The Hero’s Journey: It’s No Myth

The following is an expansion of a lecture that I gave on 10/15/16 at the Tivoli Free Library, Tivoli, NY. I hope that it converts well to the written word, and you get something out of it.

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Good afternoon. My name is C.A. Sanders, and I’ve been a professional writer for 15 years. I’ve been published both traditionally and non-traditionally, and have also worked (or currently work) as an editor, blogger, teacher, and writing coach. I’m here to speak with you on some common misconceptions about the Hero’s Journey.

When Joseph Campbell first came up with the theory of the Hero’s Journey in 1949, he was specifically studying Myth. He was a mythologist, that’s what they do (hence the name). But because of that, HJ then got associated with Sci-fi and Fantasy.

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The Hero’s Journey isn’t only for Sci-fi, Fantasy, and Horror. It works for any genre, and there’s a very specific and obvious reason. The Hero’s Journey is not about plot, it’s about character (I can already hear some of you grumbling in defiance, but trust me here).

First, let me tell you what it’s not:

It’s not a mold where you pour in ideas and story comes out. It’s not the Play-Doh Fun Factory.

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It’s not the same as plot points or beats or a chapter outline or any other note format. Although plot and the HJ are entwined (think about a Twizzler twisted around itself) they have too different functions. 

The Hero’s Journey is a guideline for CHARACTER TRANSFORMATION (creates your character arc). A great story has great characters that go through this transformation. It doesn’t matter if it’s Shakespeare or Star Wars, it’s there because they have CHARACTER TRANSFORMATION.

Character transformation is the difference between a story and a really long anecdote.

So here’s the plan: 

Campbell and other writers trying to teach the Hero’s Journey use metaphysical terms that are hard to relate to. Campbell identified 17 Steps (though not all myths have all 17)! Meeting With the Goddess? Master of Two Worlds? How’s that gonna help you? No worries, I’m gonna help you.

First, I took out the misogyny. The journey is valid for any and all genders, not just the male-oriented myths that Campbell studied.

I reduced the steps from 17 to 9, perfect for a 3 act story.

I will focus on CHARACTER TRANSFORMATION, not PLOT.

NOTE: I have to say this now, because it’s so important to a story: Remember that a CHARACTER’S actions moves the PLOT, and the PLOT shapes the CHARACTER. It’s cause and effect, something a lot of writers forget. Think of it as a tennis match of action and reaction: The plot hits the ball across the net, the character hits in back, the plot returns it, forcing the character to move (change), and so on.

When outlining, use terms like “because,” “as a consequence of,” and “in response to” instead of “and then.” “And then” is boring. It’s a tennis match where one side scores without any returns.

I chose to move away from the metaphysical terms for the HJ and use something we can relate to, school. From the End of the Summer to the Last Day of School. My steps are.

  1. The End of the Summer
  2. First Day of school.
  3. First exam (end of Act I)
  4. Homework, Classmates, and Tests
  5. Midterms
  6. The Bad Spring Break
  7. Term Paper
  8. Final Exam
  9. The Last Day of School.

I want to use and example outside of sci-fi or fantasy. I chose Grease (the movie), because they literally sing out their HEROIC JOURNEY steps. several characters go through journeys. I chose Sandy.

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We’ll go through the first three steps so you get an idea of what I’m talking about. Then we’ll workshop a main character (Note: Here’s the character development sheet that I included in the presentation) and get them through the first few steps. That means you’ll have to participate a little bit. It’s like being back in school, but you can chew gum. (Note: I did the workshop part, but you won’t find it here for obvious reasons. Too bad you didn’t come to the presentation, but maybe I’ll take it on the road to other libraries).

So put on your thinking caps. It’s time for class.

Continued on the next page

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