What is the hero’s journey and how does it apply to story telling?
Storytelling is as old as mankind. We all love stories. It’s why we read books and why we watch movies. It’s why we listen to our friends when they regale us with their crazy antics or funny memories. We love story. And while there is a multitude of ways to tell stories, for the most part all stories share a common thread: plot. And for many favorite epic tales, that plot revolves around something known as the Hero’s Journey. First noticed and analyzed by Joseph Campbell, this pattern of story telling has been repeated over and over again.
(Prepare yourself, because I’m about to ruin just about every favorite movie, and many a favorite book for you.)
Everything from Harry Potter to Star Wars to Lord of the Rings follows a very similar path, even if the way the story unfolds is completely different.
I suppose you could call the Hero’s Journey a formula, but I don’t like that word. Mainly because I think writers and storytellers are more nuanced than that. It’s no more a formula that a plot chart or a beat sheet. This is what story is: a beginning, middle, end, with trials and successes, a climax and resolution that leaves the main character changed in a profound way, and the reader feeling satisfied that they spent time in your created world.
For this post, I will be using Moana as my main example ( along with varying examples form Harry Potter, Star Wars, and The Lord of the Rings) Just in case you are one of the four people who haven’t read these books or seen the movie, there are spoilers. You have been warned.
The Hero’s Journey
To start off, there are two “worlds” within the hero’s journey: the known world and the unknown world. The known world is everything that is safe and easy, even if the environment isn’t actually “safe”. It’s what is known and that makes it easy to live it. In Moana, the known world is her community on her island. The island provides for their every need and no one leaves.
The unknown worlds is full of danger and possibility. Sometimes it is guaranteed to be better than the known world, but it’s appeal is the sense of adventure. The unknown world is the ocean beyond the reef. Something that calls to Moana.
The hero appears to be ordinary, yet they possess some quality or qualities that make him or her special. Harry Potter is the boy who lived, Luke Skywalker is possessed with a strong Force. The quality might not be supernatural, but there is always something that sets the hero apart from the rest of their world.
Moana is an active, kind member of her community, but she is the daughter of the chief and the future of her community. Her fierce determination and tugging on her heart for more, makes her special and uneasy in her “safe” world.
Call to Adventure
Something, a force, and action, a special quality, calls the hero on to a great adventure. Frodo gets the ring, Harry learns he is a wizard. These calls to action make it so that the hero cannot stay where he is. He knows too much and can never go back to life as status quo.
In Moana, the ocean chooses her at a very young age and presents her with the heart of Te Fiti. But it’s not until she’s older when her grandmother reveals that the world is dying, and only Moana can save her people.
The hero chooses to act, to take a step forward into the unknown world. This isn’t a passive action, but rather the hero is proactive and makes the decision whether out of curiosity, fear, or determination. Harry Potter takes the train to Hogwarts. Frodo volunteers to take the ring to Mordor.
Moana’s threshold is a physical threshold as well as mental. She decides to go beyond the reef, and physically blasts through a water and roaring waves to do so.
Meeting a Guide
Shortly after crossing the threshold, (or even sometimes before) the hero will meet a guide. This guide may or may not have supernatural powers and knowledge that the hero does not have. Luke Skywalker has Obi-wan, Frodo has Gandalf.
Moana meets a demigod named Maui who refuses to help at first, but eventually works with her to return the heart. He also teaches her how to sail and navigate along the way.
Challenges and Temptations
In any good story, there must be tension, obstacles, adversity, and struggle. The hero is faced with trials, temptation, and failures. He must be challenged in order to grow and rise to the ultimate battle. Harry fights with schoolmates, gets detentions, and is even tempted by a magic mirror. Frodo is faced with struggle after struggle on his journey all while being tempted by the ring.
Moana faces a storm at sea, a band of pirates, and a murderous giant sea turtle monster. She faces the challenges and comes out stronger on the other side.
Throughout the story, the hero receives help from one or more characters. They offer aid, encouragement, insight, and often have traits the hero lacks. Harry has Ron and Hermione, Frodo has Sam. Often, but not always, the Helper is unavailable or lacking at the moment battle, and the hero must press on by themselves.
Moana’s helper is her grandmother. From the beginning, her grandmother was the one who pushed her toward the sea, kept the heart safe until Moana was old enough, and returns as a spirit at Moana’s lowest moment of despair to remind her who she is.
The Abyss and Revelation
The first attempt of the hero to defeat the villain is a disaster. They are at their lowest, and all hope seems lost. Harry is almost killed by Voldemort in the Forbidden Forrest. IT is a false defeat, but and important one. It is the defeat that leads the hero to the revelation about themselves and what they must do.
Moana and Maui charge toward Te Ka who rises from her mountain bed and attacks with fire. She is too strong for Maui, who nearly loses his magical fishhook, and Moana is almost capsized. This leads to a giant fight between Maui and Moana. Maui leaves, abandoning Moana. She realizes it is up to her to save her people.
After the realization, the hero attempts again to accomplish the mission. This time, they know what they must do. Harry must face Voldemort alone, and Luke must destroy the Death Star
Maui returns and together they try to return the heart again. This time, Moana realizes that Te Ka is Te Fiti, and offers her the heart, restoring Te Fiti to her true self, and saving her people and world in the process.
Gift of the Goddess
After the final battle, the hero is often given a token of gratitude or a symbol of the journey they have been on. Harry receives his invisibility cloak. Luke and Frodo are both honored publicly.
Moana is given a new boat from Tefiti, a sign of gratitude, but also a very strong symbol of the voyaging journey of both Moana and her people.
The hero returns home, often changed for the better, but not always. Harry returns to Privat Drive, more confident having found his true place, but Frodo returns to the Shire, feeling out of place.
Moana returns home, knowing who she is as a leader of her community and inspires her people to voyage again.
There you have it! Remember, this isn’t a formula necessarily, but it is what story is about. At it’s core, every story shares these key elements–it’s why we love stories! And now that you know, you’ll be able to spot the different plot points of some of you favorite movies and books.