“The Hero’s Journey,” is a book by Joseph Campbell that is about story structure in fantasy novels. People who read a lot of fantasy will obviously see the similarities between different book series, especially when it comes to creating worlds and such. There’s just too much time and effort required to make a completely unique world which, potentially, a lot of people aren’t going to even like, so borrowing typical “fantasy elements” from other novels is an easy enough way to ensure that readers and writers alike feel comfortable with a book. However, what some people don’t realise is that, time and time again throughout history, from the Odyssey to Gulliver’s Travels to The Lord of the Rings to Harry Potter, the same story structure in fantasy books and “epics” is prevalent.
I don’t want to go into the details of the actual stages, because there are plenty of places already available for you to learn about that, including the actual book, and, personally, I find the diagram below the most helpful source in quickly explaining the standard fantasy story structure pointed out by Joseph Campbell.
What I want to do is offer my opinions on this idea of a general story arch because, personally, I think it’s a really useful tool to aid your writing. I think that, one of the more difficult things as a new writer, is building a sense of rising stakes and tension. If, at the start of your book, your hero is being hunted by a highly trained group of bandits lead by a wizard, then you want to remind the reader of this every so often by having them nearly, or actually catch the hero. However, knowing when to include these moments is incredibly difficult, as it may break the flow of the rest of the story.
Another point in its favour is that, inherently, if you stick to these guidelines, your story can cross all types of cultural boundaries. One of the most important things about The Hero’s Journey is its global scale. Campbell took stories from all over the world, East and West, North and South, all through different time periods. It might not make your story a classic, but its a start.
I don’t particularly want to get into the commercial side of things because, by all accounts, I have no right to speak about them. However, having read my fair share of fantasy, I would argue that there are many commercially successful books that use The Hero’s Journey, the thing that springs to mind most recently is Harry Potter, though films and other media use this as well, perhaps to an even greater extent than novels. This comes with a caveat though, for a few reasons. Firstly, many commercially successful books stay away from arch-typical story structures like this, most obviously GRR Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series (future blog post incoming) Secondly, while I have said that this is universal, that doesn’t mean that your story will be any good.
The best way that I think you can use Campbell’s work is as a basis for your own. Used in isolation, it’s a bit useless, but combined with other story ideas and a little bit of your own creativity when it comes to story structure you can make something more interesting and, more importantly, more than just the sum of its parts.
My own attempts to use The Hero’s Journey has, thus far, been unsuccessful. While I like the first quarter of the circle, and have used it both consciously and unconsciously in my writing, the rest I struggle with. I like to mix and match with what I want from it and, to be honest, everyone should. It is easily forgettable, when using well-established structures, to stick to their ideas instead of yours, but I wouldn’t ever recommend that. One of the best things about fantasy, and Campbell’s story structure, is that it is so open to interpretation. I think that, the best thing you can do if you still want to use Campbell’s idea, is to either miss out certain stages or move them around.
One last thing. I think this story structure, and most structures that lend themselves to fantasy novels, put far too much emphasis on endings. I think having a big climax, a payoff, if you will, at the end of a book is good, but many books I have read struggle to make it anything but an end to everything. I shall site GRR Martin one last time, as I think, at this point, he is a reliable source for most people who will be reading this. Do you remember how A Clash of Kings (the 2nd Series) ended with Stannis being beaten at the Battle of the Blackwater? Didn’t that feel incredibly climactic and final for Stannis? And yet, here we are, several books, fan arts and characters later, and Stannis is still trucking. It was a climax, and it was an end, but it wasn’t the end. I like to think of a story as a single line, and then many other shorter lines weaving in and out, with the shorter lines being little sub-plots and ideas that I have, as well as big scenes that, I think, deserve more than just one perspective. To me, The Hero’s Journey represents the long straight line of the biggest plot, but it can’t hope to comprehend all the smaller plots that help make the book more human.