Tests, Allies, Enemies (the Hero faces new challenges and gets a squad)

Our Hero has stepped into the Special Word and begins getting to grips with their new reality. Usually one of the longest stages, it makes a prime hunting ground for a series of tests to be passed. In this stage, we often are introduced to aliens, enemies, friends and foes.

Example: In Jumanji: Welcome to the JungleSpencer, Bethany, Fridge, and Martha don’t get off to the smoothest of starts when they bump into a herd of bloodthirsty hippos.

  1. Approach to the Inmost Cave (the Hero gets closer to his goal)

The stage is all about the Hero’s approach to the most dangerous spot in the Special World, where the ultimate goal of the adventure is almost always located.

Example: The Death Star in Star Wars. Obviously, use of the words ‘Inmost Cave’ aren’t necessarily literal.

  1. Ordeal (the Hero faces his biggest test of all thus far)

Described by Volger as a “black moment” and Campbell as the “belly of the whale”, this eighth stage is by no means fun for our Hero. Their greatest fear must now be faced, bringing with it their biggest test. Survive and they become transformed, and according to Volger, thereby informing every decision they make from then on. Though not necessarily the story’s climax, the Ordeal finally provides the opportunity for our Hero to be worthy of such a title.

Example: Sam carrying Frodo on his back all the way up Mt Doom in The Lord of The Rings, using Samwise Gamgee as the Hero.

  1. Reward (Seizing the Sword) (the Hero sees light at the end of the tunnel…)

The “reward” is the object or knowledge of which the Hero has spent the entirety of their journey fighting. The time to reach out and grab them is now!

Example: Dorothy can finally escape from the Wicked Witch’s castle with the broomstick and the ruby slippers.

  1. The Road Back (… but that light is a little further away than expected)

We’ve reached the beginning of Act Three. With the reward “in hand”, it’s time to return to the Ordinary World. However, obstacles can and do still arise.

Example: Before Neo can leave the Matrix again, Agent Smith kills him.

  1. Resurrection (the last test is met)

Referred to by Volger as the protagonist’s “final exam”, we see if our Hero has “really learned the lessons of the Ordeal”. It’s a stage known for miraculous near-death escapes. Queue the sweet music…

Example: Simba learns that Scar killed his father and throws him off Pride Rock.

  1. Return with the Elixir (our Hero has a triumphant homecoming)

… because, finally, the Hero gets to return home. They’ve grown. They’ve matured. All in all, they’re returning to the Normal World a different person, with the “Elixir” won during the journey in-hand.

Example: Proving that some Hero’s Journeys can conclude elixir-less, Peter recalls his Uncle Ben’s words and embraces his role as Spider-Man.

Rigid Rules?

The 12 Stages of the Hero’s Journey were created to help readers dissect a plot by fostering a stronger understanding of story structure. But remember, they’re not a set of handcuffs. As long as your understanding of the basics is sound, feel free to experiment and bend it in ways that defy reader expectations. 

As always from the Byter Team,

good luck!

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