What do The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, Disney’s The Lion King, and your novel have in common? Most likely, several of the same elements; elements that have been found in mythology and story-telling since the beginning of history. These elements create a mythic structure known as The Hero’s Journey.
Joseph Campbell, an American professor who became quite well-known due to his studies on comparative mythology, recognized The Hero’s Journey elements in stories told in different cultures, during different time periods, and identified how they are used in modern story-telling.
Examples of these twelve elements are found over and over in films and novels. Sometimes only some of them are present. There are times when all of the elements appear, but they might not appear in the most common order (as discussed below). But most story-tellers gravitate to these building blocks either consciously or sub-consciously.
Christopher Vogler took the basic concept of the Hero’s Journey and modified some of the elements for writers in his book The Writer’s Journey. Let’s take a look at the basic structure of the Hero’s Journey, as he identifies it:
- Ordinary World
- Call to Adventure
- Refusal of the Call
- Meeting with the Mentor
- Crossing the First Threshold
- Tests, Allies, Enemies
- Approach to the Inmost Cave
- Reward (Seizing the Sword)
- The Road Back
- Return with the Elixir
You might think, sure, I can see how some of these elements might apply to Star Wars or The Wizard of Oz, but to romance? Inmost Caves? Seizing Swords? Elixirs? Only if it were romantic suspense, or maybe a vampire novel!
Well, pull up a chair…because we’re going to look at each one of these building blocks and see just how a romance novel is a Hero’s Journey like any other. It’s the journey of self-discovery and true love.
The Ordinary World
This is where the heroine (or hero) is living a normal life, having no idea something is about to radically change how she experiences and views her world. In The Wizard of Oz, the Ordinary World is obvious: it’s in black and white. Dorothy’s on the farm with her family.
In a romantic suspense, it’s before the heroine gets herself mixed up in the robbery or the murder she witnesses. In romance, it’s before the heroine meets the hero: a bad day at work, a horrible blind date, a debut ball, etc. What is her life like? Does she want to find love? Does she mistrust men? Is she lonely; and if so, does she realize it?
In romance, we are told to start with a hook, to grab the reader right away, drag them into the story immediately. That sounds like we don’t get much of a chance to build an Ordinary World, do we? In a market that demands fast-paced stories and quick starts, it is a challenge to set the stage for how the rest of the story will affect the hero or heroine.
In films, very often the Ordinary World is shown behind the beginning credits. But in books, we don’t have that opportunity. However, we still have to show—or at least hint at—the Ordinary World. Maybe it’s a conversation between the heroine and her best friend just as the story begins. Maybe hints of the Ordinary World are woven in during that first scene, where everything changes for the heroine. Perhaps we learn about the heroine’s Ordinary World through little details or hints sprinkled throughout the first few chapters or scenes.
In my first novel, The Rest Falls Away, I switch the Ordinary World step with the following step (Call to Adventure). In the prologue, my heroine Victoria is called to be a vampire hunter in the proper world of Regency England; but the first chapter opens in a very obvious Ordinary World scene—tea with her mother and two other matrons. The reader knows she’s been called, but we get a short scene of Ordinary World while she is trying to comprehend just how she is going to carry a stake and sneak off to fight vampires without ruining her position in Society.
Best-selling author Gaelen Foley says, “Of the two approaches to opening a story, using a hook versus the Ordinary World step, I have come to see greater storytelling value in the latter. It’s more ancient, and far more time-tested. I like to think of The Ordinary World step as defining the problem that each character must solve throughout the book. Sure, this includes their external quest, if they have one, but more importantly, this is the place that gives us a glimpse into what their internal, emotional ‘issue’ is that’s going to stand in the way of this person achieving a great relationship.
Regardless of how it’s done, it’s an important element because only by establishing an Ordinary World can we see how the heroine’s character changes over the course of the book.
Call to Adventure
This is where we as romance writers are often told to start our story—when the heroine’s life changes. When he or she is called to make a decision, to start on a quest, to marry, to change something in her life. In Romancing the Stone, Joan Wilder’s Call to Adventure is when she gets the call from her sister asking her for help.
In a romance novel, the Call is something that forces the heroine (or hero) to find a mate, or that puts him or her in close proximity with a potential one. In historicals, the need or dictate by a parent or familial circumstance to marry can be the Call. In a contemporary romance, it is often the first meeting of the hero and heroine, in which neither are necessarily looking for love…but they come into proximity with the other and sparks fly.
The Call to Adventure is a little more obvious in romantic suspense novels or other stories that have an action or adventure plot interlaced with the romance: it is when things start to go haywire for the characters and they set off on an adventure. Or when they find out they have a duty to fulfill.
Refusal of the Call
In many stories, the hero or heroine initially refuses the Call. In Star Wars: A New Beginning, Luke Skywalker initially declines Obi-Wan’s request for help.
In romances, the Refusal is often just as obvious. In the film Must Love Dogs¸ Sarah has no interest in dating, despite the fact that her family is all for it. She prefers to stay in her Ordinary World of living alone, even though the Call to Adventure appears in the form of photos stuck on her refrigerator by well-meaning family members.
The Refusal can also be evidenced by the medieval heiress who doesn’t want to marry. Or the rake who doesn’t want to find a wife, but is badgered into it by his mother.
Diana Peterfreund says that her first novel, Secret Society Girl, is “all about the dynamic of the refusal/acceptance” because it is the first in a series. “The refusal—and applied eventual acceptance—of the call to adventure is what separates the heroic from the everyday person. The depth of the protagonist’s character is revealed by how she refuses the call, and what motivates her to accept it. I’m fascinated by characters that are compelled to follow that call, despite all the ‘sense’ that tells them to ignore it. We all are.”
Meeting with the Mentor
Once the hero has refused the Call, often he or she is visited by a character-type known as the Mentor. Think of characters like Obi-Wan, Cinderella’s Fairy Godmother and Professor Dumbledore. The purpose of these archetypical characters is to help the hero make the decision to answer the Call.
In romance, the Mentor is often a best friend, a roommate, a personal maid, or some other kind of influencer. In Must Love Dogs, Sarah’s sister Carol acts as a Mentor by talking her sister through her fears and convincing her to take a chance on meeting a man.
Crossing the First Threshold
This is the point in the story where the hero really gets involved. Once he or she crosses the threshold of adventure, things will never be the same. When Sarah goes on her first date with Jake, she is crossing the first threshold. In The Rest Falls Away, Victoria crosses the threshold when she slays her first vampire.
In a straight romance, the first threshold is often a first kiss, or the first admission of attraction to the hero or heroine. The threshold is crossed and the adventure begins in a marriage of convenience story when the hero or heroine chooses their spouse, or agrees to marry the one chosen for them.
Tests, Allies & Enemies
This is where things really start to happen. It’s what can be known as the “sagging middle” if there aren’t enough tests for the hero as she is making her way along her journey. Dorothy’s journey along the Yellow Brick Road and into the Emerald City is the perfect example of this stage. She endures tests (the grumpy apple trees, the sleep-inducing poppy fields, her boldness in getting the first visit with the wizard), makes Allies (her three companions), and runs into Enemies (the Wicked Witch and the guards in the Emerald City).
We find similar elements and characters in a romance novel. The tests may include situations where the hero must trust the heroine in a particular situation, or where the heroine must adapt to a new home or environment (as in a marriage of convenience story); for example, becoming the new mistress of a large estate, or learning how to use a weapon. A test may also be the temptation of the heroine to lie to the hero, or, conversely, to take a chance on allowing him to get closer to her by sharing deep secrets.
Allies may include some of the same characters who acted as Mentors earlier on, as well as new friends who help to bolster the romance between the hero and heroine.
Enemies may be the guy from the mob who is chasing the hero and heroine, or they may be found in the forms of conniving ex-wives or jealous suitors, or even as the hero or heroine’s own insecurities or failings.
Gaelen Foley finds this stage particularly intriguing for romance. She says, “For me this is hands-down the most difficult step because it’s so subtle. The way I utilize this step in romance is to try to view the hero through the heroine’s eyes and vise-versa, asking the following questions: ‘What about this person is delightful to me (Allies)? What about this person is very troubling to me (Enemies)? How can I be sure I can trust this person on a gut level (Tests)?’ Then you have to create scenes where these things can be brought out and examined. This is a heavy dialogue section, usually–the classic ‘getting to know you’ phase.”
Approach to the Inmost Cave
This phase or element is when the hero comes to the most dangerous part of his or her journey. Often it is deep underground, but, as in The Wizard of Oz, it’s in the tower of the Wicked Witch’s castle. It is at this point that the hero must confront his greatest fears in order to attain whatever goal or prize he has set out to have.
Even if there’s not a cave in your romance novel, it’s very likely that the hero or heroine faces a similar test or event during the journey. For a heroine who has pledged never to love, it’s the moment she realizes she loves the hero, and thus opens herself up to the potential of pain and heartbreak. It could also be the decision of a heroine to consummate her love with the hero, if she’s been resisting. Or, for a hero who has never trusted a woman, it could be the moment when he realizes he’s going to have to.
We romance writers also know the Ordeal as the Black Moment. This is where the absolute worst thing that can happen to the heroine (or hero) happens; the betrayal that he or she always feared would happen happens. The trust given to his or her mate is broken. The baring of her soul to her loved one is somehow thrown back in her face. After at last making love to the hero, the heroine finds that everything changes for the worst.
A great example of an Ordeal is when Buffy the Vampire Slayer at last decides to sleep with Angel, the vampire who has a soul. She gives her virginity to the man she loves, and when they wake up, he is a completely different person: he has lost his soul and has become a ruthless, violent, and abusive creature bent on destroying her and her friends.
This is a most important element in the Hero’s Journey mythology, because with this horrific event, as Christopher Vogler says, “The hero must die, or appear to die, so that he can be reborn again.”
Reward (also known as Seizing the Sword)
After Dorothy makes it through the Ordeal of the Wicked Witch’s castle, she gains her reward: the broomstick and ruby slippers that are the keys to her greatest wish—returning home. At this point of the story, the hero or heroine thinks that everything is going to be fine. They’ve escaped from the aliens who are trying to kill them. Life is good. There is usually celebration and revelry.
In romance, the Reward can be the actual wedding between the lovers, or the point where the hero confesses his love to the heroine (or vice versa).
The Road Back
If it seems like everything’s going to be wine and roses at this point, it’s not. That’s the message of the Road Back. The hero has grabbed the sword, but the villain is in hot pursuit. In the case of The Wizard of Oz, it’s when Dorothy jumps out of the balloon to get Toto and watches the Wizard take off without her. She fears that she will never return to her home.
The Road Back is also that part at the end of every thriller or horror film where the villain appears to be dead but miraculously comes after our heroes again. I am always reminded of the end of Sleeping with the Enemy, where Julia Roberts has shot her ex-husband countless times and she’s huddled on the floor, crying, believing she’s safe…but then he’s back after her.
In romance, the Road Back can be a bit more difficult to define. Sometimes it is another betrayal, or a new conflict that arises between the hero and heroine; but often the Road Back is where the heroine realizes that she is going to be alone and without love. She faces her greatest fears: she’s given her heart, she’s grown, she’s become a different person, and the man she loves has forsaken her.
Here is where we see the character’s personal development through a second life-and-death moment that is even more demanding that the original Ordeal. It can be a physical threat that is vanquished, or it can be a different sort of threat—one that challenges the character of our hero or heroine, and what they have learned along this journey.
It is imperative that the hero or heroine have this kind of rebirth, for here is where the true catharsis is shown; the message or lesson of the story. Perhaps the heroine has learned to love and to lose, and she is stronger for it.
RITA-winner Shelley Bates describes the Resurrection phase in her latest novel, A Sounding Brass this way: “The heroine’s character arc involves her letting go of her dependence on others and standing on her own feet. By the time she passes through the final test, she’s resurrected as a new kind of woman.”
Return with the Elixir
This stage is the culmination of the Hero’s Journey, the return home with the lessons learned and the character growth. This is the happy ending, the riding off into the sunset, the final “I love yous” and, oftentimes in romance, the rounded belly of a pregnant heroine.
At this point, the hero is ready to start a new life; or, rather, a return to the Ordinary World of their own life…now armed with experience, love, a treasure, or some other kind of “elixir” or prize.
Loreth Ann White has been using the Hero’s Journey to plot her novels with great success. “I specifically use the hero’s journey when plotting. I’m also a die-hard Joseph Campbell and Jung fan. I used the hero’s journey to plot my first book, which I subsequently sold to Inimtiate Moments. I’ve now sold six books in total, all using the Hero’s Journey,” she says.
But Golden Heart winner Holli Bertram notes, “In many romances, the Ordeal happens near the end of the book, and leaves the heroine with about five pages to get her Reward—a happily-ever-after with the hero. The last three stages of the Hero’s journey are either incorporated into earlier stages or are left out entirely.
“In these romances, the journey follows a slightly different path than the traditional Hero’s Journey and instead ends with the Supreme Ordeal (the black moment), the Return with the Elixir (the knowledge of the importance of love) and the Reward (the happily-ever-after)” all rolled into one climactic scene.
Indeed, Holli makes a good point, and one that should be stressed. The Hero’s Journey is a basic tool that can be used to help create plots and work through plot issues. Many, many successful stories and films have used elements of the Journey—but perhaps not in the same order discussed here. They might have left out some of the steps or phases, or crunched them together into a shorter scene.
Many of us incorporate the elements of the Hero’s Journey into our stories without realizing we are doing so. These themes are so common because we see them all the time, that it’s more than likely that you are already using the Hero’s Journey and don’t know it!
The important thing to remember is that the Hero’s Journey is not a rubrick that must be followed; it is a description of common themes that have been used since prehistoric story-telling. Be creative with the Hero’s Journey elements; switch them around; leave some out. Don’t feel that it’s a formula that you have to stick with. Remember, only you know how to tell your story!
Colleen Gleason’s first novel in the Gardella vampire hunter series, released by Signet in January 2007, and contains eleven of the twelve steps of the Hero’s Journey. She had no idea she was using those elements in The Rest Falls Away until the novel was nearly complete!
© 2010 Colleen Gleason