The Hero’s Journey, or Monomyth, is mythologist Joseph Campbell’s theory that most stories throughout the world follow a simple narrative pattern.
This pattern can be expressed in many different ways. Sometimes it’s a circle, or a straight line, or another shape entirely. It can contain as many of 17 steps and as few as 3. At its most basic, the theory states that:
- The Protagonist is called to adventure.
- The Protagonist must undergo trials or great hardship
- The Protagonist masters the conflict and returns home.
It makes sense, right? You can probably think of a lot of books and movies that follow the pattern. Harry Potter, The Hobbit, Star Wars, The Odyssey, Ender’s Game, Beowulf, American Gods, Alice in Wonderland. To name just a few.
But there are a lot of problems with the Hero’s Journey.
- It leaves out A LOT of stories. Ulysses, Sandman, Twilight, Beauty and the Beast, Star Trek, Dune, Watchmen, The Adventures of Huck Finn, and Memento, to say nothing of every single romcom and story told outside of North America and Europe. These stories might be qualitatively good, or they might not be, but their lack of adherence to the Monomyth structure doesn’t have anything to do with their critical or commercial success.
- Following the structure doesn’t guarantee good stories. The Dark Tower Series, Last Action Hero, Van Helsing (movie), 50 Shades of Grey, Battlefield Earth, Temptation, Spawn, Mars Needs Moms are all arguably weak from a critical perspective. Yet they follow the Hero’s Journey just as well as many stronger stories that proponents of Monomyth want to claim.
- See stories attributed to Monomyth that you don’t agree fit the mold? No kidding! That’s another problem with the theory. Campbell himself notoriously shoehorned famous stories and myths into his narrow frame, attributing great importance to pieces that fit well, and quietly de-emphasizing aspects of stories that didn’t fit his theory. Which means that anyone can attempt to argue Anastasia from 50 Shades of Grey receiving her first spank represents a “Call to Action”.
- Traditionally, the Hero’s Journey has been sexist and Eurocentric. It claims to represent stories from all over the world, but it doesn’t do a very good job of representing stories, myths or heroes from Asian, African, or Indigenous cultures. Stories that adhere to Monomyth stress individualist ego and exceptionalism over stories of social cooperation, and ignore stories and myths that don’t feature one individual hero. Furthermore, stories that rigidly adhere to Monomyth exclude female Protagonists. Check out TEMPTATION, MEETING THE GODDESS, and RESCUE THE PRINCESS, which all appear at different parts of different versions of the Hero’s Journey. According to Campbell, TEMPTATION requires “the seeker of the life beyond life must press beyond (the woman), surpass the temptations of her call, and soar to the immaculate ether beyond.” When the Hero MEETS THE GODDESS, it represents him meeting the purest form of femininity and creation. Campbell vainly asserts there is a female equivalent, but is unable to cite any examples. Can you? Who tempts the Heroine? Who does she meet who represents goodness and creation? Does she save the hero? Campbell allows for the possibility, but Monomyth’s default setting is male hero, female plot device.
- It’s cliche as hell. When it’s done well, it’s a crowd pleaser, sure. But structurally it’s been done almost literally to death. And that’s okay, because it’s so limiting in the kinds of stories it can tell, that in order to be original, you have to break free.
There is nothing wrong with following a traditional story structure in your writing. Just don’t be a slave to Campbell’s outdated, Eurocentric Monomyth theory of mythology. Don’t confuse a tool of literary criticism with some holy grail of plot structure. It won’t get you published or even considered if your story isn’t otherwise compelling. It’s just ONE kind of narrative arc that exists. Dare to be different. Dare to write.