Does The Hero’s Journey Limit Heroism?

The origin story of the phrase “the hero’s journey” comes from Joseph Campbell’s work and his book “A Hero with a Thousand Faces”.  Campbell took a look at myths and stories across many different cultures and throughout history for similarities.  It brings forward questions like: What makes a story a story?  and What makes stories so important to humans?  Campbell has been a conscious influence on everything from “Star Wars” to “Community”, and a subconscious influence on countless others.

His work is basically, exactly my jam.  These are the questions I ponder and struggle with and argue about with friends and loved ones.

His work is used as a kind of writer’s 101.  When you’re stuck, or the story isn’t working, or you don’t know what should happen next, check your story against the framework of “The Hero’s Journey”.

The thing is, I worry that some heroes are left out of this model. Like maybe the heroes from my stories?

Now I am not an expert in this model.  I have not read the entire book, watched the PBS special or done more than glancing homework on this topic.  So it is possible that the form is wide enough to include the stories I think are missing.  But I want to examine it more closely.

I’ve been coming up against this problem in my own writing.  Because, generally speaking, Heroes take action.

Duh.  Obviously.  Except in every first draft I have ever written my main characters don’t take action.  They think and consider and react to the world around them.  CLASSIC newbie writing behavior and PAINFUL to read.

Okay so clearly it is my inexperience that is the problem, not brilliant Joseph Campbell. EXCEPT…

In college, I took a memorable four-week elective course on “women in myth and fairy tale”  It was a friggin’ great class.  I vividly recall our professor offering a definition of the difference between Heroes and Heroines.  Heroes take action.  Heroines endure.   Jack climbs a beanstalk to get the treasure.  Sleeping Beauty sleeps in captivity for 100 years before she can marry the prince.

These archetypes are not necessarily always along gender lines.  For example in Lord of the Rings, Aragorn is reforging swords and leading armies.  (Very Hero-ish) While Frodo is being carried up a mountain with a piece of jewelry that it trying to steal his soul.  (Very Heroine-ish)  Yet both of these heroes fit the Campbell “Heroes Journey” Archetype of going away into the unknown world and returning changed.


You know who doesn’t return changed?  Samwise Mother-Flippin’ Gamgee, that’s who.


Sam returns to the shire (essentially) unchanged.  He is heroic in that he takes actions to protect himself and his friends. He is Heroineic (new word! ) when he endures the trials of leaving the home he loves (and for a while carrying a soul-sucking ring).

And yet, I don’t think there is a classic heroes journey for Sam.

Which brings me to conclude.  Maybe Campbell’s framework doesn’t work for EVERY story or EVERY hero.  But perhaps those other stories and kinds of hero are for more advanced authors.  Maybe there is a reason to send newbie writers like me to Campbell.

Get the basics first.  Break the rules later on.


1 comments on “Does The Hero’s Journey Limit Heroism?”

  1. To throw in my two cents, I’d say write the story you want. If it breaks someone else’s rules, tough noogies. If you feel that following the rules helps your story, you’re always free to do that. “Heroineic,” love it!

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