Story-driven design - Way of a Hero

I’m a believer, that each story should have well defined structure. There are many ways to build it, method depends on dimension we want to bring details for. Joseph Campbell described Hero's Journey, perfect way for hero-centric stories.

I’m a believer, that each story should have well defined structure. There are many ways to build it, method depends on dimension we want to bring details for. Analyzing and mapping that well defined structure on actual stories, movies and games can help to comprehend it better and use it while building your own storyline.

Hero-centric approach

Many stories are driven by a central persona – a main character. To have that story truly epic, a hero is chosen. Hero who takes a journey first to discover his heroic abilities in a mundane world, then using those skills and with heroic faith mentioned character goes forward to make the world better, rescue the princess and so on, THE END.

There is no better way to structure hero's journey than using method discovered and named so by Joseph Campbell. In his book “Hero with a Thousand Faces” he defined a theory of so called monomyth. Under this monomyth's umbrella Campbell described the same or at least very similar structure of many myths coming from different parts of the world and different cultures. Centric part of that theory is that hero, person who sometimes accidentally finds himself on a journey from a mundane life to and epic end.

Hero's Journey has three big phases: Departure, Initiation and Return. Before Departure starts our hero just like in Fable (games), Frodo in Lords of the Rings (book and movie) has his mundane life, he'd just got used to have. Then first motif appears on the horizon which Campbell named “Call to Adventure“. It's nothing but the signs of the vocation of the hero. Some may be just built by curiosity, some by personal drama, some just happened and still not much is visible both to the character and the audience watching it on the screen, reading a book or simply playing the game. Next step is simply a “Refusal of the Call“. Our character quickly realizes that it’s not what he wished to have. Folly of the flight from the god is often described in many stories as great wish to come back to the life before adventure started. Frodo in LOTR had that moment when he wanted to give One Ring to Gandalf. Sometimes it's just an refusal to agree on an heroic status already given, like modest behavior of Aragorn who didn't want to discuss his rights to the throne for long. Neo in Matrix also wanted to come back to the “unreal” world shortly after awakening. Manifestations of that refusal may vary as you see. Next step in this theory is a “Supernatural Aid“. Sometimes it's not literally supernatural, but for sure unexpected assistance that comes to one who has undertaken his proper adventure. “Crossing of the First Threshold” is the first obstacle, a guardian, hero has to “defeat” to enter the realm of magnified power. When he succeeds, he passes the gate to the magical world and he starts believing in his heroic ability. This phase is called “Belly of the Whale“. For Neo in Matrix, that guardian is represented by Morpheus in the martial art combat they performed. Neo entered the passage when he'd started learning all possible fighting techniques with fascination described by single yet powerful sentence “Hit me!”. Funny, the same thing Keanu Reeves said in Johny Mnemonic when his hardrived-head was loaded. Frodo found his guardian in the forest while Orcs had attacked his fellows. Boromir was the the guy who helped Frodo to find his passage. Crossing the river is that magical moment.

Anyway, after crossing the passage, Departure ends and Initiation starts. First moments are hard, our hero is on “The Road of Trials“. Those trials are dangerous aspects gods have put on the road. Neo had to learn how to jump from one building to another. Frodo had to find his way from swamps and other dangerous areas directly to Mordor itself. Moments during trials are really tough. It's easy to start disbelieving even if hero thought he is the One. To reconstruct, even indirectly his heroic faith “The Meeting With the Goddess” is necessary. Oracle in Matrix made the moment providing more questions than answers to Neo. Frodo met Faramir and during those moments when he helped to save Gollum's life he encountered that phase. Joseph Campbell, giving analogies to our myths, described it as mythical marriage with the Queen Goddess of the World. That's why I dare to say, that the Goddess and Campbellian marriage in LOTR is between Frodo and Gollum. When Gollum was “fishing”, Frodo realized truly how strong the bound between them was. Next step called “Woman and the Temptress” Joseph Campbell described as the realization and agony of Oedipus. This is the moment when hero's life is fully controlled by his Goddess wife. It's a trap. In Oedipus myth, mother and wife concept is blurred. While trapped and in agony hero starts looking for a father, a brother. Helpful hand which Frodo found in Sam, but first he was betrayed by Gollum and almost killed by big spider, Shelob. That moment, reunion, is called “Atonement with the Father” in Campbell's taxonomy. “Apotheosis” is natural after step. To describe it at the best I'd like to quote Campbell: “Like Buddha himself, this godlike being is a pattern of the divine state to which the human hero attains who has gone beyond the last terrors of ignorance”. If that father, brother or god himself is the true partner, a necessary ingredient hero needs to become the Chosen One, during apotheosis these last “terrors of ignorance”, masks of the world are gone. Neo in Matrix had found that partner in Morpheus when he rescued him from Agents. Frodo found that partner in Sam. Good thing to train imagination is that in these two examples, different roles were physically suffering. In Matrix Morpheus was on high, interrogated by Agents and hero rescued him. In LOTR hero was deadly trapped and in scenes full of drama he was rescued by his partner. It shows very well that this generic concept works very well even though you as a writer will like to go with different details. “The Ultimate Boon” is a lovely moment that ends Initiation. The ease with which the adventure is here accomplished signifies that the hero is a superior man, a born king. That’s very much visible in The Matrix.

Even so end of initiation looks like end of the story (a happy end indeed), we still have one more part to tell. It is called a Return. With such heroic impact on everything and big success just achieved hero refuses again. “Refusal of the Return” is like avoiding bullets in Matrix. Neo didn’t need a phone call anymore to escape, there was no need to come back to the real world to refresh, reload or get additional aid even though Frodo was still in the middle of Mordor crowded by villains. In fact true refusal of the return in LOTR was when Frodo hesitated to drop the ring to the Mountain of Doom. Responsibility is refused. “Magic Flight” is the moment when hero triumphs and wins blessing of the goddess and is explicitly commissioned to return to the world with some elixir of restoration of the society. The final stage of his adventure is supported by all the powers of his supernatural patron. After that hero may have to be brought back from his supernatural adventure by assistance from without. “Rescue from without” it is called. Birds did it in LOTR rescuing Frodo from certain death on the top of the Mountain of Doom. “Crossing of the Return Threshold” is coming back from the magical world of heroic ability to the mundane world from the beginning. Hero has to accept it to become “Master of Two Worlds” and experience “Freedom to Live“. Realization of inevitable guilt of life as Campbell described may so sicken the heart that Frodo decided to leave world he'd known. Cycle ends and new adventure may just appear on the horizon or not, helping to build the sequel or forget about the creation.

Studying Joseph's Campbell monomyth's theory is really fantastic adventure itself. Reading his analogies in many myths from our history is amazing. Mapping this structure on books, movies and games may be really enlightening. Building your own storyline and being aware of the journey is a benefit worth considering.

Many writers and game creators base their plots on that theory. They don't need to declare it, it’s obvious and visible. Many have modified the original concept and theory has evolved.

One of the variations strictly based on analyzing movies is Nine Acts Structure invented by David Siegel. In past years it was published on-line, but original pages are long gone. I found good reference in Internet Archives. Modifications David Siegel made mainly focus on setting two goals. It gives an illusion of nonlinear plot. Steps (or acts) David Siegel described are outlined below.

Nine Acts Structure with two goals (D. Siegel)
Act 0: Someone Toils Late into the Night.
Act 1: Start with an image.
Act 2: Something bad happens.
Act 3: Meet the Hero (and the Opposition).
Act 4: Commitment.
Act 5: Go for the wrong goal.
Act 6: The reversal.
Act 7: Go for the new goal.
Act 8: Wrap it up.

  As you can see many aspects are similar, some aggregated, but the clue is that somewhere in middle of his way, hero realizes that he wanted to achieve wrong goal. That's the culmination point and then he finds true goal which opens second part of the story.


  I encourage you to carefully take a look at these steps and their different variations (Internet search on Hero's Journey can bring even more references). I have given you some snapshot analysis of Matrix and LOTR. Try with other movies like Avatar for example. Try with games too. Try to build your own story based on this structure, it’s a real joy.

  In this article I mixed my interpretations with some real quotes from the book, Joseph Campbell wrote. I recommend to get it and read it. My thoughts are based on the 3rd edition published by New World Library in 2008. It should be easy to buy it. 

This article was also published on author's personal pages.

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