The hero’s journey provides a framework for writers to follow in writing works of fiction. It includes 12 steps that lead the hero of a story from their ordinary world into the trials and tribulations of an epic adventure, and then back home again.
The hero’s journey is used time and again. It’s the foundation upon which some of the most famous stories have been built, including “Star Wars,” “The Matrix,” “The Lord of the Rings” and the “Harry Potter” series.
The following provides an overview of the hero’s journey stages. Understanding these steps is something students learn in detail in a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Screenwriting program.
The Hero’s Journey Stages
The renowned mythologist Joseph Campbell first described the hero’s journey so often repeated in tales from antiquity. They involve the hero leaving their ordinary world, becoming initiated in a special world where they go through many trials, and then returning home in triumph.
Those ideas have been expanded on to include 12 steps. Here’s an overview of each.
This is where the hero exists at the start of the story. It’s typically a remote place such as The Shire in “The Lord of the Rings” or Tatooine in “Star Wars.” The hero may even be comfortable there, but most often longs for adventure.
Call to Adventure
The inciting incident and an offer to begin an adventure. Typically, this comes as a problem or incident that the hero cannot ignore. Sometimes, it’s a direct threat to herself, her family or her community.
Refusal of the Call
For various reasons – fear, doubts about their abilities, etc. – the hero refuses the call. Once confronted by the idea of actually leaving, they want to remain in the “safe place” that is their ordinary world.
Meeting the Mentor
A figure appears to give the hero something that motivates them to accept the call to adventure. This can range from advice, insight into their situation they didn’t previously have, or a weapon or artifact of some kind that holds importance.
Crossing the Threshold
The hero now accepts the call to adventure and begins the quest – there’s no turning back! This moment is always a big one in film – Harry board the Hogwarts Express, Frodo and his friend run from The Shire, Luke Skywalker journeys to Mos Eisley spaceport, and Neo takes the red pill.
Test, Allies, Enemies
The hero encounters obstacles and tests, finds allies and makes enemies. This is typically the part of the story where the hero gathers a squad of people around them to support them as they make their journey.
Approach to the Inmost Cave
The hero confronts doubts and fears again. The cave may be a terrible danger or difficult internal conflict. There’s also a pause to reflect on what has happened and prepare for what is to come.
This conflict represents the biggest challenge (so far). If the hero fails, he either dies or life as he knows it comes to an end. This is not the climax of the story, but the point where the hero truly does something heroic.
The hero emerges as the victor and claims his reward – sometimes an object or great knowledge. Dorothy entering the Wicked Witch of the West’s castle with the broom and bucket of water – objects she needs to win – is a moment of reward. So is Luke Skywalker gaining the insight that The Force is real and he can use it to blow up the Death Star.
The Road Back
Returning home to reenter the ordinary world. This may also require a sacrifice for the greater good. The hero may be pursued by enemies. This is the setup for the final battle.
The final battle in which the hero faces his greatest test. It’s not just his life on the line, however, but the lives of everyone he knows. This is Harry Potter facing Lord Voldemort, Frodo standing at the ledge in Mount Doom or Iron Man vs. Thanos. Everything is on the line.
Return With The Elixir
The hero returns to the ordinary world as a changed person. Her return brings hope to those back at home and a chance at new beginnings.
Common Characters in the Hero’s Journey
Many stories incorporate the hero’s journey. Some of the biggest book series and film franchises ever created follow these steps fairly closely, including “Star Wars,” “The Lord of the Rings” and “Harry Potter.” The following are some of the archetypal characters used in the hero’s journey stages, using characters from those three films series as examples.
The Hero. The protagonist of the story
The Magician. Someone who masters the mystical forces of their world, for good or ill.
The Mentor. A wise person who guides the hero.
The Jester. A comic character who sometimes reveals deep truths.
The Outlaw. A person who lives by their own rules.
The Caretaker. A character who supports the hero, sometimes making great sacrifices.
The Ruler. A leader who directs the actions of others.
The Lover. A romantic who is guided by the heart.
The Explorer. Someone who wants to push the boundaries and explore the unknown.
The Innocent. A morally pure character often traveling through a wicked world.