Day 7: The Hero’s Journey

Yesterday, we began our exploration of plot with a look at one rather classical structure presented by K.M. Weiland. Today, we dive deeper into plotting with an comprehensive consideration of the Hero’s Journey.

The stages of the Hero’s Journey detailed here are those articulated by Christopher Vogler in his book The Writer’s Journey. Vogler based his stages on those defined by Joseph Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces.

Campbell’s profound gift was to describe something archetypal: that is, a universal pattern that resides at an unconscious level. The Hero’s Journey satisfies us because it taps into something primal. It resonates with familiarity because it maps to a template of the human experience of transformation.

There are twelve stages of the Hero’s Journey as conceived by Vogler and these unfold within the three-act structure. We will explore each in detail.

ACT I: Separation

  1. Ordinary World

Here the hero is in his natural setting. This describes his life before the events of the story are set into motion. Think Kansas in the Wizard of Oz. Since stories are about the transformation of the character, this presents the character in that primal state before change. Soon the hero will be thrust into the Special World which will become the cauldron for the character’s transformation.

The Ordinary World introduces a compelling opening image; raises the dramatic question(s) of the story; presents the hero’s inner and outer problems, including the hero’s flaw, lack, or wound; establishes what is at stake; and outlines the theme or premise of the story.

In The Hunger Games, we first encounter Katniss at home in District 12. We see her attending to her sister, Primrose, and hunting with her friend, Gale. While Katniss is in the Ordinary World, we learn that her family lives in poverty and that her mother has been devastated by death her father. Like so many other heroes, Katniss is essentially an orphan, becoming the primary caretaker of her little sister.

Key question: How is your hero incomplete? What is the flaw that he needs to overcome?

2. Call to Adventure (Inciting incident)

The Call to Adventure brings in the new energy that will be the catalyst of change. We often see the appearance of an archetypal character, the Herald, who announces the call. The following are often present in this phase: reconnaissance, where a villain explores a territory to plunder, signaling a warning of the conflict to come; disorientation and discomfort for the hero; a loss for the hero; a situation where the hero has run out of options.

In The Hunger Games, the call to adventure is sounded with a whistle that summons the citizens to the reaping ceremony where two tributes will be selected for the vicious hunger games.

Key questions: Where in the story is your Call to Adventure? Is it ideally positioned within your story? Who delivers the call?

3. Refusal of the Call

The call is so momentous and fraught with risk that the hero often hesitates. The hero’s reluctance helps to establish how significant the undertaking is, and, by extension, how great a catalyst for growth it will be. The hesitation might also signal the specific ways in which the hero will need to transform in order to meet the challenge. This phase may be characterized by avoidance; excuses; conflicting choices; Threshold Guardians who create further obstacles to the call and may question the hero’s competence; and the Law of the Secret Door which Vogler describes as a temptation too great for the hero’s curiosity to resist. 

The secret door appears when the hero is forbidden a specific action: you can go anywhere in the house except through the secret door. Now we know exactly where the hero is heading.

Sometimes we find a hero who willingly accepts the challenge, in which case another character will make the dangers of the undertaking clear.

In The Hunger Games, Katniss does not hesitate to step in for her sister, Prim, to become the District 12 tribute. We learn from Prim’s abject fear the gravity of Katniss’ decision.

Key questions: Why and how does your hero Refuse the Call? What is she afraid of?

4. Meeting with the Mentor

In the Meeting with the Mentor, the hero encounters a character who gives him something required for the journey. This may be the gift of insight, awakening the hero to some inner quality that he already possesses. The Mentor is such a well-known archetype that it is easy to fall into clichés with this character, Vogler cautions. Keep your Mentor fresh and unexpected by rebelling against convention. One means of doing this is to play against expectations. Another common trope found in this phase is a conflict between the Mentor and hero.

Katniss’ key mentors are Haymitch, a previous hunger game winner who is now an alcoholic, and Cinna, who designs a unique costume for Katniss which earns her the epithet “girl on fire.”

For consideration: When thinking about the archetypal roles in story, don’t necessarily restrict yourself to a simple one role per character paradigm. Which of your characters takes on Mentor attributes?

Act II A: Descent

5. Crossing the First Threshold

The Crossing of the First Threshold signifies the moment when everything changes: the hero crosses over into the Special World of Act II and steps into the adventure that will irrevocably change him. This phase demonstrates the hero’s agency: he takes concrete action. Again, Threshold Guardians may appear that pose challenges to the hero.

Katniss’ journey to the special world of the hunger games begins with the train ride. Here, she asserts her agency by thrusting her knife into the table to get Haymitch’s attention and help.

What is the leap of faith that your hero must take to Cross the First Threshold?

6. Tests, Allies, Enemies

Joseph Campbell characterized the Special World as “a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials.” The Special World should present a stark contrast from the Ordinary World that the hero has left behind. Here there are new rules that must be learned. The hero encounters a series of challenges that test her mettle and prepare her for the Ordeal ahead. Allies, including the Mentor and Sidekick, may assist the hero on her quest. Enemies may be an active or shadowy presence. A common type of enemy to emerge here is the Rival.

As any hero does, Katniss encounters several tests, enemies, and allies. My favorite test is when she shoots an apple out of the mouth of a roasting pig to attract the judges’ attention. In another test, Katniss ignores Haymitch’s advice and retrieves a backpack upon arriving on the playing field (see Secret Door). Later, Rue acts as a key ally, pointing out to Katniss the presence of a tracker jacker nest.

Key questions: What tests does your hero encounter? How does she make allies and enemies? How is she shaped by these characters?

7. Approach to the Inmost Cave

The hero’s journey leads him inexorably toward the center of the Special World where he will encounter the Ordeal. The Approach is the final grounds of preparation for that pivotal conflict.

Typical features of the Approach are courtship, obstacles, Threshold Guardians, warnings and additional Special Worlds (think the Emerald City or the bar in Stars Wars: A New Hope). Campbell characterized this stage as being “in the belly of the whale.” From a psychological point of view, it is a point of disintegration so that the hero can reintegrate at a higher level of consciousness.

For Katniss, this stage unfolds when she is trapped in the tree by her enemies. With Rue’s help, she escapes and manages to secure a bow. Now she will be in her comfort zone, having her weapon of choice to assist her.

Key questions: What special preparations does you hero undergo? What inner conflicts does he confront?

Act II B: Initiation

8. The Ordeal (Midpoint, Death, and Rebirth)

This is a pivotal moment in your story, the point at which the hero confronts “death” itself. The tension in this part of the story revolves around survival. The hero is brought to the brink of death so that she can be reborn. Psychologically, she reintegrates by overcoming this central Ordeal. Vogler is careful to point out that this is a moment of crisis, not climax. The Climax will occur a bit later on the journey. This is, however, often the central point of the story and it usually occurs at the story’s midpoint.

The ordeal occurs when Katniss is stung by tracker jackers as she makes her escape from the tree. She hallucinates due to the lethal poison. Rue nurses her back to health.

Key questions: What is your hero’s Ordeal? How is the antagonist a Shadow of the hero? What is your hero’s greatest fear?

9. Reward

Now comes an upbeat moment when the hero has the opportunity to savor the Reward that he has earned. This is a moment of rest and integration for the hero and for the reader too. The Reward may come in the form of insight or knowledge, an object that has been acquired, or reconciliation. 

Themes in this section include celebration, seizing the sword or stealing the elixir, initiation, self-realization or epiphany.

Katniss’ reward comes when a rule change is announced: there can be two winners of the contest. She is greatly relieved to discover she will not have to vanquish Peeta. Together Katniss and Peeta kill the remaining contestant and ever so briefly, they get to celebrate their victory.

What is it that your hero takes possession of after he faces death? What is the consequence of this phase of the story?

Act III: Return

10. The Road Back

Now we enter the final act of the story. The story’s energy rises up again at this point. This is the point where the hero resolves to return to the Ordinary World bringing her elixir back to save the world.

Common elements that appear in this phase are retaliation, chase, the escape of the villain, and setbacks.

Katniss and Peeta encounter a major setback on their road back: once they have killed the last of their enemies, the rules change again. Now there can only be one victor.

Key question: What is the Road Back in your story?

11. Resurrection (Climax)

Now comes the most dangerous encounter with death. A cleansing or purification may take place in this final Ordeal. Here we experience the Climax of the story. This is where the hero has the opportunity to integrate all that he has learned in service of his quest. 

Themes include a physical ordeal, the hero displaying agency, showdowns, death and rebirth, catharsis, sacrifice.

The Climax occurs in The Hunger Games when Katniss devises a plot to thwart the authorities. Both she and Peeta will eat poisonous berries giving the game no winner. The authorities are outwitted and must accept two winners.

Key questions: What final ordeal of death and rebirth does your hero experience? What aspect of your hero is Resurrected? What has your hero learned?

12. Return with the Elixir (Denouement)

Having survived the Climatic Ordeal, the hero can now take the elixir back with her to save the Ordinary World. In this way, her transformed self is reintegrated into her former life, or, alternatively, the hero continues the journey. This stage is also known as the denouement which means untying in French. You could think of this as being a releasing or untangling of the tension and conflict that held the story together. The phase may end with the achievement of perfection, the classic “happily ever after” ending, or it may conclude with an open ending or surprise. This part of the story is about restoring the order of things, hence reward and punishment is a common theme here.

The Hunger Games ends with Katniss and Peeta returning to District 12 as heroes.

Key questions: What is the Elixir your hero brings back from the experience? How does it save or restore the Ordinary World?

Sources:

Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games

Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey

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