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The Hero's Journey: Stages, Steps, and Examples

Christina Crampe

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Remember when you were younger, probably around middle school age, and your teacher introduced the Greek mythology lesson? It was such an exciting time of reading books like Rick Riordan's Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief. Maybe you fell in love with Percy, a lovable and relatable young boy struggling with his identity. Or maybe you were a part of the dystopian crave and fell in love with Katniss Everdeen from Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games. Either way, this may have been your first introduction to the hero's journey (we're sure you've seen the templates). After all, the hero's journey is all around us!

If you fell in love with reading a hero's journey archetype and want to try to create your own modern hero, then you've come to the perfect place. We're going to explore the crucial steps of a hero's journey and what they entail, so you can have a template through which to write your own story. Your questions act as our call to action (you'll understand what we mean by that shortly). But first, let's define a hero's journey. After all, how can we possibly evaluate the steps of a hero's journey if we don't even have a solid definition?

The hero's journey

What is the hero's journey, and where does it most commonly come from? Jospeh Campbell, an American researcher who wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, discovered a unique pattern of stages within certain stories about heroes. He states:

A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: The hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.

The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell

The hero's journey is the story of a hero who leaves the ordinary world to go on an adventure full of peril. On it, the hero will gain both adversaries and allies, and will face a great evil. The hero will also face his shadow self, which is perhaps the most frightening antagonist of all.

Campbell references 17 total steps in the hero's journey. Wait a minute, 17 steps? That seems like a lot. Don't worry! Depending on who you ask, the number of steps and what those steps look like will differ, though they all follow a similar template. The hero's journey is commonly accepted to have 12 main steps. To make it even simpler on you, these steps can actually be broken down into three stages: the departure, the initiation, and the return.

The Hero's Journey
The hero's journey is usually defined as having three stages subdivided into 12 steps total.

Stage 1: the departure

girl walking with a backpack on
We first encounter a protagonist in their natural world. Protagonists are often students. Photo by Yana_novak22.

The departure is just as you might expect. This is the stage where the protagonist is introduced, typically in a modern, realistic setting, and we are introduced to some struggles the protagonist may be experiencing or questions they may have about their own identity. This stage can be broken into our first four steps.

  1. The ordinary world: As we said, we are first introduced to our protagonist and soon-to-be hero in the reality we know. It is just as the first step is listed: the ordinary world. There is no magic, mayhem, or supernatural creatures evident in this ordinary world. It is the world the protagonist has known all their life.
  2. Call to adventure: This is one of the steps you may be most familiar with, as it's one of the most commonly known phrases in literature. Regardless of what genre you are writing, your hero has a call to action. After all, there must be a reason why the protagonist leaves the mundane, comfortable lifestyle they've lived up until now. This is the moment where the journey or quest is initiated: a problem, challenge, or quest is presented to the protagonist, and they must decide to leave behind their ordinary lives to face new challenges. Whether the protagonist is immediately threatened, a family member is threatened, or they see something they shouldn't have, it is up to the protagonist to respond to the call.
  3. Refusal of the call: Wow, isn't it so cool that the hero was discovered by some other world (or they discovered it!) and now they get to embark on this awesome journey? Yes, well, sometimes. Despite how amazing it may seem to be called to accept a quest (hence the reason why this archetype is so popular in literature), the protagonist may not be feeling that excitement. In fact, it's likely that the protagonist is feeling nervous, anxious, scared, hesitant, and thus, resistant to the call at first (don't worry, they'll give in eventually).
  4. Meeting the mentor/supernatural aid: Okay, so the protagonist is done refusing the call. Maybe they've gotten over their fears, or maybe something happened that makes it impossible for them to continue to deny their inevitable quest. Yay! Now it's time for our protagonist to meet their mentor. The mentor can be supernatural or not, but they act as a teacher, trainer, and instructor for the protagonist. After all, the protagonist is going to need some serious guidance once they've been booted out of their ordinary world. This step involves a lot of trust, though, as the protagonist may barely know their mentor. This step also involves the passing on of certain tools and equipment the protagonist may need to succeed on their journey. These can be special powers or physical instruments.

Stage 2: the initiation

figure standing beneath the light coming in from a save hole
Although it may seem like a character is reaching the light at the end of the tunnel, more challenges will thrust them back into danger. Photo by Timon.

Now that you've spent a decent chunk of time introducing your protagonist (and hero!) and their conflict, it's time to head into the second stage of the hero's journey: the initiation. Before you do this, though, ensure you've checked off the first four items on the previous list. It is crucial that you meet these criteria for a successful hero's journey. After all, the hero can't be truly initiated into their new world if you have not established their old world, their main conflict, and the introduction of their next steps.

This next stage will take up the largest portion of your story. You should fill it with lots of new characters, settings, and trials and tests for your protagonist to endure. This is also a stage where you should focus a lot on character development for your protagonist. No person is going to go through a massive journey and end up the same person they once were when everything is said and done. Take this time to think about how you want your protagonist to change and what it's going to take to accomplish that change.

  1. Crossing the first threshold: This is the point at which the hero decides to embark on the adventure and cross over into the unknown, leaving his or her ordinary world behind. This is called the threshold because there is something or someone acting as a literal barrier between the protagonist's ordinary world and their new world. Beyond the threshold lies trials and tribulations and potential risks and dangers. Once the protagonist takes that first step beyond this threshold, there is no returning to the life they once knew. This is where the hero's actual journey truly begins.
  2. Introduction to tests, friends, and foe: This is the step of the story where the cast of characters expands and a new setting, the new world, is introduced. The protagonist may be lost in their new world, so they must evaluate the new people around them to identify potential allies, enemies, or morally ambiguous characters. Trust is established or denied. Just like anyone would struggle with encountering anew environment, the protagonist will endure some struggles of their own, but this is how they'll determine who is friend and who is foe, establishing other character roles in the process. The rules of the ordinary world do not apply to this new world, so hopefully the protagonist meets some good people who will teach him the new ways of life.
  3. Approaching the innermost cave: At this point on the hero's journey, they have left all semblance of the ordinary world behind. This step marks the preparation for the main event of the journey. The protagonist may gather materials and even other characters, if they're trustworthy enough, to take on the rest of the steps of the quest with them. The cave acts as a metaphor for what the protagonist is about to endure: risk, danger, darkness, and even potential loss. This step also includes some of the tests leading up to the large test yet, which happens to be the next step in the hero's journey.
  4. The ordeal: Buckle up, this is about to be a wild ride! That's right, your hero has finally made it to one of the biggest challenges of all. The protagonist is no longer approaching the innermost cave. Rather, the protagonist is now fully in the belly of the beast, and what a beast it is! The ordeal is usually not the climax of the story, but this is the moment where the protagonist truly transforms from an ordinary character into a true hero. It may involve their greatest fear or a physically or mentally demanding task.
  5. The reward: If your protagonist, now hero, succeeds in their greatest challenge, then they will be given a reward that makes the journey worth so much time, effort, and challenge. If they can succeed, then there is hope for them, that bright light that shines through the top of a dark cave and promises fulfillment and a future. This is what the hero has been fighting for this whole time. As for the reward itself, you should make sure it makes sense in the context of your story. It can be an object, a piece of knowledge, or even something entirely different, so long as its value matches the degree of the journey.

Stage 3: the return

a man stands at the top of a hill with his fist raised and a reflection of his face overlaying the figure
In this stage of the hero's journey, the hero reflects on their on transition from normal character to victorious hero as they finally complete their quest. Photo by Kieferpix.

Wahoo, your hero has endured so much and has finally gotten their reward! It's over, right? They can return to their ordinary life and reap the benefits of all their hard work? Wrong! Things are never as easy as they seem, especially in a hero's journey, so why would the road back to the ordinary world be any different for your hero?

  1. On the road again: This is the turning point, literally. The hero turns back around, hoping to return to their normal life after receiving their reward. But thing's are never that simple, so be sure to make sure that road is blocked. Traffic cones, stoplights, maybe a supernatural villain or catastrophic natural disaster! That should do the trick. If the road back home was easy, we'd be bored, so maintain the stakes with challenges for the hero to face as they make their way back home.
  2. The resurrection: Congratulations, you've finally reached the climax of your story. Remember how we said the ordeal was the moment where your protagonist transformed from an ordinary character into an actual hero, this is the moment where they can prove to us that they deserve the hero title, after all. The stakes become extremely high, as the hero does not want to fail after having endured so much already. This is the final test for the hero and the final opportunity for the villain or opposing forces to defeat the hero. If the hero comes out on top, then they will finally be able to reach that light at the end of the tunnel.
  3. Return with the elixir: The hero has finally completed all their challenges and is able to return home with their reward. Their transformation is complete, and they've most likely become a better person because of the journey. Or, if you want to add a twist to this step, you can always have the hero fail to return without they set out to receive, but you better be prepared to write a sequel and a whole other journey!

Following the template

mockingjay necklace
Katniss Everdeen is branded as the "Mockingjay", the heroic symbol of the revolution in the series. Photo by Anja.

Since we mentioned The Hunger Games at the very beginning, let's use Katniss Everdeen and her hero's journey as a model for this template.

  1. The ordinary world: Katniss Everdeen is introduced as a citizen on District 12, a poor mining district. She spends her days hunting in the woods to provide food for her family.
  2. The call to action: Every year, a reaping takes place where a male and female tribute from each district is randomly chosen to take place in the Hunger Games, a fight to the death. During the reaping, Katniss' sister Primrose is selected, so Katniss volunteers to take her place as the female tribute from District 12.
  3. Refusal of the call: As we mentioned, you may not include all 12 steps of the hero's journey in your own story. Katniss does not actually refuse the call, as she volunteered herself to save her sister. A refusal of the call is slightly seen in Peeta, Katniss' fellow tribute, as he is visibly nervous and shaken up. The nature of this story makes it so that a refusal is impossible.
  4. Meeting the mentor: Katniss meets Haymitch Abernathy, a previous Hunger Games victor from her District. He is her literal mentor and is meant to teach her how to make allies, get sponsors, and survive in the arena. She also finds a mentor in Cinna, the person in charge of her appearance for promotions.
  5. Crossing the threshold: Katniss is whisked out of District 12 and on the train to the gaudy, wealthy Capitol.
  6. Introduction to tests, friends, and foe: Katniss must attempt to learn who to trust while also earning sponsors and impressing the Game Makers. Katniss makes a reluctant alliance with Peeta and admires Rue from District 11. During training, it is evident that the Careers (tributes from the wealthier districts) are enemies.
  7. Approaching the innermost cave: Katniss enters the physical arena.
  8. The ordeal: The arena is full of challenges: tracker jackers, mutant wolves, poisonous berries, and other tributes trying to survive. The games themselves are the whole ordeal.
  9. The reward: Katniss and Peeta are the last tributes standing.
  10. On the road again: Although Katniss and Peeta have survived, there can only be one winner, and the Capitol wants to force them to select who lives and who dies.
  11. The resurrection: Katniss' bold attempt at a mutual suicide leads to both of them being allowed to live as victors, lest they become martyrs in front of the whole country.
  12. Return with the elixir: Katniss and Peeta return to District 12 as victors, allowing them to live lives of wealth and luxury. If you've read the books, you'll know this is nowhere near the end of Katniss' journey.

Reaping the rewards

If you've managed to check off all 12 steps on our hero's journey checklist, then you've got yourself an awesome hero's journey. If you're just starting out on your own journey of writing for a hero, then be sure to follow this template for maximum results. Be the hero in your own journey and remember to never give up as you face those roadblocks and challenges while buckling down and writing a story of your own!

Header photo by Zoltan Tasi.

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