Image by Michael Earle
As is so often the way with me, a random throwaway comment on a discussion group this morning got me interested in reading more about the Hero’s Journey, and I ended up spending all day on it! It does look interesting, and I can think of quite a few series romances I’ve loved which followed the journey pathway step by step.
Joseph Campbell first described The Hero’s Journey or Mythic Structure , based on a study of myths and archetypes. Scriptwriter Christopher Vogler, in his book The Writer’s Journey , popularised a variation on the theme and applied it specifically to writing.
The theory is that all stories contain similar elements or stages that the central character(s) progress through. At first glance I didn’t see how I could use it to help me in romance writing. Using it for Star Wars is one thing, but the elements of a romance are totally different, surely?
Well, maybe not. The journey may be an actual quest, a real physical journey, which in a romance must also involve emotional challenge and change for the characters. It can just as easily be a purely emotional journey, where one or both of the main characters find their ideas, beliefs, and ways of being are challenged and life will never be the same again. Whatever the external problem the characters have to deal with, the core journey is towards self-knowledge, personal growth, and a committed loving relationship.
In a romance, we have two main characters, so there may be two journeys, the hero’s and the heroine’s, which intertwine through the novel. They may not always be at the same stage in their journeys until the end, and some stages may be skipped, collapsed into one, or done out of order, but the heroine and heroine will always end at the final stage together.
The hero’s journey applies just as much, or even more so, to the heroine. To avoid constantly using “he/she” or “him/her”, I’m going to use “their” or “them” which I know is grammatically incorrect, but a hell of a lot easier to write!
Central to the journey is the choices the character makes and the actions they take. The main characters must be proactive participants in events, responding to the challenges of each phase. They need to earn their happy ending.
This is my personal interpretation of the stages of the hero’s journey as they apply to romance writing, as I‘m working towards understanding it. It’s different to versions I’ve seen some romance writers give, so you may want to check the links at the end to see how other writers have interpreted this.
1. THE ORDINARY WORLD. The hero and heroine, as the reader’s way into the story, are introduced in a way that allows the reader to identify with them, or at least feel some form of sympathy for them. This identification and sympathy may not apply to the more Alpha hero type at first, but does have to occur at some stage in the story- the reader need to be able to understand why the heroine would fall in love with this man, and believe they can be happy together. It is essential that the reader can identify with at least one of the main characters initially. The basis of the character is shown, so the reader can see how far they have come by the end of the story. This may include showing family, background, positive personal features, and flaws. The main characters may begin the story feeling uneasy and uncomfortable with their situation, or oblivious to any need for change. Either way, they don’t know what the problem is.
2. THE CALL TO ADVENTURE. Something shakes up the situation, either external pressures or forces within the character themselves, so one or both characters must make a decision and face the beginnings of change. Something throws normal life off balance. Things can never be the same again. The problem which the character must solve within the book is shown, as well as at least hints of the internal conflict, the emotional issue that is going to get in the way of the character being in a committed relationship. The character is aware of the need for change.
These two stages are often combined or reversed in a romance. Readers tend to want to get straight into the action, know what the hook is of the story. That means starting with the Call to Adventure (what is often called the Inciting Incident). This may be the meeting of hero and heroine, or whatever event triggers the necessity for change in the life of that character. The “backstory” of the Ordinary World is dripped in through detail, hints, or conversation, or in a scene following the initial challenge. The Ordinary World stage is essential and can’t be skipped altogether. The reader needs to see where the character has started from, and have some awareness of what their personal relationship issues are likely to be.
3. REFUSAL OF THE CALL. The character feels the fear of the unknown and tries to turn away from the adventure, however briefly, because of the uncertainty and danger ahead. The problems facing the characters if they either refuse or accept the challenge are shown. If the character is keen to take on the challenge, another character may voice the difficulties which are likely to be confronted. This is the stage of resistance to change. This can give the reader a lot of information about the character, through their reasons for initially refusing then accepting the challenge. This can tell us about their past, their fears, their goals, their motivations, and their values.
4. MEETING WITH THE MENTOR. The mentor is an archetype, someone who gives the hero or heroine confidence, training, help, equipment, or advice that will help on the journey. They may help the character overcome resistance to accepting the challenge, and the initial fears about beginning their journey. Sometimes the character may have an Inner Mentor, through a strong code of honour or justice that guides them through the Journey. In romance, a mentor may be a character such as a friend, relative, maid, or family retainer. Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother is an example of a mentor character. In this stage, the character overcomes their fear to take the next step.
5. CROSSING THE THRESHOLD. This is the point in the story where the character really gets involved, they are committed to their journey. This stage carries the sense of moving from the Ordinary World to a Special World, where the rules and values of the normal world may not apply. Crossing the threshold is the point to moving from one world to another. Once they do this, things can never be the same, there is no going back. Some significant event may propel the character across the threshold and into the adventure. This may be a first kiss, or the first admission of attraction to the other character. In a marriage of convenience story this may occur when the hero or heroine chooses their spouse, or agrees to marry the one chosen for them. The Event will directly affect the character, raising the stakes and forcing them into action. An example of Crossing the Threshold is when Belle agrees to stay with the Beast in return for her father’s life in Beauty and the Beast.
6. TESTS, ALLIES AND ENEMIES. Having crossed the Threshold, the hero or heroine faces Tests, encounters Allies, confronts Enemies, and learns the rules of this Special World. The character adapts to their new environment, learns more about the other character, discovers more about themselves. They need to find out who can be trusted, who is on their side and who or what opposes them. Their strength of character and commitment to continue the journey may be tested by temptations. They may learn new skills they will need in the greater ordeals to come. This is the deeper “getting to know you” stage in a romance. The characters are thrown together by the Journey, and need to ask what they like in each other, what bothers them in each other, and make decisions about whether or not they can trust the other. The hero and heroine both have a decision to make about the other- is this person my ally or my enemy? This is the stage of committing to change.
7. APPROACH TO THE INNERMOST CAVE. The hero or heroine prepare for the Journey’s heart, or central Ordeal. This may involve the character facing their greatest fear or the most dangerous part of their journey. In the last stage, the character committed to the change taking place in their life, in this stage, they may be getting ready to decide to commit to the other character. The character must confront their greatest fears in order to claim their goal. It may not be a literal cave, it could be a metaphorical one. This is where the heroine who has pledged never to love, realises she loves the hero, and so opens herself up to the risks of pain and heartbreak. Often, it can decision by a heroine to consummate her love with the hero, if she’s been resisting. For a hero who has never trusted a woman, or the woman who doesn’t want to rely on a man, it could be the moment when they realise they’re going to have to. They don’t act on it yet, but they know they are going to. This is the stage of preparing for even bigger change.
8. THE ORDEAL. Near the middle of the story, the hero or heroine enters a central space in the Special World and confronts death or faces what they believe is their greatest fear. Out of the moment of death comes a new life. In a romance, this is not usual literal death, but a psychic or emotional one. The decision made in the last stage is acted on. Depending on how the other character responds, they are facing a very real risk of failure in their journey. The heroine gives herself sexually to the hero, placing herself physically in his hands. The hero is forced to trust the heroine, not knowing for sure if she will be worthy of his trust or betray him. The audience feels the same suspense wondering if the character will survive unscathed. The Ordeal is the central, essential, and magical Stage of any Journey.
This stage is where I go a different road to some other romance writers applying the mythic structure to romance. Okay, they’re published and I’m not, what would I know? But I can’t see that this stage is the Black Moment, as some writers say. It’s supposed to happen halfway through the book for one thing. And there’s another even darker moment ahead. I believe that in this stage the character shows their willingness to face “death” for the other, whatever that means to them. It does represent a major change or transition, such as from virgin to sexually awakened; or closed emotionally to opening up; or untrusting to willing to trust. The old self is dead, but the future is not yet sure. In a story with a double black moment, this may be the first black moment, but worse is yet to come.
This is stage is a such a major change for the character that it has that life or death feel about it.
9. THE REWARD. This is a stage of celebration. The character enjoys the rewards of their sacrifice in the last stage. In romance, it looks like the relationship is working out and everything is going to be fine. This may be a honeymoon period, after first sex, the declaration of love, or the other character seeming to prove themselves worthy of trust. The happy ever after seems assured. Except that there’s another forty or fifty pages to go, at least, and the reader knows things are never that easy!
In this stage, the characters come to terms with the new life that the last section brought them into. They have made some significant changes, but have not yet overcome their deepest relationship blocks. They are able to be happy together only because they are still in the Special World, where normal rules do not apply. They now need to move back into the Ordinary World an create a relationship strong enough to survive there.
10. THE ROAD BACK. About three-fourths of the way through the story, the character is driven to complete the journey of emotional growth. Some event forces them back into action. This is the part where the “villain” who appeared to be dead in the last section suddenly comes after the her and heroine again. In a romance, it’s probably not an external villain at this stage, though that can be the catalyst, but an even deeper layer of emotional conflict and relationship block. It can be another betrayal, or a new conflict between the hero and heroine, which symbolises something more- one character’s recognition that they have grown and changed, opened their heart, become a different person, but the other has not. This is the place where a character who has conflicting goals realises that both are not possible, and that one be sacrificed. In a romance, this may be the choice between following their original personal goal or following their heart. One character forces the return to the Ordinary World, and breaks the illusion of happiness they were enjoying.
11. THE RESURRECTION. At the climax, the character is tested once more, even more severely than before. This is the true Black Moment. He or she is required to make a last sacrifice, face another moment of death and rebirth, but on a higher and more complete level. This represents the final and complete removal of the deepest relationship blocks. This is the stage of emotional catharsis, of a full and complete letting go of anything holding the character back from a new life. The character shows that they have learned the life lessons they needed to, they can bring all they learned and gained in the Special World back into the Ordinary World. They have passed the final test, shown their worth and strength of character, and are reborn as their truest self. Now at last they can claim the love that is they have truly earned and shown themselves worthy of by their actions.
12. RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR. The hero or heroine returns home to rebuild a brand new Ordinary Life, that is transformed as they have been transformed by whatever they bring back from the Special World. The questions raised at the beginning of the story are now all resolved. This is the real happy ever after, the full declaration of love and commitment from both main characters. It may be a marriage, or a pregnancy, or both. It may be the simple knowledge that this couple can now move forward, secure in their love for each other.
So that’s the hero’s journey. My job for tomorrow is to play around with it some more and apply it to my current story.