You’re familiar with the adventure: a seemingly ordinary person is called to travel to a strange and unfamiliar land, where they battle evil forces and come out transformed. They must face adversity and danger, find allies, and ultimately achieve victory. This narrative pattern is called the Hero’s Journey—and it’s been an essential element of storytelling since its inception by Joseph Campbell in 1949.
This concept has been used to tell some of the most iconic stories of our time, from The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter to Interview with a Vampire and The Hunger Games. While variations and deviations exist, every hero’s journey follows the same 12-step structure, each step representing a key element of the protagonist’s transformation. Below, we’ll break down the stages of the hero’s journey and how to use them while crafting your own compelling novel.
Stage #1: The Ordinary World
We meet our hero on their home turf, where they’re living a mundane life that’s likely recognizable and relatable to the reader. This stage is all about introducing your protagonist so that your readers can connect with them and understand how they relate to their current set of circumstances. Are they the outcast? The rule-follower? The rebel?
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, we see Harry living in the cupboard under the stairs of his aunt and uncle’s home. In The Hunger Games, Katniss is surviving in the poverty-stricken District 12 with her family. Both stories quickly give a sense of how our heroes fit into their current worlds—and what they might hope to change.
Stage #2: The Call to Adventure
This is the moment when our protagonist is called to a life-changing adventure, often by an external force. Also referred to as the “inciting incident,” this is the trigger that sets our hero on their path. It can be a call from destiny, some kind of crisis or emergency, or an out-of-the-blue invitation—any event that rips our hero from their ordinary life and thrusts them into the unknown. Neo was just a computer hacker until Morpheus appeared and offered him a choice: red pill or blue.
Stage #3: Refusal of the Call
Stage #4: Meeting the Mentor
Once the hero decides to take up the challenge, they reach their first obstacle. Maybe it’s a lack of direction or a need for guidance. Enter the mentor: a wise teacher who will provide our hero with the tools and support they need to succeed. Think Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda in Star Wars or Ron and Hermione in Harry Potter. While the mentor may be associated with an elder, it can also be a group of rag-tag allies who offer support and guidance.
Stage #5: Crossing the Threshold
This is the first decision our hero makes to step out of their ordinary world and into a new land of possibilities. In the traditional sense, this might mean leaving a comfortable place to go on a quest, like Dorothy stepping onto the yellow brick road in Wizards of Oz. It could also be more subtle, like taking a new job or choosing to stand up for something they believe in. Whatever the instance, this is the point when our hero decides to start making decisions for themselves.
Stage #6: Tests, Allies, and Enemies
Fully immersed in the strange new world, our hero must now face the journey ahead. This stage is all about testing their mettle, finding allies, and facing enemies. In Jaws, Chief Brody doesn’t immediately go toe-to-toe with a giant shark. He must first prove himself to the townspeople, battle against a money-hungry may, and gain allies in Quint and Hooper.
Stage #7: Approach to the Inmost Cave
After a long journey, our hero can finally see the light at the end of the tunnel. Be it a physical place like a castle or tower, or an emotional state such as facing their greatest fear, this stage is all about building anticipation for the massive showdown that awaits. Like Ethan Hunt and his allies mapping out their plan of attack in Mission Impossible, every hero needs a chance to catch their breath before the grand finale.
Stage #8: Ordeal
Unfortunately, nothing ever goes according to plan. When the challenge arises, and everything falls apart, our hero must persist until they find a way to succeed. But they don’t come out unscathed. Some loss must occur in order to trigger a transformation, like the death of an ally or the destruction of something they love. In Star Wars, Luke watches Darth Vadar strike down Obi-Wan, a mentor and father figure—which only further motivates him to rise up and fight the Empire.
Stage #9: Reward (Seizing the Sword)
Finally, our hero is victorious. And that victory comes in the form of knowledge, a special object, or a newfound power. This is their reward for facing the Ordeal and overcoming the odds. In The Matrix, Neo is rewarded with confidence in his abilities and a sense that he just might be The One.
Stage #10 The Road Back
On the way home, our hero realizes that their victory is not without consequences. New enemies and bigger challenges arise that go far beyond the scope of what they originally set out to do. While they’re tempted to abandon this second call to adventure (especially considering they’ve found what they were looking for), the hero ultimately decides to stay and fight. For example, after finally receiving passage home, Odysseus learns that his wife is being courted by suitors.
Stage #:11 Resurrection
Here our hero faces their greatest challenge yet. It may look like certain death, but our hero nonetheless finds the strength to persevere. Whether it’s Luke destroying the Death Star or Harry Potter going head-to-head with Voldemort, the resurrection is a finale that proves the hero has come full circle.
Stage #12: Return with the Elixir
Finally, our hero is able to return home—only they’re not anything remotely like the person they were before the journey began. This is the ultimate reward and lesson learned. Armed with newfound skills, knowledge, and confidence, our hero returns to their ordinary world, ready to share their elixir with the rest of us.
Want To Dive Deeper?
For those looking to explore the use of The Hero’s Journey in their novel further, check out Joseph Campbell’s original book The Hero with a Thousand Faces as well as Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. Volger also has some resources on his website that can be helpful for setting up a hero’s journey in your story.
The internet is full of references and homages to The Hero’s Journey, far more that it’s possible to discuss here. For variety, consider investigating other archetypal journeys such as the Heroine’s Journey and the Virgin’s Promise.
Working with a professional editor or book coach can also help you decide if the Hero’s Journey or another archetype can make your story arc the most impactful. Click here to learn more about PDHines book coaching services and how we can help you bring your story to life.