On ‘Joseph Campbell and the Hero’s Journey’

The Hero with a Thousand FacesThe Hero's Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and WorkQuillblade: Voyages of the Flying Dragon: Bk. 1 Little Caesar Batman - Special Edition: Bonus DiscReflections of the Shadow: Creating Memorable Heroes and Villains for Film and TVThe Power of MythThe Butterfly Effect 1 and 2

This article is based on a session at AussieCon 4.

What follows is discussion of a range of ideas which arose in the panel discussion.

Ambivalence towards Joseph Campbell’s work on hero myths

Joseph Campbell’s work on hero myths was about describing a range of myths and what Campbell considered them to have in common with one another. However, many take Campbell’s work and simply treat it as a series of steps to follow without a great deal of consideration for understanding why Campbell or someone such as Christopher Vogler who drew heavily on Campbell’s work suggested these steps may be a good idea, whether they agree with Campbell, Vogler or whoever else, and how best to adapt these steps for their own particular story given that the steps are not steps which must be followed in an identical process every time they are used.

Descriptive and Prescriptive

Many people take the work of Campbell or adapted versions of it and treat it as a prescriptive template or set of principles for ‘how stories are told’, ‘how stories should be told’, or ‘how stories are told best’. However, Campbell’s work was not intended as a storytelling plan set out for people to follow. It was intended as work describing various myths with the aim of understanding them better. Once someone has some familiarity and understanding of a variety of myths, they can go about coming up with their own stories based on their ideas about this. Of course, Campbell’s work and adapted versions of it can be used to prescribe a set of steps you can follow and you may (or may not) end up with a great story. Often, writers who use it too closely as a template will come up with a clichéd application of steps that many people are already familiar, using a very similar process and often very similar sources of inspiration as millions of amateur and professional writers. If you’re going to use it as a prescriptive template or set of steps, at least combine it with inspiration from elsewhere so that your story is not one of a million very similar stories. For anyone who is tempted to accept the general premises of a Hero’s Journey model and then try to challenge them by turning some story elements into their opposite, that is such a common technique that it might as well be considered part of any Hero’s Journey model that any story element can be inverted according to any of a range of factors (whether a character is good or bad, cowardly or brave, young or old, female or male, responsible or irresponsible, and so on). If someone has written that a version of the Hero’s Journey is typified by some character trait, story arc, or anything else (and if this has been published and read widely), chances are at least thousands of writers who have thought they were being original by inverting it. Inversion of a story element someone else has described is not really innovative and, done for the sake of ‘being different’, ‘being unique’, or ‘challenging the norm’, often serves more to show what a limited conception of ‘the norm’ the writer takes to be the case. If the whole point of the story is to invert a story element then, in my opinion, the story doesn’t have much point at all. If you don’t like a story element someone somewhere has described, just don’t use it rather than using an inverted version of it.

You can streamline your writing process with it

A Hero’s Journey story model can provide a sense of structure and comfort for a new writer (and for some professional writers). Ben Chandler said, “If you’re writing about heroes, it’s better to know Joseph Campbell’s work than not know it – what you do then is up to you.” In the sense of a fiction writer being able to tell a story and to write fiction, you may or may not find aspects of Joseph Campbell’s work useful. I personally find the Jungian speculative psychology Campbell used to support his work dubious and riddled with long held conventional beliefs from the likes of Plato, Hegel and Kant. However, in my experience, many fiction writers who follow Campbell’s work hold much less closely to these old beliefs than many followers of the speculative psychology of people like Freud, Lacan and Barthes. Whether or not you are convinced by the Jungian speculative psychology Campbell used to support his work, it can be quite useful to be familiar with Christopher Vogler’s version of the Hero’s Journey and a basic grasp of how Joseph Campbell described myths, in order to have a shorthand way of describing stories with those who use some version of the Hero’s Journey and to know whether or to what extent you agree with several main versions in wide use.

Some variations of hero

As Ben Chandler pointed out, “Campbell’s work is about what a hero does, not who a hero is.” The panel discussed the following generalised variations:


Jeffrey Hirschberg, in his book Reflections of the Shadow, defines a hero (in the fictional storytelling sense) as follows:

“A hero is someone who accomplishes a clear goal for a greater good by overcoming obstacles with the help of a mentor at significant risk to the hero’s livelihood.”

This definition is reasonable comparison to what the panelists talked about as a hero or a typical version of a hero.


They discussed this in the sense of a reluctant hero; one who is dragged along on a journey. However, as one of the audience members pointed out, this is also known as a passive hero. Anti-hero also a distinct term used by some film makers and film scholars to refer to a ‘villainous’ main character. For more on this, you can watch the documentary featurette Beginning of the Anti-hero on the DVD of 1930 gangster movie Little Caesar.

Villains typically consider themself the hero in their own life.


A prime example of this is Batman (in some of his ‘darker’ versions), who is like a bad guy to the bad guys.

Ben Chandler suggested that redemptive journeys are more interesting, adding that he found Snape one of the most interesting characters in the Harry Potter series. He said one thing he enjoys is when he follows the hero to the end of a story, hears the villain’s side and thinks “I would have done the same thing.” Dark heroes can provide straightforward opportunities for redemptive journeys.

Beyond the hero

Other points raised included consideration of what happens to those left behind when a hero embarks on a journey, what kinds of support characters are often used and how they fit in with the hero’s journey, and the issue of heroic duos. An interesting story which has a heavy emphasis on the characters left behind when the hero goes on a journey (and one which is not a clichéd example of a Hero’s Journey nor heavily studied in this context) is the movie The Butterfly Effect, which features multiple scenarios of characters left behind in several contexts. Another interesting example is Homer’s The Odyssey.

For more on hero myths and Joseph Campbell, you can read The Australian Literature Review’s interview with Ben Chandler.

A good guide to Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, as well as further resources on Christopher Vogler’s use and adaptation of it, can be found on Vogler’s website.

NEXT: On ‘Losing the Plot: Plotting in advance VS writing as you go’

The Hero with a Thousand FacesThe Hero's Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and WorkQuillblade: Voyages of the Flying Dragon: Bk. 1 Little Caesar Batman - Special Edition: Bonus DiscReflections of the Shadow: Creating Memorable Heroes and Villains for Film and TVThe Power of MythThe Butterfly Effect 1 and 2

The Australia Literature Review

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