It’s a story we’ve seen many times over: an unlikely hero embarks on a journey that has been thrust upon them. Along the way, they make some allies and enemies, maybe even fall in love. At the outset, they become stronger and wiser than they were when they embarked on their journey. No matter what the genre or setting of the story is, the narrative at the heart follows this pattern. This is known in literary circles as the Monomyth or, in pop culture, as the Hero’s Journey.
The infographic below shows the progression of the Hero’s Journey in six iconic movies: Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001), Star Wars (1977), The Matrix (1999), Spider-Man (2002), The Lion King (1994) and The Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-2003).
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The Monomyth was first conceptualized by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). In Campbell’s Monomyth, the hero embarks on a circular journey comprised of seventeen stages. The book identifies a narrative pattern throughout works of mythology (and narrative in general).
The monomyth has since been adapted and condensed into twelve stages by Hollywood executive Christopher Vogler. Vogler developed his version of the monomyth while working at Disney, and once you recognize the pattern, you’ll be able to identify it in some capacity in almost any film. He’s the one who popularized calling it the “Hero’s Journey,” and his version focuses specifically on movie narratives.
The 12 Stages of Vogler’s Hero’s Journey
1. The Ordinary World
The hero is introduced in their ordinary world. The mundane ordinary world is presented in stark contrast with the “special world” that the hero will enter when they accept their quest. In Spider-Man, Peter Parker is introduced as a regular, particularly nerdy teen in Queens–quite the opposite of the kickass crimestopper he becomes.
2. The Call to Adventure
The initiating incident of the story takes place. The hero is introduced to the challenge or problem that their quest will seek to overcome. In Star Wars, the call to adventure comes in the form of Princess Leia’s message, delivered by R2-D2.
3. Refusal of the Call
The hero hesitates to accept the call to adventure. This could be because they don’t feel they have the skills to take on the quest or they don’t want to leave the life they know. In The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Frodo is reluctant to leave his comfortable and familiar life in the Shire in order to face the unknown dangers that await him on his journey.
4. Meeting with the Mentor
The hero meets a wise, usually older, woman or man. The mentor guides the hero in gaining the supplies and knowledge needed to embark on the adventure. However, the mentor can only go so far with the hero. In The Matrix, this is where Neo meets Morpheus, who tells him to take the red pill or the blue pill.
5. Crossing the First Threshold
The hero commits wholeheartedly to the adventure and integrates into the special world. There is no turning back from this point. In Spider-Man, Peter crosses the threshold when he catches the thief who killed his Uncle Ben and realizes that he must use his powers to stop crime.
6. Tests, Allies and Enemies
The hero explores the special world, faces trial, and makes friends and enemies along the way. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, this is the part where Harry adjusts to life in the Wizarding world, makes friends with Ron Weasley and Hermione Granger, and becomes enemies with Draco Malfoy.
7. Approach to the Innermost Cave
The hero draws closer to the center of the story and the special world. Often, this “innermost cave” is where the “object” or “elixir” of the quest is hidden. The object of the quest may be an actual treasure or a symbolic achievement. The innermost cave takes the form of the Death Star in Star Wars; Luke and his companions must infiltrate the ship to save Leia.
8. The Ordeal
The hero is pushed to the brink of death or loss and faces the greatest challenge yet. It is through this struggle that the hero experiences a process of death and rebirth (figuratively or literally). In The Lion King, Simba’s ordeal means he must face the guilt he feels for his father’s death and reclaim his right to Pride Rock, which has been taken over by Scar.
9. The Reward
The hero experiences the consequences of surviving death (figuratively or literally) and retrieves the object of their quest. It’s often at this point that the hero has a love scene with their love interest and reconciles with their enemies. In Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, Harry passes the obstacles barring the Philosopher’s Stone and discovers that the stone has appeared in his pocket.
10. The Road Back
The hero returns to the ordinary world or continues onward to an ultimate destination, but their trials aren’t over just yet. They are often pursued by a vengeful force that they must face. In the Lord of the Rings trilogy, this is where Gollum confronts Frodo at the ledge of the volcano and tries to take the Ring back from him.
11. The Resurrection
The hero emerges from the special world fundamentally changed by their experiences. In The Lion King, Simba learns the truth that it was Scar who orchestrated Mufasa’s death. Simba throws Scar off Pride Rock in order to reclaim his place as king.
12. Return with the Elixir
The hero brings with them the object of their quest, which they use to better the ordinary world in some way–whether it’s through knowledge, a cure, or some form of protection. In The Matrix, armed with the knowledge of the truth, Neo delivers a message to the Matrix that he will save humanity.
A Narrative of Change
Many have considered this narrative pattern to be a point of criticism. After all, what constraints does it put on a writer if they feel their story needs to follow this same progression if it’s going to be great? And watching the same basic plot over and over again is boring. That being said, the Hero’s Journey only points to how many of the most resonating stories are driven by a narrative process of change. A protagonist embarks on their journey one way and emerges at the end of the story changed.
The six iconic movies we looked at vary significantly from one another in terms of setting, genre, and characterization of the protagonists (I mean, Simba’s a lion–he and Neo don’t have a whole lot in common). But what they do have in common is the underlying narrative pattern of a hero character who is called away from their ordinary life and sent on a journey of discovery and character development.
And the truth is, it was a bit difficult at times to find a plot point in every movie that fit perfectly into the stages of the Hero’s Journey. Sometimes stages will unfold in a different order than the Hero’s Journey places them (for example, in Star Wars, Luke meets with his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, before he refuses the call to adventure). That’s also where the variety and originality of each story comes in; while there must ultimately be a process of change, how each individual character changes is dependent on the story. Often, the progression from one stage to the next is a symbolic one.
What can we learn from the Hero’s Journey?
Not surprisingly, the Hero’s Journey has been adopted by content marketers because it acts as a framework for effective storytelling.
The lesson we can take away from the Hero’s Journey is similar to the lesson we took away from our creepypasta study. The formula that are recycled again and again in narrative are in place because they work. It’s the same with formulas for design, or any other aspect of creation. That being said, while a story revolving around a protagonist’s change makes for a solid base plot, there need to be significant variations to the story, characters, and setting to make the story new and exciting. Otherwise, you end up with empty clichés and forgettable stories.
Making a classic story new is a tricky line that is easily crossed. What you need to remember is that character is at the center of the Hero’s Journey. Often, filmmakers will put a lot of effort into creating a new setting but not effort into making their characters compelling. Avatar (2009) took the Hero’s Journey and spruced it up with groundbreaking 3D design and a new world to explore but in the end, many viewers thought the story was too clichéd and overdone.
On the other hand, The Lion King was very well received because it has compelling characters, a new and interesting setting, and great music to boot. Even though it not only adapted the Hero’s Journey, but also Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it has become a classic in its own right.
This is a lesson that extends beyond movie makers and fiction writers to content creators in general. Whether you’re writing an informative blog post, planning a marketing campaign, or even planning a lesson, the Hero’s Journey can offer you a basis of how an effective “plot” or content strategy progresses. How you choose to interpret each component of the plot is up to you!
Here is a way to interpret the Hero’s Journey in a broader sense:
- The Ordinary World: Who is your hero (is it your company’s users? is it a certain demographic?)?
- The Call to Adventure: What is the central conflict that needs solving? What is the solution you propose as the writer?
- Refusal of the Call: How do you anticipate your hero(s) reacting to the problem? Is it exciting? Challenging? Will they be wary of accepting your solution?
- Meeting with the Mentor: As the writer, you take on the role of the mentor who will guide your hero through the resolution of their problem. You must convince them to trust your wisdom.
- Crossing the First Threshold: Once your hero trusts you, they will be on board to hear your guidance and put your tips to action.
- Tests, Allies, and Enemies: Now you can introduce your hero to the tools, resources and experts they need to become acquainted with to solve their problem. Give them the run-down of the solution, whether it’s a particular strategy they need to learn or a specific software they need to use. This is also the point where you advise them on what not to do.
- Approach to the Innermost Cave: Once your hero learns the ropes (or gets a general idea of the information) it’s time for them to put the solution to their problem into action, or at least to see it put into action. Offer them some examples and case studies, or give them a tutorial exercise to complete.
- The Ordeal: Your hero will have to test their knowledge and skills in some way, either through an exercise, a quiz, or some other measure of what they have learned.
- The Reward: Having succeeded at their first test, the hero will experience the rewards of their efforts. But their journey isn’t over yet.
- The Road Back: It’s important that you advise your hero that the problem is not solved yet–they will likely need to repeat the process in the future.
- The Resurrection: At this point, your hero should know how to address the problem and how to repeat the process.
- Return with the Elixir: Your hero emerges from reading/watching/listening to your content wiser and equipped with the knowledge and skills to face the same and similar problems in the future.
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The infographic in this article was created by Joana Lu.