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What is the Hero's Journey in Literature?

Crafting a heroic character is a crucial aspect of storytelling, and it involves much more than simply sketching out a brave and virtuous figure. The hero's journey definition is not the typical linear narrative but rather a cyclical pattern that encompasses the hero's transformation, trials, and ultimate return, reflecting the profound and timeless aspects of human experience. The writer's journey in this endeavor goes beyond the external actions of the hero and delves into the character's inner world. The hero arc is the heart of the narrative, depicting the character's evolution from an ordinary person to a true hero.

Narratology and Writing Instructions for Heroic Characters

Related to both plot diagram and types of literary conflict, the ”Hero’s Journey” structure is a recurring pattern of stages many heroes undergo over the course of their stories. Joseph Campbell, an American mythologist, writer, and lecturer, articulated this cycle after researching and reviewing numerous myths and stories from a variety of time periods and regions of the world. He found that different writers take us on different journeys, however, they all share fundamental principles. Through the hero's trials, growth, and ultimate triumph, the narrative comes full circle, embodying the timeless pattern of the hero cycle. Literature abounds with examples of the hero cycle, illustrating how this narrative structure transcends cultural boundaries and remains a fundamental element of storytelling. This hero cycle in literature is also known as the Monomyth, archetype. The most basic version of Joseph Campbell's Monomyth has 12 steps, while more detailed versions can have up to 17 steps. His type of hero's journey diagram provides a visual roadmap for understanding the various stages and archetypal elements that protagonists typically encounter in their transformative quests. The wheel to the right is an excellent visual to share with students of how these steps occur. Hero's journey diagram examples provide a visual roadmap for understanding the various stages and archetypal elements that protagonists typically encounter in their transformative quests. Exploring the monomyth steps outlined by Joseph Campbell, we can see how these universal narrative elements have shaped countless stories across cultures and time periods.

Which Story Structure is Right for You?

The choice of story structure depends on various factors, including the type of story you want to tell, your intended audience, and your personal creative style. Here are some popular story structures and when they might be suitable:

  1. The Hero's Journey: Use this structure when you want to tell a story of personal growth, transformation, and adventure. It works well for epic tales, fantasy, and science fiction, but it can be adapted to other genres as well.

  2. Three-Act Structure: This is a versatile structure suitable for a wide range of genres, from drama to comedy to action. It's ideal for stories that have a clear beginning, middle, and end, with well-defined turning points.

  3. Episodic or Serial Structure: If you're creating a long-running series or a story with multiple interconnected arcs, this structure is a good choice. It allows for flexibility in storytelling and can keep audiences engaged over the long term.

  4. Nonlinear Structure: Experiment with this structure if you want to challenge traditional narrative conventions. It's suitable for stories where timelines are fragmented, revealing information gradually to build intrigue and suspense.

  5. Circular or Cyclical Structure: This structure is great for stories with recurring themes or for tales that come full circle. It can be particularly effective in literary fiction and philosophical narratives.

Ultimately, the right story structure for you depends on your creative vision, the genre you're working in, and the narrative you want to convey. You may also choose to blend or adapt different structures to suit your story's unique needs. The key is to select a structure that serves your storytelling goals and engages your target audience effectively.

What is a Common Theme in the Hero's Journey?

A common theme in the hero's journey is the concept of personal transformation and growth. Throughout the hero's journey, the protagonist typically undergoes significant change, evolving from an ordinary or flawed individual into a more heroic, self-realized, or enlightened character. This theme of transformation is often accompanied by challenges, trials, and self-discovery, making it a central and universal element of hero's journey narratives.

Structure of the Monomyth: The Hero's Journey Summary

This summary of the different elements of the archetypal hero's journey outlines the main four parts along with the different stages within each part. This can be shared with students and used as a reference along with the hero's journey wheel to analyze literature.

Part One - Call to Adventure

During the exposition, the hero is in the ordinary world, usually the hero’s home or natural habitat. Conflict arises in their everyday life, which calls the hero to adventure, where they are beckoned to leave their familiar world in search of something. They may refuse the call at first, but eventually leave, knowing that something important hangs in the balance and refusal of the call is simply not an option.

Part Two - Supreme Ordeal or Initiation

Once the hero makes the decision to leave the normal world, venture into the unfamiliar world, and has officially begun their mysterious adventure, they will meet a mentor figure (a sidekick in some genres) and together these two will cross the first threshold. This is the point where turning back is not an option, and where the hero must encounter tests, allies and enemies. Obstacles like tests and enemies must be overcome to continue. Helpers aid the hero in their journey.

Part Three - Unification or Transformation

Having overcome initial obstacles, in this part of the heroic cycle, the hero and their allies reach the approach. Here they will prepare for the major challenge in this new or special world. During the approach, the hero undergoes an ordeal, testing them to point near death. Their greatest fear is sometimes exposed, and from the ordeal comes a new life or revival for the hero. This transformation is the final separation from their old life to their new life. For their efforts in overcoming the ordeal, the hero reaches the reward. The hero receives the reward for facing death. There may be a celebration, but there is also danger of losing the reward.

Part Four - Road Back or Hero's Return

Once the hero achieves their goal and the reward is won, the hero and companions start on the road back. The hero wants to complete the adventure and return to their ordinary world with their treasure. This stage is often referred to as either the resurrections or atonement. Hero's journey examples that showcase the atonement stage often highlight the protagonist's inner turmoil and the difficult decisions they must make to reconcile with their past and fully embrace their heroic destiny. The hero becomes "at one" with themselves. As the hero crosses the threshold (returning from the unknown to their ordinary world), the reader arrives at the climax of the story. Here, the hero is severely tested one last time. This test is an attempt to undo their previous achievements. At this point, the hero has come full circle, and the major conflict at the beginning of the journey is finally resolved. In the return home, the hero has now resumed life in his/her original world, and things are restored to ordinary.

Popular Hero's Journey Examples

Monomyth Example: Homer's Odyssey

Monomyth examples typically involve a hero who embarks on an adventure, faces trials and challenges, undergoes personal transformation, and returns home or to society with newfound wisdom or a significant achievement, making this storytelling structure a powerful and timeless tool for crafting compelling narratives.

The hero's journey chart below for Homer’s Odyssey uses the abridged ninth grade version of the epic. The Heroic Journey in the original story of the Odyssey is not linear, beginning in media res, Latin for “in the middle of things”.)

Ordinary World King Odysseus is at home in Ithaca, with his wife, Penelope, and newborn son, Telemachus.
Call to Adventure Odysseus sets out for the war in Troy.
Refusal He does not want to leave his family and sail to Troy; he knows it will be a long trip. The hero ventures away.
Mentor / Helper Athena, the Goddess of wisdom, crafts, and battle is Odysseus' guide. She wants to help Odysseus, though she has been instructed not to. She takes pity on him while other gods forsake Odysseus, constantly saves him from death, and gives him guidance as the hero enters various situations.
Cross the Threshold After the war, the gods become angry with the Greeks for their prideful ways. A great storm emerges and throws them off course.
Test / Allies / Enemies The hero confronts many obstacles; Odysseus is thwarted with many tests as he travels back to Ithaca:
  • Polyphemus
  • Circones
  • Lotus Eaters
  • Lastrygonians
  • Sirens
  • Scylla & Charybdis
  • Cattle of the Sun God
Approach Odysseus nearly makes it home, but his crew opens a bag that had been given to Odysseus by Aeolus, god of the winds. When the bag is opened, it releases a wind that blows them far away from Ithaca. This makes the ultimate goal of returning home difficult.
Ordeal Odysseus is sent to the underworld seeking information to guide him home. This quest brings him to the verge of death.
Reward The King of Phaeacia gives Odysseus passage home.
Road Back Unlike other heroes, Odysseus was not in search of treasure. Instead, he was desperately trying to reach his home. Once he returns, he finds out that his house has been overrun with many forms of suitors trying to steal his wife and palace.
Atonement Instead of rushing in and killing the suitors, Odysseus is patient. He wishes to learn if his wife has been faithful. With the help of his son and a loyal swineherd, he devises a plan. Athena disguises him as an old beggar so he can enter his house undetected. Telemachus steals all the suitors’ weapons, and a final test is proposed. Penelope will marry the man who strings Odysseus' bow and shoots an arrow through a line of small circles; a seemingly impossible task.
Return Odysseus, still dressed as a beggar, completes the task and is restored to his original state. He and his son expel the suitors from their home by force. Penelope, seeing how Odysseus has changed, tests him to make sure it is actually him. She tells him she moved their bed. He replies, correctly, that this would have been impossible, and all is returned to normal.

To Kill a Mockingbird Heroic Journey

Here is one interpretation of the Finches' Heroic Journey in To Kill a Mockingbird At first it might not appear to be an example of a hero's journey because the main character, Scout, is a child in this common story structure. However, her character development in the novel follows the typical monomyth structure.

Ordinary World Sleepy Maycomb Alabama, 1930s
Call to Adventure Atticus is asked to defend Tom Robinson, a black man accused of rape.
Refusal He realizes the attention that this case will bring, and that it will expose his family to the cruelty of society. The psychological journey of Atticus and his family begins as they battle morals vs. prejudice in the South.
Mentor / Helper Calpurnia is often Atticus’ helper. She is his black cook and disciplinarian for the children. She acts as the passage for the Finches into the black community. The Mentor of the novel is Miss Maudie, who, like Atticus, believes in Justice and becomes friends with the children.
Crossing the Threshold As the trial begins, hostility towards the Finches grows. Although Atticus knows what the verdict will be, he promises to do everything he can for Tom.
Test / Allies / Enemies Many of the townspeople become enemies during the trial. They allow their racism to cloud their judgment and morality:
  • Bob Ewell
  • Walter Cunningham Sr.
  • Walter Cunningham Jr.
  • The white community
Approach The trial ends with a guilty verdict, but Scout's journey has not ended. She still faces hardships brought on by her father’s involvement in the trial.
Ordeal Sometime after the trial, Scout and Jem are walking home. Bob Ewell attacks them. Boo Radley, who is agoraphobic, leaves his home to save the children and kills Ewell in a fight.
Reward Scout and Jem’s lives are spared.
Road Back Scout gains a moral education, their lives are saved, and her faith in the goodness of humanity is somewhat restored by Boo, who risked his life for them.
Atonement The Sheriff rules Ewell’s death accidental, saying that he fell on his own knife. “Let the dead bury the dead.”
Return The Sheriff’s decision not to convict Boo restores Scout and Jem’s faith in justice and humanity. While Atticus does not think this is right at first, Scout explains to him that sending Boo to jail would be like killing a mockingbird. These words prove Scout has learned a valuable lesson, and has come full circle in her journey.

Did you know that many popular movies have heroes that follow this type of journey? It is true! In the "Star Wars" movies, Hollywood film producer George Lucas creates a journey for Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia. In "The Lion King", Simba goes on quite the adventure that ends in a final battle with his uncle Scar, a major turning point in the film before the hero returns to save his land. In "The Wizard of Oz", Dorothy takes on the role of the epic hero as she teeters between the two worlds of Kansas and Oz. These are just a few of the many examples of Campbell's theory in the cinematic realm.

Classroom Applications and Uses

Example Exercises

Create your own hero's journey examples using the Storyboard That Creator! Customize the level of detail and number of cells required for projects based on available class time and resources.

  • Students identify the stages of the heroic journey in a piece of literature by creating one cell depicting each of the twelve steps.
  • Students create storyboards that show and explain each stage found in the work of literature, using specific quotes from the text which highlight each part of the journey.
  • Students create an outline of their own original story that follows the monomyth stages.

Common Core

  • ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.3: Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme
  • ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.7: Analyze the representation of a subject or a key scene in two different artistic mediums, including what is emphasized or absent in each treatment (e.g., Auden’s “Musée des Beaux Arts” and Breughel’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus)
  • ELA-Literacy.W.9-10.6: Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products, taking advantage of technology’s capacity to link to other information and to display information flexibly and dynamically
  • ELA-Literacy.SL.9-10.2: Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) evaluating the credibility and accuracy of each source

  • ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.3: Analyze the impact of the author’s choices regarding how to develop and relate elements of a story or drama (e.g., where a story is set, how the action is ordered, how the characters are introduced and developed)
  • ELA-Literacy.RL.11-12.7: Analyze multiple interpretations of a story, drama, or poem (e.g., recorded or live production of a play or recorded novel or poetry), evaluating how each version interprets the source text. (Include at least one play by Shakespeare and one play by an American dramatist.)
  • ELA-Literacy.W.11-12.6: Use technology, including the Internet, to produce, publish, and update individual or shared writing products in response to ongoing feedback, including new arguments or information
  • ELA-Literacy.SL.11-12.2: Integrate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) in order to make informed decisions and solve problems, evaluating the credibility and accuracy of each source and noting any discrepancies among the data

How Teachers Can Use The Concept of The Heroic Journey To Help Students Better Understand Character Development In Literature


Introduce the Concept of the Heroic Journey

Teachers can introduce the concept of the heroic journey to students and explain the different stages involved in the journey. This will provide a framework for students to better understand how characters develop throughout the story.


Analyze Characters Using the Heroic Journey

Teachers can guide students through the stages of the heroic journey and ask them to identify where the character is in the journey. This will help students to understand the character's development and how their actions and decisions are influenced by the different stages of the journey.


Compare and Contrast Character Journeys

Teachers can ask students to compare and contrast the journeys of different characters within a story or across multiple stories. This will help students to gain a deeper understanding of how the heroic journey is used to develop characters in literature and how it can be applied across different genres and cultures.


Discuss the Role of Character Motivation

Teachers can encourage students to think critically about the motivations of characters at each stage of the journey. This will help students to understand why characters make certain decisions and how their motivations contribute to their development.


Apply the Concept to Real-Life Situations

Teachers can encourage students to apply the concept of the heroic journey to real-life situations. This will help students to see how the journey applies not only to literature, but also to their own lives and experiences.

Frequently Asked Questions about the Hero's Journey

What is a "monomyth" or the "hero's journey" in literature?

In comparative mythology, the monomyth, or the hero's journey, is the series of stages that can be applied to a variety of stories from all genres. It involves a hero who is called to pursue an adventure, undergoes an ordeal, achieves their goal and returns home transformed.

What are the 12 Stages of the Hero's Journey in literature?

The 12 stages of the monomyth or Hero's Journey are:

  1. Ordinary World
  2. Call to Adventure
  3. Refusal
  4. Meeting the Mentor / Helper
  5. Crossing the Threshold
  6. Test / Allies / Enemies
  7. Approach
  8. Ordeal
  9. Reward
  10. Road Back
  11. Atonement
  12. Return

What is a common theme in the hero's journey?

The Hero's Journey usually follows the path of the main character from childhood or young adulthood through maturity. It is about the common human experiences of growth, challenges and change that are relatable to us all.

Why should students learn about the hero's journey?

The hero's journey is relevant for students in that it demonstrates the possibility of overcoming adversity and the potential for growth and change that is within us all. It is a common theme of literature and movies that once students understand, they will be able to identify over and over again. It is helpful for students to make the text-to-self connection and apply this thinking to their own life as a "growth mindset". They can see that they are on their own hero's journey and that everyone has the ability to overcome obstacles to achieve their goals and affect positive change in their lives and the lives of others.

What are some of the best examples of the hero's journey?

The hero's journey stages appear in more books than students may realize! Here are just a few examples of popular books that contain the monomyth structure:

  1. Holes
  2. The Graveyard Book
  3. The Hunger Games
  4. To Kill a Mockingbird
  5. The Odyssey
  6. The Lions of Little Rock
  7. Wednesday Wars
  8. One Crazy Summer
  9. Out of My Mind
  10. Cinder
  11. Brown Girl Dreaming
  12. The Lightning Thief
  13. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane
  14. The Stars Beneath Our Feet
  15. Fish in a Tree

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