Monday, September 17, 2012

Character Arc: The Hero's Journey

There are a few things you can do before you start writing your novel to assure that it comes out whole and satisfying. Perhaps the most important is to visualize your hero's or heroine's character arc over the breadth of the story.

There are two major arcs occurring simultaneously in a novel that interact to make the story unique and compelling. (There are other, minor, arcs as well, but they are for another discussion, another time.) One major arc is the external story arc . . . all those things that happen around and to the characters that drive their responses and behaviors (through the fulcrum of their personalities). The other is what happens to your hero's or heroine's character itself as it is affected, reacts to, and is transformed by events, realizations, and behaviors. Any novel where the protagonist is the same at the end as she was at the beginning is going to be a boring novel, and that's not what we're all about.

The Hero's Journey, explained in The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell, offers an excellent template for planning your protagonist's arc. It is a standard in the arsenal of writing teachers. Campbell's focus was myth, and how all great dramas utilize essential mythical structure. An excellent example is the sweeping and powerful structure of The Odyssey. What a journey Odysseus had!

Once Campbell had published The Hero with a Thousand Faces, "his multi-step outline swept through the screen-writing and fiction-writing community." (Elizabeth Lyon, A Writer's Guide to Fiction, pp. 51-52).

As explained by Lyon in  A Writer's Guide to Fiction, the hero's journey includes three major stages that the protagonist goes through.

  • Departure, Separation
  • Descent, Initiation, Penetration
  • Return
Lyon goes on to show how Campbell further described these stages:

ACT ONE: Departure, Separation
  • The Ordinary World/Hero at Home
  • Call to Adventure/The Challenge
  • Refusal of the Call/Elimination of The Expendable Person
  • Meeting the Mentor
  • Crossing the First Threshold into the Special World

ACT TWO: Descent, Initiation, Penetration
  • Road of Tests and Trilas/Allies and Enemies
  • Approach to the Inmost Cave
  • Belly of the Whale/Meeting with the Goddess, Temptress; Atonement
  • Ordeal/Life an Death Struggle
  • Reward

  • Refusal of the Return
  • The Ultimate Test/Resurrection
  • Return with the Elixir/Master of Two Worlds

In a novel, Act I is approximately the first quarter of the book; Act II is the second and third quarters, and Act III is the last quarter. The same sort of timing and rhythm applies to movies.The movie, JAWS, is  often given as an example to show these stages as we follow Police Chief Martin Brody through his hair-raising journey to defeat the monster shark and save his town and himself (the external monster forces him to face his internal demons and transform). Lyon's book provides an in-depth discussion of each step, or you can find examples and detailed descriptions other than JAWS by Googling Joseph Campbell and The Hero's Journey.

When I'm starting a new novel, I like to think about my protagonist's journey and jot notes to myself before I begin writing, and then start writing, without too much more pre-planning. When I've written enough to feel grounded in the story, though, it's time to look at whether I've planned for all these elements of the hero's journey to enter my protagonist's arc. If I haven't, early in the writing is the time to do it.

What's your process? Do you consciously incorporate the elements of the Hero's Journey in your novel structure? If not, do you find that they're all there when you've finished?


  1. Okay, now you're hitting me where I live. I wrote my thesis on the heroine's journey, following Joseph Campbell's monomyth. My WIP follows the hero's journey. So yay! I'm so glad to read this post!!! And yes, I purposely followed the hero's journey.

    1. That's wonderful, Lin! I think Joseph Campbell was one of our all-time best geniuses, on so many levels. He gave us writers a tremendous gift.

  2. My book, Control, is a classic hero's journey. I love reading and writing hero journeys!

    1. I'm really looking forward to reading CONTROL, Lydia. And now that I know it's a classic hero's journey, I'm doubly excited!

  3. OH NO! I needed this before I wrote the sequel. I'm sitting here discussing this with Dick now. What is Darby's arc, personal and professional? Is this the same dynamic when you have a series? How much can a character grow in each book?

    I am working on the first edit, and I'm thinking this through. I think I found a way. Just as I went back and made Kathryn stronger and showed her growth, I can do this for Darby. Or can I?

    Could her growth and her arc be... she has always followed authority without question? Maybe she needs to learn the strength to speak out about what is wrong, and not blindly follow because they 'said so'??? Thoughts welcome.

    Thanks for a great and timely post.

    1. You bring up an excellent point, Karlene. It IS different for a recurring protagonist in a series. They can't change TOO much, because readers fall in love with them for the way they are in the book, and come back to read the following books to get more of the same and see how that cared-about character will handle whatever comes up next. I remember listening to Lee Child give a speech at a conference where he argued adamantly against having the protagonist grow and change too much. But then, he has Jack Reacher, the epitome of iconic macho protagonist. I think Darby, being a woman who's main purpose is not to stamp out injustice wherever she goes (like Reacher), makes her a character who needs to react to the people and world around her in a fairly complex way, so she needs to grow in some way in each book, but maybe not transform. Make any sense?

    2. This makes complete sense. Ahhh... and relief. I'm excited for you to read it. :) Thank you!

    3. I'm excited to read it, too! End of October . . . yeah.