The Hero’s Journey, a Guide for Great Stories

I stumbled upon this video and I was compelled to watch through the entire 51 minutes, something most rare for myself.  It is a discussion on the standard format that most, and in many cases iconic, dramatic stories take. This format, or pattern, was devised and cataloged Joseph John Campbell, an American mythologist, writer and lecturer and called “The Hero’s Journey” or monomyth. He determined that many stories around the world, and throughout time, follow the same basic pattern and he came up with a diagram to  showcase the primary elements of the Hero’s Journey.

The video with Matthew Grau:

A diagram below maps this journey out for us:

At first glance, I thought no way this could be true, but upon closer examination I discovered that this pattern is very common. One of the big ones for me was the realization that one of my bigger, better, and most memorable campaigns from back when I was a teenager followed this pattern nearly perfectly…all without me realizing it.

One of the main points I discovered was that it was not a matter of the entire party living through a narrative that followed this pattern. Rather, it was that one or two of the party members followed this pattern while the other player character’s fell into supporting roles, perhaps with their own story lines, for the main story(ies). For writers….which all of us who run role-playing games really are…this pattern is invaluable. Laying on a “The Hero’s Journey” template onto one or more of our characters in a long campaign helps add depth, guidance, and drive…not to mention a pre-planned skeleton outline…that the GM can use to drive the story forward.

In my campaign I had a main hero that was secretly the bastard child of a powerful Duke in a fantasy kingdom. I laid hints throughout early adventures that this character’s past was not what it seemed. He came across a sword that only he could wield, he had odd dreams that seemed to be passing along information that helped guide him. He was rescued by mysterious outside forces when all seemed lost.

I am sure you can see why I am shocked I am that I did not realize I was following a well traveled and pre-planned pattern????

With this main storyline as the driving element of the story, I had numerous sub-plots running at the same time. Honestly I look back now and I do not know how I kept everything straight and was able to run the main storyline (and the self-discovery of the main character) along with the sub-plots without letting the other players all realize that they were nothing more than supporting characters in the main character’s story. Really, it is a mystery to me how I pulled this off. Near the end, he touches slightly upon this. I think the real gist of it is that having a main storyline that all the players can connect with, even if they are not the primary protagonist in the story. One point I disagree with him, I would not make a conscious or stated “this is his story, yours will be the next campaign” to the group.

One of the more important points he makes in the video that focuses more on the characters as opposed to the world around them is that the hero is average, they are just like us. This is an important point to make because too often I have seen players attempt to make the ‘perfect combat machine’ and make sure there are no cracks in this mold. These cracks are what provide the character with…pardon the pun…character! A flawed hero is the perfect hero because it causes the average view/participant/reader to connect with the characters.

Anyway, a great listen, and something that all of us GMs or writers could learn from!

Another link that goes into some depth on the different phases of the monomyth:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monomyth

One thought on “The Hero’s Journey, a Guide for Great Stories

  1. The danger is that this narrative skeleton has become highly formalized and lots of people use it as a madlib. It’s ruined movies since Star Wars. It’s something to keep in the back of your mind, but I wouldn’t take it too literally.

    I’d suggest “The Art of Dramatic Writing” by Lajos Egri or “36 Dramatic Situations” by Georges Polti as other points of view into narrative structure.

    I think the Polti might be available for free on Google Books.

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