Writing the Hero's Journey
By journeyinwords on January 02, 2010
When my son was a child, he always asked to hear “Rapunzel” when we were together in the car. This story, like Rumpelstiltskin, Cinderella, Snow White, and countless others involves a child abandoned in some way first by her mother who dies and then by her father.
The daughter then is propelled into a transformation that takes her from childhood to adulthood. I always knew that these fairy tales and folk tales had this archetypal transition in common, yet not until I read Joseph Campbell’s work did I realize that all literature—almost all stories—follow the conflict-laden, transformative pattern of the hero’s journey.
Much has been written about the hero’s journey as it appears in stories and movies. So, it is obviously a great pattern to use when you are in the writing process and perhaps want to work on organizing your story. In online writing classes that I have taught, we have often used the archetype as the basis for our work.
For example, as a staff member at Diana’s Grove, a personal development/leadership community, our writing class used the pattern while we spent the year working with the story of Psyche and Eros. Participants in the class wrote about Psyche or other mythic characters or autobiographical pieces as they explored the hero pattern. Psyche’s journey toward fulfillment was a wonderful model to use for our work this year.
In January, we had exercises related to the Call to Adventure. Whatever the specific call is for the character, it announces a change in that person’s life. Old patterns and things that are familiar are now cast aside, forgotten, outgrown, or found to be of little use anymore.
February brought work with the Supernatural Aid and Crossing the 1st Threshold. What or who sends us out on our journey, and what or who aids us in those first steps in the process of becoming? Crossing the threshold embodies taking the purposeful step that moves us from our known world to one of unfamiliarity and risk.
March’s exercise dealt with the Belly of the Whale. Crossing the magic threshold is a transition into a rebirth that is “symbolized in the worldwide womb image of the belly of the whale” (Campbell). In this dark place, we are no longer who we were. Our former selves are gone, and we must begin the work of transformation into a newer, wiser self.
April brought us to Prophecy. What prophecy have you heard in your life? Where did that prophecy lead you?
With May, we began the Road of Trials, that is the rising action or the main content of the story itself. What choice will you make: will you walk the road of trials or will turn back and stay on an easy path?
In June we focused on Meeting with the Goddess, who is “the incarnation of the promise of perfection” (Campbell).
How do these elements relate to Psyche’s story? Psyche’s call to adventure happens because she is the hero sent away by others, taken to the mountaintop on the oracle’s orders. Her supernatural aid is Aphrodite, though most versions of this myth rarely characterize Aphrodite in this way; however, Aphrodite is the initiator of the story and thus aids Psyche in her first steps on her journey. Psyche crosses the first threshold when she is taken by Eros to his home, and it is there, in their mutual darkness, that she experiences her trial, her death in paradise, in the belly of the whale where she is unable to see Eros. Her sisters then remind her of the prophecy, that she would marry a monster. Her sisters’ doubts instigate Psyche’s fear and cause her to light the light, which sends her out on the journey that begins with her choice to take the easy road or the challenging one.
Our lives are journeys, and so is writing. I find that the stories I write are often easier to piece together when I have a meaty form, like the hero’s journey, which overall has three main stages: separation, initiation, and return (also called departure, transformation, integration). In the class from July to December, we wrote about the return or integration, which also has several sub-elements.
If anyone is interested in some of the writing exercises we used in the class, please don’t hesitate to email me.
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By Rita Arens