As one might imagine, the journeys that a male and female protagonist might take on the road to heroics are quite different. Feeling limited by the constraints of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, therapist Maureen Murdock wrote The Heroine’s Journey: Woman’s Quest for Wholeness and thus created an entirely new archetypal path.
Popular Disney tales like Mulan, Frozen, and Brave are great examples of how the Heroine’s Journey can be used as a storytelling tool. By taking your primary character through 10 stages of growth and introspection, you can create narrative arcs that both ring emotionally true and feel deeply satisfying to your readers.
You’re always free to shift and alter the stages as you see fit, but in this piece, we’ll go over the basic breakdown so you can get an idea of how the Heroine’s Journey works.
What’s the Difference Between the Hero’s and the Heroine’s Journey?
Unlike Campbell’s tale of tangible success and validation, Murdock’s version focuses on a psycho-spiritual internal journey of healing. It emphasizes emotional understanding, spiritual exploration, and finding a sense of self-worth. Rather than seeking an external object, heroines are seeking some sense of identity that they’ve lost by immersing themselves in a masculine-driven world.
As Murdock famously put it: “Women don’t need to make the journey. In the whole mythological tradition, the woman is [already] there. All she has to do is to realize that she’s the place that people are trying to get to.”
Let’s get one thing clear—while the Heroine’s Journey is about the feminine, it’s not limited to just female characters. Just like the Hero’s Journey can be embarked on by characters of any gender, so too can this tale.
Stage #1: Separation from the Feminine
Our story starts with our heroine rejecting the traditional, feminine role society has assigned to them. Rather than being bound by the expectations of others, they step out on their own. In Mulan, this stage is represented by her refusal to adhere to the traditional expectations of Chinese women at the time—in particular, getting married.
Stage #2: Identification with the Masculine
The second stage focuses on the heroine learning from and taking control of their own story in the same way a masculine hero might. They start to mimic masculine behaviors that they think will help them get ahead. Think of Elsa in Frozen, who learns self-control and discipline in order to suppress her own powers.
Stage #3: The Road of Trials
There is no Heroine’s journey without a killer set of challenges. Our heroine will have to traverse a series of obstacles—both physical and psychological—in order to prove their worth. The best example is Mulan when she proves her worth as a fighter during training.
Stage #4: The Illusory Boon of Success
By now, our heroine is starting to become aware of their own strengths. They start to enjoy the fruits of their labor as she finds success in the traditional masculine sense. But, to their own dismay, they realize that it feels a lot emptier than they anticipated. We see this a lot in films where the protagonist earns a new job title or a promotion—only to be left feeling unfulfilled.
Stage #5: Awakening to Spiritual Emptiness
Our heroine starts to feel a void within them, an emptiness that is both spiritual and emotional. They find themselves questioning the point of it all and whether what they were after is enough to truly make her feel fulfilled. Snape from Harry Potter is a great example of a character who goes through this stage—for him, it’s about realizing that his loyalty to Voldemort is futile.
Stage #6: Initiation and Descent to the Goddess
Here our character has a dark night of the soul as they’re forced to confront the shadow parts of themselves and come to terms with their own truth. Our heroine will be taken into a realm of the unknown, where their identity is challenged. Much like Zuko from Avatar: The Last Airbender when he learns to accept his anger and that he made the wrong decision in joining Azula.
Stage #7: Yearning to Reconnect with the Feminine
This stage is about severing any ties to institutions or people who comprise who our heroine is on the inside. The aim here is to embrace their own individual identity and journey within. In Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Spike eventually helps protect Buffy from harm without telling her that he indeed has a soul again. Why? Because he feels pulled to the idea of protecting her without any ulterior motives or expectations.
Stage #8: Healing the Mother/Daughter Split
Emerging from her dark night of the soul with a newfound identity and purpose, our heroine can now embrace the feminine parts that they had previously disowned. They call upon that strength to help them complete their mission. Much like how Merida uses her knowledge of the old ways to save her family in Brave.
Stage #9: Healing the Wounded Masculine
This journey isn’t about casting aside the masculine characteristics that our heroine has come to embody—it’s about shedding any perceptions that are toxic and unhelpful. For example, Rey from Star Wars: The Last Jedi has to accept that has the power to create her own sense of belonging and purpose without relying on those she once deemed as more knowledgeable.
Stage #10: Integration of Masculine and Feminine
Who doesn’t love a good full-circle moment? Our heroine has come to terms with their own strengths, both feminine and masculine. They have accepted the light and dark within them, no longer seeking approval from anyone else. The endings of tales for iconic characters like Simba in The Lion King or Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games are great examples of this.
Want To Dive Deeper?
The Heroine’s Journey is an intriguing template for writers to explore, but this short guide is only the beginning. If you really want to learn how to leverage this archetype for your writing, I encourage you to read 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters by Victoria Lynn Schmidt (her melting pot version of the Hero and Heroine’s Journeys) and The Heroine’s Journey: For Writers, Readers, and Fans of Pop Culture by Gail Carriger, which expands on Murdock’s work.
By understanding the basics, you’ll have more insight into how this archetype works in your writing. And if you need someone to guide you through the process, I’m here to help. Click here to check out my book coaching services, and together, we can co-create the ideal journey for your heroine.