Unlock the Power of Journey Archetypes: An Introduction to the Basics

Great novels of our time are rarely written by staring at a blank Google page and willing the perfect combination of words to appear. While inspiration is necessary, constructing a gripping and captivating story is actually a lot more formulaic than most new writers realize. Utilizing journey archetypes can help infuse your story with the familiar.

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Even though they weren’t formally identified until the twentieth century, archetypes can be traced all the way back to ancient literature. As it turns out, we humans are drawn to certain plot structures and archetypes that represent recurrent patterns in behavior. When used correctly, they can add a layer of depth and symbolism to your work by helping readers draw connections between the events in your story and their own lives.

While writing will always be a creative pursuit that allows for deviation and unique interpretations, following a set of tried-and-true archetypes and plot points can make taking your novel from concept to completion much easier. Let’s dive into the basics of journey-based archetypes and how they can work like a roadmap for your novel. Future articles will look deeper into some of the more popular journey archetypes. 

What is a Journey Archetype?

Journey archetypes—also called story archetypes—are recognizable plot structures that follow a particular pattern. And this particular pattern works because it’s reflective of the real human experience. We all grapple with themes of loss, identity, struggle, self-discovery, and making impossible decisions—and that’s exactly the type of story journey archetypes are designed to tell.

Unlike character archetypes, which are based on a person’s traits and attributes, a journey archetype outlines the major plot points in your story. They’re designed to give structure and purpose to the plot, and they can help to ensure that the events in your story follow a clear and logical progression.

By tapping into the power of journey archetypes, you can create a story that feels familiar and comfortable to readers while at the same time allowing for plenty of originality and creativity. While some new authors are hesitant to pull from pre-established story arcs, using them to your advantage can make all the difference between a narrative that feels flat and one that captivates readers from start to finish.

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Here are just a few of the benefits of leveraging journey archetypes in your writing:

  • They provide you with a solid starting ground to work from (great for those suffering from decision paralysis).
  • They establish parameters and help you drive the narrative in interesting and unexpected ways.
  • Their subtle familiarity appeals to readers—even if they don’t realize it.

Diving into the world of archetypes can be a bit overwhelming at first, as there are dozens of options established by a range of authors and experts. If you want to start playing with journey arcs in your writing, start with the Big Three: the Hero’s Journey, the Heroine’s Journey, and the Virgin’s Promise.

Archetype #1: The Hero’s Journey 

Popularized by Joseph Cambell, the Hero’s Journey (also called the monomyth) is one of the most well-known archetype patterns. It’s a simple structure that follows the protagonist from their ordinary, likely mundane existence all the way through to self-discovery and triumph. Think Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and The Hunger Games

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This iconic, adventure-driven arc is generally broken up into 12 stages:

  1. The Ordinary World: The hero’s everyday life before their journey begins.
  2. Call to Adventure: The moment they’re presented with a challenge or hurdle to pursue.
  3. Refusal of the Call: The hero’s initial hesitation in accepting their journey.
  4. Meeting the Mentor: A wise, experienced figure who guides them on their quest.
  5. Crossing the Threshold: The hero crosses the boundary between their ordinary life and the new world they’re stepping into.
  6. Tests, Allies, Enemies: As they make progress on their journey, the hero will face various tests and meet people who can help or hinder them.
  7. Approach to the Inmost Cave: The hero reaches a crisis point, often confronting their biggest fear in some form of distress or isolation.
  8. The Ordeal: The hero’s most difficult challenge that they barely overcome and that triggers a moment of death and rebirth.
  9. The Reward: A tangible reward for the hero’s efforts—often a magical object or valuable knowledge about themselves or the world around them.
  10. Road Back: The journey home, with invitations for potential new challenges or opportunities.
  11. Resurrection: A moment of death and rebirth as the hero faces their final battle that goes far beyond what their original self was capable of.
  12. Return with the Elixir: The hero returns home, transformed and ready to share their new knowledge or power with the world they left behind.

Click here for a deeper dive into this plot structure.

Archetype #2: The Heroine’s Journey 

The Heroine’s Journey is a variation of the classic Hero’s Journey, first created by Maureen Murdock as a counterpoint to the masculine-centric structure established by Campbell. Rather than following a materialistic goal, the Heroine’s Journey is an inner journey focused on enlightenment, growth, self-discovery, and healing. You see it in animated films like Brave, Moana, and even thrillers like The Silence of the Lambs.

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The main stages of the Heroine’s Journey are:

  1. Separation from the Feminine: The heroine rejects her femininity and the expectations put upon her.
  2. Identification with the Masculine: They begin to embody masculine behaviors and traits in an attempt to break through their perceived limitations.
  3. The Road of Trials: The heroine is faced with a series of tests and challenges that she must overcome to prove herself.
  4. The Illusory Boon of Success: After overcoming a seemingly impossible obstacle, they are granted their “reward”—but it doesn’t feel like one.
  5. Awakening to Spiritual Emptiness: Even though they’ve gotten everything they wanted, the heroine can’t help but feel empty inside.
  6. Initiation and Descent to the Goddess: The heroine begins their journey inward and faces whatever shadow they’ve been trying to ignore.
  7. Yearning to Reconnect with the Feminine: The heroine begins to reconnect with their feminine power and reject the people and institutions that have oppressed them.
  8. Healing the Mother/Daughter Split: By finding strength in their past, the heroine is able to heal their relationship with the feminine strengths they once perceived as weak.
  9. Healing the Wounded Masculine: They shed toxic perceptions of masculinity and learn to embrace a more loving version of the masculine.
  10. Integration of Masculine and Feminine: The heroine learns to accept both the masculine and feminine within themselves, ultimately embracing their true, authentic nature.

Click here for a deeper dive into this plot structure.

Archetype #3: The Virgin’s Promise 

In an effort to not limit a protagonist’s journey to their gender, Kim Hudson created the Virgin’s Promise—a gender-neutral arc that follows the search for one’s authentic self. You’ll see it in movies like Brokeback Mountain, Bend It Like Beckham, and even Wedding Crashers

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The main stages of the Virgin’s Promise are:

  1. The Dependent World: They live in an ordered, familiar world that they rely on to survive.
  2. The Price of Conformity: The pressures of conformity lead them to make sacrifices in order to fit in and be accepted—usually, that means suppressing an inner gift or their true nature.
  3. Opportunity to Shine: The protagonist gets a chance to shine without risking their place in their world and discovers a gift within themselves that they never knew existed.
  4. Dresses the Part: Realizing that their dreams are within reach, they willingly step into the role via a new look or some alteration to their physical appearance.
  5. The Secret World: With a foot in the door, they are invited to explore the secret world of their authentic self but are hesitant to dive in.
  6. No Longer Fits: After realizing their true nature, they no longer fit in the world they once felt comfortable and accepted in.
  7. Caught Shining: They are caught in their newfound freedom, and one world is exposed to the other.
  8. Giving Up What Keeps Them Stuck: Whatever has held the protagonist back—fear, guilt, etc.—must be given up in order to move forward.
  9. Kingdom in Chaos: Rocking the boat comes with consequences, and the two worlds that were once separate now collide in chaos.
  10. Wanders in the Wilderness: The moment of doubt when things fail to go as planned.
  11. Choosing Their Light: The protagonist must choose to shine and embrace their true self no matter the cost.
  12. Re-ordering/Rescue: As the world readjusts itself, a new order is made in which the protagonist’s true nature is accepted.
  13. The Kingdom is Brighter: The protagonist’s new world is a brighter one, and the power of their true identity radiates outwards, inspiring others to follow suit.

Click here for a deeper dive into this plot structure.

The Archetype Hype

While you are by no means required to follow these archetypes to the letter, they can be a helpful tool when mapping out a storyline. If you find yourself stuck in the writing process, try experimenting with one of these structures to see if it helps push your story along. You may be surprised at where it takes you.

Stay tuned for more articles diving deeper into the individual archetypal journeys and their offshoots. And, of course, my book coaching services are always available if you need some extra guidance and support. Click here to learn more and get in touch today.

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Story Coach, Story Development

I’m Pam, Your Story Coach

I help busy professionals write and polish the book of their dreams. Let’s bring authenticity to your speculations, flow to your structure, and heart to your words.

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