The Hero's Cycle: How to approach a story

Last time, we talked about Myth Makers, and I have say, this is a hard post for me to write.  I have talked about the hero's cycle before, most notably when I defended it from the cretins at io9 in my Why the Hero's Cycle Simply is.  The main reason I am having a hard time with this post is time.  There are books about it, and not one come close to describing it in the depth it deserves.  I will try my best to keep this short and to the point.


Joseph Campbell (circa 1984)
Image via Wikipedia

Joseph Campbell had an insight about the architectural underpining of every great story ever written.  He called this story the Monomyth or Hero's Cycle.  Any time you have a story about good verses evil ,or struggle, or the search to get or destroy something, the monomyth is there.  I have yet to find a story that doesn't follow the monomyth.

He presented it in his wonderful book Hero with a Thousand Faces.  While many writers have used it to inspire their fiction, Campbell's purpose was to teach people how to read a story and discover its meaning.

The Lens of Mythology

Stories look very different when you read them through the monomyth.

Hero's Cycle

Most stories start at the Call to Adventure, but that is always the case.  Any part of the cycle may contain an entire cycle within it, or they may be skipped in their entirety.

How to see the Monomyth

The cycle helps you isolate where you are in the story and dig into it a little deeper.

The call to adventure is the event that leads the hero to embark on the adventure.  The hero is ignorant about the true nature of the world and something causes them to seek a remedy for this ignorance.

Along the way they encounter a helper who is a part of the world they do not understand.  This helper could be good or evil.  Their motives are not important.  Their function is to give the hero the courage they need to cross the threshold of adventure.

A crisis befalls the hero and they find themselves somehow lost in unfamiliar ground.  They have no idea where they are or how they can ever get back.  It is too late.  They are committed to the adventure now.

The hero is tested to their limits, and constantly tempted to give up.  Along the way, the encounter more helpers.  Some may be the same as before, but his real challenge to is realize that there is something about them he has to incorporate into himself.  Unless he grows, taking on their positive characteristics and rejecting their negative ones, he will not be able to complete his task.

Next, he is face to face with the solution to the problem.  He has this last chance to decide if he really wants it or not, and how he is going to acquire it.

After he has gained the solution, he has to go back or get out.  If he was meant to have the solution, he will be aided in his flight.  If not, he will be pursued in his flight, the negative forces trying to destroy him.

The final challenge is to cross the return threshold and survive.  All of the negative powers are allied against him to make their last stand.

On the other side of the threshold, the hero must get the elixer to those who need it, completing his quest.

Every story follows this basic pattern.

How to use the Monomyth

Once you have isolated the individual parts, you can see the underlying core of the story.  The trick is to understand that this entire adventure has been a journey to mature and develop the mind of the hero.  Every element presented a psychological or archetypal piece of the puzzle that would make the hero into a hero.

After a while, it becomes second nature to see a story in this way, and to glean from it meaning that the writer might not have even realized was there.  It is a valuable tool to both the writer and the reader/viewer.

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