The Hero’s Journey is best described as an anthropological theory by Joseph Campbell that got commandeered by writers as a formula for structuring their scripts or novels.

And I advise against doing so…in video form.


In 1949, Joseph Campbell published a book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces. In this book, he laid out how the myriad myths of the world were essentially one myth.  He did this for anthropological purposes—to show how alike many civilizations, and their stories, are.  However, a young film maker named George Lucas took one look at the book and said, “Hey, if all these really good stories used THIS formula, then maybe I can use it myself to write NEW stories.”

That new story he wrote was STAR WARS—a ground breaking movie that changed the film industry forever and defined the cultural bedrock of at least two generations of movie-goers (and more, if Disney has anything to say about it).  Naturally, such a seminal piece of film demands analysis—and so writers and directors began dissecting the movie and its sequels, looking for the bits that made it tick so that they could steal them for their own use.

Now, Campbell’s anthropology book is held up as an essential tool of writing craft.

And it shouldn’t be, not by a long shot.

I’m not saying you should immediately go throw out your copy—there are a lot of useful things in there.  But the “Hero’s Journey” is not a good tool for structuring your novel because in its efforts to tell EVERY story, it tells no story WELL.

Here’s what I mean.

The Hero described in the Hero’s Journey is, well, not described at all.  This is because different cultures can have widely different ideas of what constitutes a hero—fine for Campbell, but bad for writers.  See, without any idea of what makes a character “heroic,” we run the risk of making a hero without any heroic traits.  These kind of stock “Everyman” sort of characters are usually considered blatant wish fulfillment at best, and just plain boring at worst.  However the hero’s journey does not require the kind of specificity that would solve this problem. So these dull, milquetoast protagonists keep happening.  Why is this moron the hero?  Um…well…erm…because a “prophesy” says so?

The Hero’s Journey also runs afoul of what Jim Butcher calls the “Great Swampy Middle.”  It has a good, solid structure for the beginning and a fairly decent idea of how it wants to end.  But for almost everything else, it’s a miserable hodgepodge of conflicting concepts with no blessed idea of where it wants to go, and no forward momentum to get there.  How the elements connect — and more importantly how the heck they get to that ending — is not the focus of the Hero’s Journey.  What “The Belly of the Whale” has to do with “Meeting with the goddess,” or “Atonement with the Father” is not clear in the text.  All of that connective tissue has to be generated by the author without any help whatsoever.

The problems of this “Great Swampy Middle” are not insurmountable, however.  Blake Snyder, for instance, solves the problem with an idea he calls “the Promise of the Premise.”  Essentially, you take all the cool things you introduced in act 1, and deliver on their potential.  Car races in car stories.  Sword fights with your magic sword, etc…but that kind of forward thinking requires you to put things in act 1 so that you can deliver on them later…which the Hero’s Journey does not care about.

The other things the Hero’s Journey does not care about are other characters.  The supporters who help the hero by covering his flaws or teaching him things he needs to know, or heck, just giving him someone to talk to, get barely a blip on the side of the journey.  Women are boiled down to either “Goddess” or “Temptress.” (Yeah, a lot of problems there…maybe in another video)  And the villains?  The person or people responsible for this whole mess?  Never mentioned…not even once.

And yes, including an antagonistic force seems obvious to any writer-types listening.  But that’s just my point.  The conflict represented by the hero’s struggle against these forces is essential to the makeup of a story.  That this is never explicitly stated by the Hero’s Journey means it was designed for purposes other than a story writing guide.

So what do we do with the Hero’s Journey?  Even if it’s not the best structure guide, a lot of good stories have been written using it as influence.  My recommendation is to treat it like another tool.  Find the parts that do work and disregard the rest.  After all, The Hero with a Thousand Faces is a dense academic treatise, and most writers never bother to read the whole thing.  They just took the parts from the first couple chapters that they needed and junked the rest.  I’m just saying a little more paring is in order.

Until next time, Keep Writing.


Problems with “The Hero’s Journey”

One thought on “Problems with “The Hero’s Journey”

  1. Pingback: Heroic Traits: How to Avoid Boring Protagonists | Grinding Through Writers Block

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