Exploring The Hero’s Journey: A Writer’s Guide
Good, bad, or ugly, the Hero Story draws us time and time again to the bookstore, the TV, the theatre, the video game console – you name it – with the promise of experiencing “something”. Regardless of race, gender, age, socio-economic placement, not only do we continuously seek this something, we crave it, need it, like food, or a drug. This experience, this “something” we crave, takes us into a place that transcends beyond the obvious pleasure of mood-altering on good (or bad) story.
While most of us are familiar with the idea of the “hero” within a story, (perhaps in cape, spandex or armor, doing “heroic” deeds or action) most of us are not aware that this type of “hero” and story are superficial urges to express the deeper psychological meaning of the hero.
One of the many distinctions between the celebrity and the hero is that one lives only for self, the other acts to redeem society…Luke Skywalker was never more rational [or “heroic”] than when he found within himself the resources of character to meet his destiny (Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, 1986).
Hero: Not Necessarily a Four Letter Word
The Hero has fueled stories for millennia. Everything from religious doctrine to fire side-tales: classic literature to pop fiction. In modern Western culture the Hero is present perhaps most prevalently in film. Hollywood, and Hollywood audiences, are in love with the Hero. The Hero’s Story, in all its guises, has generated billions of dollars of revenue with Hero based blockbuster franchises such as Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Twilight, Harry Potter, and The Marvel Movies. For the modern popular writer, the Hero’s Story is a form(ula) tried and true. It has become the writer’s “magic bullet”. And it is this writer’s opinion that the mega-corporate industries are all too aware of our societies need for the Hero Story. Disney, Twentieth Century Fox, Time Warner: they bank on our need, our deprivation. We watch or read with bated breath, hoping that this time, this time, it will be a good story. Something with sustenance. Something that will take us to that place of transcended experience. It is unfortunate that most of the Hero Story based entertainment often fails to explore the full range and depth of The Hero’s Journey. As is more often the case then not, we writers tend to think more is more. The Hero based story, if utilized properly, can offer a complete and satisfying story in and of itself. Use of interjected material from the writer can, and has, ruined a great many of potentially satisfying stories. As writer, reader and audience, the more we know, the more we will be able to perceive, produce, and participate in making a fully realized Hero’s Journey as opposed to Hollywood Cliff Notes.
The Missing Myth
But first. What is this something that we crave from our modern films and theatre, our best selling book-shelves, our gaming grottos? What is it that we, as individuals and as a society, crave but are not getting? Why do stories like the Lord of the Rings Trilogy (both Tolkien’s epic and Jackson’s film homage) move us for decades? Why do we tend to think of, remember, and refer to the “characters” Luke, Han, Leah, Obi Wan, and Darth Vader as being “real” people? Tolkien and Lucas, as story tellers, were informed by myth proper. Our modern society lacks myth, and it is the myth that is missing in most of our stories. It is the myth that we crave. One of the functions of myths is to connect us with the internal: the spiritual or psychic processes contained within the human being. Myths allow us to experience that which cannot be named: the micro and macro cosmic mysteries of our existence. Myths that accurately and spontaneously express The Hero’s Journey are the vehicle to this experience.
Psychologist Carl Jung theorized that within the human psyche exists something called the collective conscious and unconscious in which all humans store and access human specific content. This content is expressed in dreams, myths, fairy tales, stories, and folk tales through universal symbols (archetypes) found in all peoples in all cultures. And while the Hero archetype is but only one archetype out of many, it is so firmly fixed in human psychology that the motifs reappear again and again to express cultural and evolutionary changes. Mythologist and scholar Joseph Campbell is equated with bringing the concept of The Hero’s Journey to Western thought. In his 1949 publication, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell identifies the universal existence of something he terms the “monomyth”: a form of mythic story found over millennia within multiple cultures across the globe. The monomyth expresses the repeated paradigm of The Hero’s Journey.
In his 1986 PBS interview The Power of Myth, Bill Moyers posed this question to Mr. Campbell : “Why myths? Why should we care about myths? What do they have to do with my life?”
One of our problems today is that we are not well acquainted with the literature of the spirit…we are interested in the news of the day…Greek, Latin, and biblical literature used to be part of everyone’s education. Now, when these are dropped, a whole tradition of Occidental mythological information is lost. It used to be that these stories were in the minds of people. When the story is in the mind, you see its relevance to something happening in your own life. It give you perspective on what’s happening to you. With the loss of that, we’ve really lost something because we don’t have a comparable literature to take its place. These bits of information from ancient times, which have to do with the themes that have supported human life, built civilizations, and informed religions over millennia, have to do with deep inner problems, inner mysteries, inner thresholds of passage, and if you don’t know what the guide-signs are along the way, you have to work it out yourself. But once this subject catches you, there is such a feeling, from one or another of these traditions, of information of a deep, rich, life-vivifying sort that you don’t want to give it up.
There and Back Again: A Hero’s Story
With a true understanding of The Hero’s Journey in myth, the writer can critically recognize, interpret, and assess how well it is employed in all story-based forms of writing.
All stories have a beginning, middle, and end. All stories with a protagonist express the protagonist’s journey: their beginning, middle, and end. If the protagonist in the story is a Hero archetype, the protagonist’s story will naturally express the universal structure of the The Hero’s Journey.
Campbell’s interpretation of the basic form of The Hero’s Journey includes three major phases: Separation, Initiation, and Return. Within each of these three major phases are various major substructures including: the call, refusal of the call, crossing the threshold, the belly of the whale, trials and initiation, preparing to enter the cave, finding the elixir, escaping the cave, the journey home, the final test, returning with the elixir and reintegration.
In the next few sections, we will break down The Hero’s Journey into its major parts and highlight some of the sub-structures within each. Because action films tend to follow The Hero’s Journey closely, we will look at the 1986 film Aliens, written by James Cameron. It is a prime example of how The Hero’s Journey (both an internal and external) can produce a potentially satisfying story within popular genre, but also how the writer’s interjection of material alters The Hero’s Journey as natural story structure and robs the audience of the total experience.
Separation: The Call
At the beginning of Aliens,The Hero (Ellen Ripley) is in a state of order. It ideally expresses both the external (physical) and internal (psychological) worlds of the Hero. Ellen Ripley’s external world is a fictive corporate space station, and Ripley’s internal world is a sparse and barren reflection of that space station. In the ordinary world of the Hero, there is some need or reason for change. This is referred to by Campbell as “the call”. In Ripley’s physical world, the call comes in the form of a request for help in returning to and determining what has befallen the colonists on the newly terraformed planet LB426: a planet she visited with her previous crew before the planet had been colonized. Ripley’s internal call comes in the form of her horrific nightmares: the result of a previous encounter with the planet LB426.
It is common in Hero stories for the Hero to resist the call. This is an accurate representation of the human psyche’s resistance to change. This resistance is embodied in Ripley’s refusal to go back to the planet until the psychological pain of her dreams reduces her to the barest dregs of herself. Finally she accepts the call, and her Hero’s Journey begins. This activates us as well and we are now on our own journey into the unknown. As soon as Ripley answers the call, the film cuts to her waking out of hyper-sleep with a group of Marines on a space ship that is orbiting the planet LB426. On both an internal and external level, Ripley has arrived at the place where her trauma exits. The place where she needs to accomplish her deed, find her jewel and make right what needs to be made right. Cameron has his Hero, literally, circling over her own psyche in the metaphor of the ship orbiting the planet. In terms of The Hero’s Journey, Ripley is about to plunge from the ordinary world into the extra-ordinary world of the adventure.
Initiation: Tests, Trials, Allies, and Enemies
The Hero has been transposed from the ordinary world into the extra-ordinary world: externally and internally. The Marines are metaphors for Ripley’s various personae: masks worn by the ego. Though allies, they are initially arrogant and brash, which presents the Marines as psychic muscling needed by the ego when it is confronted with a change or action.
Within the structure of The Hero’s Journey, the Marines and Ripley are about to “cross the threshold into the adventure proper”. They leave the safety of the space ship and descend to the surface of the planet. This crossing puts the Hero into what Campbell refers to as the “belly of the whale”. There is no going back. The Hero is now in the adventure, and she takes us with her. In this stage, the Hero will undergo a series of tests and trials, all in preparation to what Campbell refers to as gaining the “innermost cave”.
Once on the planet, the Marines are out of their element and reduced to dealing with the adventure on the terms of the extra-ordinary world. The colony is an abandoned and desolate war zone: raining, gray, a door banging fretfully in the wind. This setting is also representative of Ripley’s psyche: a psyche that has been ravaged by the Alien creatures that haunt her nightmares.
Ripley and the team of Marines set up a make-shift command center in the upper area of the main complex. Again, Cameron uses this physical setting as a direct metaphor for Ripley’s psyche. The complex is on the surface of the planet (Ripley’s conscious mind), and the rest of the structure is built in several levels that go down deep beneath it (Ripley’s unconscious mind). Ripley’s descent into her own psychological substructure is thus reflected in her physical descent into the colonists’ complex through the rest of the film’s story arc.
According to Campbell’s interpretation of the “classic”Hero’s Journey, the Hero-usually being male- will encounter the “Goddess” or feminine aspect (anima) of his psyche during the initiation phase. Ripley’s process as a female Hero involves two very distinct aspects: the discovery of the little girl, Newt, and her unrealized relationship with Marine Cpl Hicks. Newt is the only apparent survivor of the colony. She is dirty, traumatized and has survived by hiding from the Aliens that destroyed the colonists and taken over the complex. Newt is also metaphorical of Ripley’s inner self. Newt is innocent, pure and Ripley’s Heroic material is activated through her compassion and empathy with the girl. Compassion and empathy are one of the most universal (and quintessential) motifs of the Hero archetype. Cpl Hicks becomes the activated motif of Ripley’s animus archetype. He teaches her how to use the Marines’ specific weaponry, and Hicks and Ripley become co-leaders of the remaining Marines. This union, between male and female, parallels what Campbell calls “the holy union” in mythology. It is a uniting of male and female energy.
During the initiation phase of The Hero’s Journey, another vital sub-structure is dismemberment. The dismemberment can be physical, spiritual, metaphorical or psychological. Dismemberment purges away the ego and personae of the Hero so that the Hero can finally access and activate the inner attributes they need to accomplish the quest. This stripping away of ego is universal in Shamanic initiation stories. Shamans often report being dismembered and eaten by demons before being reborn into their initiated selves as Shaman. The Marines, as Ripley’s ego, are destroyed by the Alien species. For Ripley, the dismemberment of the Marines activates her own inner resources. She finds the strength to problem solve and discovers the courage to face the ultimate ordeal when she confronts “the shadow” in the “innermost cave.”
The complex and planet are about to experience an apocalyptic explosion, all but four characters remain and there is a plan in place for escape. Before that can occur, Ripley has to enter the “innermost cave”, confront her “shadow”, and win her “treasure” . Newt has been abducted by the Alien creatures and Ripley, as Hero, cannot leave without her.
The psychological entering of “innermost cave” for Ripley occurs before the physical. It occurs in the scene in the service elevator. Ripley is arming herself with the remaining reserve of weaponry as well as her hard won psychological attributes. Like the mythological Theseus, she descends deep under ground, enters the labyrinth of the Alien species’ hive and leaves chem lights along the way as she hones in on Newt’s beacon.
In the metaphorical “innermost cave” there always resides “the dragon” that guards “the treasure”. These metaphors represent the “shadow” of the deep unconscious. The “shadow” is the archetype that contains all of the conscious mind’s unwanted memories, thoughts, feelings, and urges: basically everything that the ego rejects. The “shadow” archetype also contains universal material. There is a natural predator in our psyches that hunts us in our dreams and in our complexes. When this predator (“the shadow”) takes over, it needs to be confronted and contained before order can be restored. By journeying into the psyche, the Hero can find the “sword of truth” to win the “treasure” needed to restore order. Cameron’s shadow in Aliens is the Queen Alien. Like the natural predator of the mind, she has infested the unconscious and conscious psyches of Ripley and abducted her “Self”. That self, “the treasure”, is the girl Newt.
Winning the treasure in mythic stories can be expressed through the physical (such as battle) or through wit (such as riddling). The shadow archetype can be contained and reintegrated into the psyche, but never destroyed. In many myths, the shadow (or shadow content) contains a tremendous amount of energy that can empower the Hero once properly channeled. Many video game Heroes exhibit this in the form of “shadow magic” that is both powerful and perilous. In choice based games, the Hero either uses it for good or for evil. In Aliens, Ripley deals with the shadow by engaging in a primal exchange with the Alien Queen. Through physical gesturing and bargaining, she wins Newt and escapes. But just as the shadow content seeks in some way to destroy or predate life, the Queen reneges and pursues Ripley and Newt.
Return: Flight to the Surface and Reintegration
In her Hero’s Journey, Ripley has undergone a series of tests and trials, both physical and psychological. She has confronted the shadow (both internal and external) and found her treasure or elixir of life. Now all that remains is her return to the surface and reintegration back into the ordinary world. Often, the Hero is obstructed, just as the Queen Alien pursues Ripley and Newt in their flight to the surface. Klaxons sound warning of the impending nuclear explosion, while fiery debris falls all around. There seems to be no escape. The Queen Alien has them trapped on a collapsing platform. Ripley holds Newt and tells her to hide her eyes. It seems like the pairs end until Bishop, the mission’s synthetic person, arrives and whisks them away to the mother ship as the planet explodes.
When Ripley escapes the planet with Newt, it is the natural end of the Hero’s journey. The natural integration comes when Newt asks Ripley if they can sleep and dream, and Ripley affirms to her that they can now sleep. Ripley has freed Newt and herself from nightmares. Ripley has completed the arc of the story and of the Hero’s Journey. However (as we see in all too many screenplays) it is not the end of the movie. While for the first three-fourths of the film, Aliens exhibits an unconscious depth of writing by Cameron, the last fourth is mostly untrue to the story and to Ripley as Hero. Before the ending scene in which Ripley and Newt reintegrate and discuss sleeping without nightmares, there is an epic battle scene between Ripley and the Queen Alien, who is now on their ship (The Queen apparently managed to climb aboard the drop ship – while it left the exploding planet – and survive a ride out of the planet’s atmosphere). Not only is this plot device ridiculous in its logic but it is simply there for gratuitous action. This, for us, creates a sudden aesthetic distance from the Hero’s Journey, and we are propelled out of the transcendent state of mythic experience into a place of objective observation. The scene serves to show us how a wild tangent inserted into The Hero’s Journey will appear to be just what it is – a stick on.
We were deeply invested in Ripley and the other characters in the story until this ending sequence. The true resolution of the story would involve our continued empathy with Ripley and Newt’s grief and pain. We, as audience, are bereft of this catharsis and cheated of its emotive purging. We do not get to experience the pain and dismemberment or the true joy of triumph and reintegration that the Hero naturally undergoes. Cameron would have done better to have left it alone and left us to suffer. It’s what we need.
When approaching the Hero in writing, it is important to remember that The Hero’s Journey is a form, not formula. It has been around for a very long time. While there is a specific structure (separation, initiation and return), we writers would do well to allow the content to evolve naturally out of the characters and out of our own psyches. By doing so, we will activate and fulfill the psychological needs of our audience. As exhibited in Aliens, impositions into the structure of The Hero’s Journey can leave an audience out in the cold.
Sources and Resources
Campbell, J. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. California: New World Library. 1949.
Campbell, J. The Power of Myth. New York: Anchor Books. 1988.
Vogler, C. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. California: Michale Wiese Productions. 1998.
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