Death of the Critic

The Hero's Journey

Written by: Tom Blaich

We try to give our audience as strong of a background in the themes and ideas that we talk about in our essays. As we look at media of all types, we can see so many common themes that run through our canon, our comprehensive body of work. The more media that you start to consume, the more common threads that you will begin to notice. Perhaps the most common is that of the "Hero's Journey". In essence, the Hero's Journey is a quest that a main character goes through to undergo some kind of personal growth. Harboring deep ties to Arthurian legend, you can see the same set of plot points and character archetypes instilled in so many of the stories that we tell.

You have your main character. Maybe they are a noble knight, or a chosen warrior, or some kid who doesn't quite know their place in the world. They have a specific goal: conquering a dungeon, defeating a dragon, or just talking to a pretty girl in gym class. All along the way they are faced with challenges that stimulate the growth of the character not only in strength of body, but also of character. It is the classic coming of age tale that is told in so many ways by so many different people.

The way in which these basic points appear is different in every piece, but their foundation is the same. By being almost omnipresent in our stories, it was given the moniker of The American Monomyth, the single myth from which our stories draw. There are many different descriptions, but I tend to like Christopher Vogler's interpretation from his 2007 screenwriting how-to book, The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers.
It identifies the following 12 steps as being intrinsic to the Hero's Journey:

"1.     THE ORDINARY WORLD.  The hero, uneasy, uncomfortable or unaware, is introduced sympathetically so the audience can identify with the situation or dilemma.  The hero is shown against a background of environment, heredity, and personal history.  Some kind of polarity in the hero’s life is pulling in different directions and causing stress.

2.     THE CALL TO ADVENTURE.  Something shakes up the situation, either from external pressures or from something rising up from deep within, so the hero must face the beginnings of change.

3.     REFUSAL OF THE CALL.  The hero feels the fear of the unknown and tries to turn away from the adventure, however briefly.  Alternately, another character may express the uncertainty and danger ahead.

4.     MEETING WITH THE MENTOR.  The hero comes across a seasoned traveler of the worlds who gives him or her training, equipment, or advice that will help on the journey.  Or the hero reaches within to a source of courage and wisdom.

5.     CROSSING THE THRESHOLD.  At the end of Act One, the hero commits to leaving the Ordinary World and entering a new region or condition with unfamiliar rules and values.

6.     TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES.  The hero is tested and sorts out allegiances in the Special World.
7.     APPROACH.  The hero and newfound allies prepare for the major challenge in the Special world.

8.     THE ORDEAL.  Near the middle of the story, the hero enters a central space in the Special World and confronts death or faces his or her greatest fear.  Out of the moment of death comes a new life.

9.     THE REWARD.  The hero takes possession of the treasure won by facing death.  There may be celebration, but there is also danger of losing the treasure again.

10.  THE ROAD BACK.  About three-fourths of the way through the story, the hero is driven to complete the adventure, leaving the Special World to be sure the treasure is brought home.  Often a chase scene signals the urgency and danger of the mission.

11. THE RESURRECTION.  At the climax, the hero is severely tested once more on the threshold of home.  He or she is purified by a last sacrifice, another moment of death and rebirth, but on a higher and more complete level.  By the hero’s action, the polarities that were in conflict at the beginning are finally resolved.

12.   RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR.  The hero returns home or continues the journey, bearing some element of the treasure that has the power to transform the world as the hero has been transformed." (Vogler)

Once you start thinking about it a little bit, you can see this trope everywhere. The journey itself doesn't have to be epic; Hell, it could be a trip to the grocery store, or an attempt to return a briefcase to a pretty woman. The hero's journey is fundamentally about the journey that a character goes through and how they change. You can see that the 12 steps neatly follow a standard plot curve, with your rising action (the call to adventure, refusal of the call, meeting with the mentor, crossing the threshold), your climax (the resurrection), and the falling action (return with the elixir)

For example, you can see this in one of the most famous examples of our time, Star Wars. In A New Hope, we are introduced to Luke Skywalker, a simple young man who lives on a farm with his aunt and uncle. He's a bit whiny, but otherwise is a pretty average person (The Ordinary World). All of a sudden, he finds himself in possession of two droids that came from Princess Leia (The Call to Adventure). Initially he is skeptical (Refusal of the Call) before he meets with old Ben Kenobi (Meeting with the Mentor) before he agrees to go out on an adventure after his aunt and uncle are killed. He sets off with Han Solo and Chewbacca on the Millennium Falcon (Crossing the Threshold). From here we see the men trying to escape from the Empire before they are captured (Tests, Allies, and Enemies) where they learn where Princess Leia is being held and of the construction of the Death Star (The Approach). Obi Wan Kenobi sacrificed himself that so that Luke and the gang can escape (The Ordeal), and return to the rebels with the Princess (The Reward). They then take on the Death Star, hoping to destroy the superweapon that threatens the heart of the Rebellion (The Road Back). Luke turns off his targeting computer and uses the force to guide his proton torpedoes into the exhaust port of the Death Star (The Resurrection), so that they can return to the Rebellion having saved the day (Return with Elixir).

This is a fairly obvious example, but you can also see these tropes in movies like Dumb and Dumber, where two men travel across the country to return a briefcase full of ransom money to a beautiful woman (The Call to Adventure), and inadvertently thwart the kidnappers along the way (The Ordeal), while becoming better friends (Return with the Elixir). Or Nine Lives, where we meet Kevin Spacey, learn that he is an asshole, that everyone dislikes him. He dies, and has to go on a journey to better himself so that his family can love him again and he can regain his lost body.

It is important to recognize because the more knowledge we have about a story, the better we can analyze it. We can look at a story like Star Wars and a story like Dumb and Dumber and see that if both of these stories follow the same theme, what else do they have in common. It helps us to identify different characters, growth, and major plot points. It helps us understand the plot better. We can start forming connections that we otherwise might not have been able to. By it being such a fundamental piece of framework for our stories, it is imperative that we understand it to better talk about media.

Vogler, Chris. "INTRODUCTION." The Writer's Journey. Storytech Literary Consulting, n.d. Web. 06 Dec. 2016.


Tom has been writing about media since he was a senior in high school. He likes long walks on the beach, dark liquor, and when characters reload guns in action movies.

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