At full force, stories make us stand taller. They feel deep and perfect. They help us understand our weaknesses. They help us face pain. Through stories, we become heroes.
Telling stories is a universal human behaviour. Children play make-believe together. With our friends, we retell events from our lives and we find narratives in our songs and movies. Even abstract and technical ideas are communicated through stories. The ubiquity of stories throughout culture might be evidence of an innate storyteller within. But perhaps it is truer to say we are story predators. We do not so much give away stories as devour them, hunting them down and processing them unconsciously. And in dreams, our brains experience stories served from a soup of memory elements.
It is clear that our lives are strongly affected by the food we eat. It is just as clear how our lives are affected by our story-diet. It is very difficult to persuade someone away from moral beliefs they first encountered as children. These truths are usually told and remembered in story form. Truth claims related to morality are more threatening than a truth claims about scientific laws; if we are indeed in a world of good and evil then we are forced to face the consequences of our bad actions. So satisfying stories are trivialised and called juvenile. Bleak, hopeless endings are considered to be more ‘adult’.
Without meaning, life is unbearable. But with meaning, we have an incredible capacity for good. As Nietzsche observed, “he who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” Or from the Proverbs: “good people are as brave as a lion”. But rightly accepting our existence as meaningful is only the beginning. How can we become more loving? More diligent? More courageous? More selfless? By repeatedly exploring the importance of these traits and reinforcing those pathways in our minds. Intellectual analysis is not enough. We need to rehearse the full emotional roller coaster of being good.
The originator of the Hero’s Journey is Joseph Cambell. He claimed that there is a ‘monomyth’ to which all of our stories naturally adhere. He came to this discovery after studying stories from cultures across the planet. Iterations of his ideas have almost become law in Holywood film writing, and many people consider the Hero’s Journey pattern to be damaging paint-by-numbers crutch. I agree that the elements arranged into a prescriptive story structure become suffocating and unnecessary. But if they can exist naturally, the Hero’s Journey elements can turn a simple yarn into a legend. An ember to inspire us, still burning from the fiery bravery humans have shown for eons.
Finding a moment repeated through story after story is like brushing away the soil from the bone of a vast ancient skeleton. By observing these elements we begin to be able to peek directly at the hidden truths, truths that are mostly absorbed subconsciously. Here is my take on the shape of some of these bones:
The hero (the individual/group at the center of the story) must travel through several emotional beats during their journey. They are prompted to leave their ordinary life and undertake a journey. If the story has an ultimate message to impart, the hero at this point has not learned the message, they are not perfect at the start.
This is merely the short-term cause of the journey and may be told to the audience first. The audience will eventually have to know what drew the hero away, so this element exists whenever the back story is revealed.
The hero does not immediately begin the adventure here but is compelled to do so by events beyond his control. The audience should now be on board with the adventure – whether or not they would themselves have followed the call initially. Despite being called the ‘hero’, the main character may not be a danger-happy maniac. He should be a character with whom we have sympathy. His actions must be understandable even if the rest of the world is bewildering. We do not naturally want to face difficulty or improve ourselves. We often trick ourselves into thinking that we do want to be good, but the truth is we are in a war with our own beings. The initial reluctance of the hero to embark on adventure mirrors this.
This refusal does not imply that the character’s previous life was some kind of idyll. In fact, we tend to prefer characters who are struggling. But clinging on to the known rather than diving into the unknown is always the more comfortable choice. The refusal of the call shows us that the hero is afraid of change, just as we would be. They may be stepping into a world which is totally out of control. In the story, this new world of chaos may be in a different physical location. The application to life, however, is usually not. We explore the effects of that decision from the safety of a fictional story.
We have a character who we care about, we have an adventure that they are resigned to. Now we need to know the things that the hero will require to have success on his mission. To explain this the hero has an encounter with a wise mentor, or possibly wisdom from another source. This is where the hero is equipped with a weapon in some form that will become appropriate later in the story. The hero will probably not apprehend the wisdom of this mentor until the advice or gift is later neglected.
In this element is a hint of the cyclical nature of life. The enigmatic character who became so wise by their own hardships and adventures is passing down the advice directly. However, the hero cannot simply take the advice given and prosper immediately. We are overconfident if we think we have ourselves such a high degree of control over our own behaviour. No matter how good our intentions or how determined we are to face a trial correctly, we are weak and limited beings. Our imagination is sparked about what might be ahead. But we must remember that hearing this story is in our lives no more than the word of a mentor in our own hero’s journey. The real growth happens when we try and fail to apply this lesson in the future. This is the ‘you are here’ of the story. (Note that it is possible for the wise mentor to meet the hero before the call to adventure).
Having decided to go on the adventure and prepared for the journey, crossing the first threshold is the moment that the voyage begins in proper. If the call to adventure introduces the choice to go on the adventure, crossing the threshold is the perilous moment of no turning back when the hero first enters unknown territory.
This may seem to make the assumption that the hero has lived his whole life in one location and has his adventure in another, but that would be a very literal rendering of the idea of ‘journey’ and ‘crossing’. Having determined internally to undertake whatever transformation the story is about, this is the first moment of external change created by the decision. It may be a moment of thrill or of dread or even of unsettling stillness.
The adventure has begun. This middle part of the story is a time when the hero will learn and become stronger in some way. And how else will the hero learn except by encountering difficulty? These difficulties are not irrelevant to the hero’s personal weakness. If the hero is spending time-solving pointless issues within a narrative, the narrator is treading water. Perhaps the hero is quantifiably closer to their destination but it is a distraction. The road of trials refers to the spiritual refinement of the hero as they show true bravery in knowledge of their actual fragility. They must feel inadequate and ashamed in whatever respect is appropriate for their journey.
Having finished the road of trials, we approach the climax of the story, several things need to be put in place to give the moment significance. We already have some hints at what the hero is expected to do to triumph in that moment. The hero is now given the drive to go further into trouble and difficulty in order to complete the journey. This drive is born of the hero’s love. This could simply be that the hero falls in love with someone and has to do something difficult in order to be with them. However, the love does not have to be romantic. The hero might be spurred on by loyalty or revenge for a friend. The emphasis of this is not actually the direct way that the love discovered by the hero affects the mission. The objective of this stage is to show the love itself. This section is often a brief reward after the road of trials and an incentive to push through the final obstacle.
Now the hero is truly tempted. Temptation shows us that we are not the people that we would like to be. Defeating temptation is about doing what we believe to be right instead of what we believe to be immediately pleasurable. The hero’s encounter with temptation is the most important moment in any story. The size of the final trial of the journey should not be measured by physical or intellectual difficulty but by the struggle of the hero against temptation. The bigger and more real the main character’s battle with temptations, the greater the sense of triumph when the challenge is overcome. The moment of greatest danger for the hero is actually the moment of greatest temptation (not the moment of greatest physical peril).
Having defeated temptation, the majority of the journey is now behind our hero. Having been prepared for the road ahead and having faced down temptation, the journey enters the final act. (in the Campbell formula the third part is the return after the apotheosis and reward sections, but I’m breaking the cycle up differently)
According to Campbell the climax of a hero’s journey story is not the moment that the hero defeats the antagonist or most closely evades death, it is the moment known as ‘Atonement with the Father’. This makes the assumption that there has already been some work to establish that the hero was in some way unreconciled with a father figure. The atonement is a moment of acceptance and initiation by this father figure. If this may not seem appropriate to many stories at first glance, widen the idea of a father figure to simply be any other character who the hero knew at the beginning of the story or any restricting force on the hero. The resolution of this situation is the thematic climax of the story. It could also be the moment that the hero becomes what they have always dreamed of being, or obtains what they have always dreamed of owning. It is the moment after which, whatever else happens in the story, the hero has been fully prepared to triumph.
This is not an accomplishment that could be taken away from the hero, this is a vindication of the hero’s self doubt. The real victory for the hero is not in resolving the practical issues but in resolving the personal issues. Once we have conquered fear we are not only equipt for one situation but we are braver people in all aspects of our lives.
As the initiation act draws to a close, the hero can expect to be rewarded for the journey, though the reward may not be what was expected. Cambell’s description of this was Apotheosis (to become godlike). The meaning of this within the story is usually to do with securing something that the hero was previously afraid to lose or becoming something that the hero was previously unable to be. It may be that the hero self identified the wrong prize, but they now know that they have the ultimate victory.
As the hero obtains the intended reward for the journey, he realises has been changed. The hero’s journey will never finish with the initial objective accomplished and no other alteration to the world. The hero finally does something heroic, but this is simply proof of the metamorphosis that has already happened.
It seems mysterious that threads from our own experience are woven into the fabric of powerful tales. Some such tales become so important culturally that they completely transcend their environment and are shared for generations. These are stories which speak to us in a deeply symbolic way. They teach us how to live in harmony with other people and even with ourselves.
The most powerful moment of storytelling bliss is where musical, descriptive, visual, interactive and metaphoric elements coalesce and leave their mark forever.
The journey is over. Just like us, the hero may be reluctant to see the end of the adventure. In parallel with the refusal of the call this demonstrates again how much the character has changed. If the ending of the story is to return the hero to the real world, another external force may be needed here. In fact, most of the beats in the first half of the Journey could now be reversed. The need for supernatural assistance in crossing the threshold may be needed again for the return. This is not to say that the hero must return to the same situation as the start of the movie, but there should be some sense of closure, perhaps a new normalcy. Going on the journey has irreversibly made the hero wiser and changed the hero’s life which is probably more than they bargained for. We may find the journey has made us wiser changed our lives too.