It’s probably safe to say that most writers are familiar with the Hero’s Journey, or some variation, of it.
Years ago, I read “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers” by Christopher Vogler, which is based on Joseph Campbell’s work (and described in his book, “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”). What I didn’t know at the time is that there’s also a Heroine’s Journey.
The Heroine’s journey is not so much about taking a quest to slay the dragon, but rather, as it is a journey within to face her deepest fears. By addressing her own needs and desires, she can come to terms with herself and her place in the larger community. Her internal growth is the center of the story.
Both the Heroine and Hero’s Journeys are based on what Joseph Campbell called the “monomyth.” It’s the structure of how stories have been told across cultures (and centuries). The path also echoes our own life experiences, which is obviously why it continues to resonate.
I’ve used the structure in my own novels, and I’ve found there are five important points that stand out. The five points I want to emphasize are: Awakening, Taking the Risk, Dark Night, Learning to Trust, and Transformation.
Usually the Heroine is being called to step up and deal with a situation. Or she’s invited into a new adventure. She might not be sure if it’s the right thing to do, but at some point she’ll be forced to move forward.
More than likely she’s being called to something bigger than what she has found in her everyday world. Just as with Dorothy who wants to know about the world outside of Kansas, the Heroine is about to head down a different path than she has been used to. More than likely at the end of it, she’ll find the thing she’s always desired.
Taking the Risk
Once the heroine realizes she has to answer the call, she has to take a leap of faith. The actions she takes from this point on will set all the subsequent events in motion. She can’t stay safe anymore or be comfortable with the status quo.
This is the tough part. It may seem like everything is falling apart, but it’s really falling together. Unfortunately the Heroine doesn’t know that yet. Her beliefs are being put to the test, and she has to come to terms with her situation.
Learning to Trust
Will the Heroine trust the support that’s offered, or will she reject it? If she wants to move forward towards her desires, she has to be willing to let others help her.
Stories start out with a character wanting something. The Heroine has to get from where she is to where she desires to be. All along her journey there will be challenges and conflicts (which is what makes a great story) but she must follow her path. At the end of the path (and the story), she’ll be transformed by her experiences.
The Three-Act Structure
What really makes the Heroine’s Journey helpful for writers is that it fits into the three-act structure. It’s a roadmap to get your character through the twists and turns that will ultimately lead her to the story’s conclusion. When you’re stuck, the next step in the journey will guide you to the next right action for your Heroine to take.
The Heroine’s and the Hero’s Journey
Even though it’s called the Heroine’s Journey, it really isn’t gender-specific. Your Hero can also take this journey when it comes to his emotional transformation. By the same token, female characters can take the Hero’s Journey.
One good example that comes to mind is the Xena, Warrior Princess character from the TV show. Throughout the series she was certainly on a quest to fight against the forces of evil, but she also took an emotional journey. Her evolving relationship with Gabrielle is one important example of how she was on both journeys simultaneously.
Stories are Powerful
Simply put, humans need stories. It’s been said that the need for them is actually hard-wired into us. We organize information in a way that we create narratives about our experiences. Stories are a way for us to explain how things work, how human beings interact, and how we can make our way in the world.
These narratives allow us to relate our own experiences to the stories that have been told over the centuries. I’ll give you an example. The story of Cinderella has origins dating back to China in the year 860. Versions of the story were known in Korea, Vietnam, the Philippines, East Asia, as well as Britain and the Middle East.
As many Star Wars fans know, George Lucas was heavily influenced by the work of Joseph Campbell. He created a mythic story which draws on similar tales that have been told over and over.
Readers want to be pulled into your story’s world in order to experience something new and exciting. But they also will respond to the life lessons that are in those pages. What happens when you follow your heart? When you answer the call of adventure, where will that road lead you? What will it feel like to get through the dark night and have your dreams come true?
Sure, life can have a lot of challenges and disappointments. Stories can teach us how to deal with those hard knocks. But they can also allow us to feel the exhilaration when we finally win out over adversity. The reader takes the journey as well, experiencing all of the highs and lows. She can experience her own quest and her own sense of self-actualization at the conclusion.
That’s why writers draw on the structures that storytellers have used ever since the first stories were told. These are tales of the human experience told across the centuries, the civilizations, the cultures.
Yes, even so-called fairy tales are part of the world’s story. As authors, we are telling the world’s story, in our own words, through our experiences. No matter how minor they may seem, they really are powerful. Somewhere, a reader is waiting for you to tell a story to entertain them, to inform them, or to give them a life lesson.
Your stories can take readers on a journey that has been taken before by countless others. Stories about Heroines and Heroes taking risks to follow their passions and ultimately slay the dragon or fall in love – or both. As your characters explore their worlds, your readers will be right with them. By using mythic structures, you’ll create stories that your readers will find impossible to put down.