Whether you’re writing fiction, starting a marketing campaign, crafting a pitch, or trying to ride the ups and downs of an entrepreneurial life — you might want to consider using this classic mental model.
The Hero’s Journey is a universal story structure or archetype where, at a high level, a hero leaves their predictable world to go on an adventure; faces trials and learns a lesson; overcomes a huge challenge with their new learning; and returns to their world, transformed.
THE STEPS IN MORE DETAIL.
The model was first described by Joseph Campbell in 17 stages, I’ve gone with the modernised and shorter version outlined by Hollywood writer Christopher Vogler:
- Ordinary world, introducing the hero in their everyday life.
- Call to adventure, the incident that kicks off the story.
- Refusal of the call, the hero hesitates.
- Meeting with the mentor, the hero gains something — resources, knowledge, or confidence to overcome their hesitation.
- Crossing the first threshold, the hero commits to the adventure.
- Tests, allies and enemies, the new world throws down trials and tribulations, friends and enemies.
- Approach to the inmost cave, the hero nears the pinnacle of their challenge.
- The ordeal in the abyss, the hero faces the greatest challenge yet, they experience ‘death’ and are reborn.
- Reward, the hero experiences the consequences of surviving death.
- The road back, the hero returns transformed.
- The resurrection, the hero experiences a final moment of death and rebirth so they are pure when they reenter the ordinary world.
- Return with the elixir, the hero brings something to improve their ordinary world.
Vogler also described the character archetypes of hero, mentor, threshold guardian, herald, shapeshifter, shadow, ally and trickster — but if you want to know more about them I suggest going down to the origins and resources section and follow the link to see it explained with puppets. And, if you don’t believe that this model lies behind countless stories, view the in practice section for examples.
This model is obviously relevant if you’re crafting stories, but more broadly, it’s been applied to describe any journey in a range of domains. From understanding what it’s like starting a business, connecting with people with marketing narratives, describing customer experiences, delivering engaging pitches and so much more.
LET'S BOIL IT DOWN.
If you're finding this all interesting but too hard to remember let alone apply, you might want to use this simplified framework from Pixar Story artist Emma Coates.
Once upon a time there was _____________.
Every day, _____________.
One day _____________.
Because of that, _____________.
Because of that, ___.
Until finally ___.
This framework has since been used by Daniel Pink to frame pitches.
THE ENTREPRENEUR'S JOURNEY.
If you're an entrepreneur or innovator accustom to giving that quick pitch about your latest project think about how you might reframe that story using the hero's journey? What was the call to action? What prompted you to cross the threshold? And what was the ordeal and the lessons you learned from it? Now, how have you returned with something new?
There's no doubt that applying this model in that context would make for a compelling, engaging and memorable story.
A final word of warning. Consider context, audience and intent before employing the Hero's Journey. It's not the only communication model to include in your latticework and, in some contexts, a more pointed approach such as Minto's Pyramid might be more appropriate and compelling.
- Create narratives with this structure in mind.
Rather than follow the model religiously, use it as an inspiration and guide to inspire your story. It’s a tested approach that can create high engagement.
- Use the hero’s journey to develop resilience.
Apply the hero’s journey to provide context and a sense of progression to your own life and challenges. View your own struggles in the context of this model — as an opportunity to forge your own development so you can overcome a huge challenge and return to your own world, transformed.
- Use the model to describe experiences.
You might not view a customer experience as a story, but it is. Consider how you can use the hero’s journey to describe your customer’s journey in a more compelling way — whether to empathise and design for them or to create marketing narratives for them.
- Use the model to maintain resilience through adversity.
Use this model to help reframe challenges and seemingly insurmountable challenges as 'part of your story'. Understand the role in 'trials' in developing your approach so you can better return victorious later.
There were many critiques about whether or not Campbell’s original model really applied to folklore, or whether he selectively cited his examples. At the same time, his model which referenced such things as ‘meeting with goddess’ and ‘woman as temptress’ was rightly critiqued from a feminist perspective. I would argue that the updated model from Vogler does address many of these issues, especially when seen as a ‘loose framework’ rather than a tight script.
Another criticism is about its complexity and therefore usefulness to be applied. Vogler obviously reduced and streamlined the stages from 17 to 12 but even so it might be too much for some applications. Indeed, Dan Harmon, who was behind Community and Rick and Morty, simplified it further to the story circle which consists of 8 stages: a character in comfort; they want something; they enter an unfamiliar situation; they adapt; they get what they wanted; they pay a price; they return to their familiar situation; they’ve changed.
Perhaps the biggest criticism in a business context is that the approach is too bloated for a busy, overwhelmed audience. If that’s the case, Minto’s Pyramid or other models might be a better approach.
So many examples.
Many examples have been cited to back up the relevance of the Hero’s Journey in storytelling. I particularly like this wonderful infographic explaining how it applies in popular movies such as Harry Potter, Star Wars, the Matrix, Spiderman, the Lion King and the Lord of the Rings.
The hero’s journey is a fundamental, persistent and broadly used model in storytelling.
Use the following examples of connected and complementary models to weave the hero’s journey into your broader latticework of mental models. Alternatively, discover your own connections by exploring the category list above.
- Three act model: a three act approach to storytelling.
- Minto's pyramid: it’s different but the simplified business focused narrative structure bares some resemblance.
- Journey map: use the hero’s journey to provide a structure to a customer journey.
- Design thinking: to empathise with a protagonist or customer as part of telling their story.
- Lean startup: tell your entrepreneurial story with the hero’s journey.
- Non violent communication: another communication model that you might incorporate with the hero's journey to express yourself in a more compelling way.
First described in 1949 by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the hero’s journey, or monomyth, aimed to capture the universal or archetypal story element found everywhere. Campbell originally described 17 stages to the model. Our diagram references the modernised and simplified version presented by Christopher Vogler in his 2007 book, The Writer’s Journey, though we have still cited Campbell as the model’s originator.
For more, watch this animated video about the hero’s journey from TedEd. Or, for my favourite video on the topic, view the Glove and Boots puppet inspired explanation of the character archetypes in the hero’s journey.
The Emma Coates framework mentioned in the summary above came from this Pixar story page by David Price.
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