Working on my Western Mysteries series for kids, set in Nevada in the 1860s, I have been thinking about The Hero’s Journey. This story-writing plot-structure was devised by Hollywood screenwriter Christopher Vogler after reading Joseph Campbell's book on world mythology, The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The template is a great tool and can be applied to many myth-based stories, i.e. stories in which the hero goes on a quest of some sort.
1. The Ordinary Hero in his Ordinary World
A hero exists in an ordinary world, yearning for something more. Deep down he knows he is called to something greater. To us the hero’s world might be fascinating and exotic, but to him, it’s ordinary: sometimes comfortable, sometimes oppressive, sometimes both. 14-year-old Mattie Ross, the hero of True Grit, lives in Yell County near Dardanelle, Arkansas. She is her family’s book-keeper. The world makes sense to her, everything adds up and her parents even depend on her in various ways. Rango is a chameleon; his ordinary world is a safe but boring terrarium with a few lifeless friends. The hero of my new Western Mysteries series, 12-year-old P.K. Pinkerton, lives in the flyspeck town of Temperance in the Nevada desert with his Methodist foster parents. P.K. is a social misfit who doesn’t know how to ‘read people’.
2. The Call to Adventure
In Greek mythology the messenger god often comes down from Mount Olympus to summon the hero on a quest. Sometimes the ‘call to adventure’ is a disaster that forces the hero to leave his comfort zone. In True Grit, it is the sudden and violent death of Mattie’s father that calls her away from her accounts. For once, things don’t add up. Meanwhile, over in his terrarium, Rango is bored. ‘What our story needs,’ he says, ‘is an ironic unexpected event that will propel the hero into conflict…’ He gets this wish in an unexpected way, when his owners swerve to avoid an accident and his entire ‘world’ is flung high up into the air. In the first Western mystery, P.K. Pinkerton finds his foster parents scalped and dying. His mother urges P.K. to run; the killers are after him! In some screenwriting templates, this step is called the Inciting Incident.
3. The Mentor
In Greek mythology, the mentor is usually a god or goddess. In modern versions, the mentor is a wise older person who knows the hero’s abilities and encourages the hero to use them. If the hero refuses to heed the Call to Adventure the mentor encourages her and often gives helpful advice. The mentor does not usually participate in the quest but sometimes they – or a different mentor – appear at a ‘life or death moment’ for the hero. In True Grit, you could say that Mattie Ross’s first mentor is her dead father; he ‘calls her on the journey’. Her second mentor is Rooster Cogburn, who teaches her and helps her in her hour of greatest need. The armadillo ‘Roadkill’ sets Rango on his journey; he wears his experience as a scar. Later, the personified ‘Spirit of the West’ helps Rango in his bleakest hour. P.K.’s first mentor is his dying foster ma Evangeline. She tells P.K. to run and to take his medicine bag. Later P.K. meets Poker Face Jace, who will teach him to understand people.
4. The Talisman
It is often at this point that the hero receives a talisman, an object of magical value which represents his authority to go on the quest and which also helps him. Theseus had his father’s sword. Luke had his father’s Light Sabre. In the western genre, the talisman is often a gun. Mattie has her father’s Colt Dragoon. Rango gets a gun, too. So does P.K., but his real talisman is his father’s ‘detective button’. Sometimes the talisman has magical abilities, but its greatest power is what it symbolizes, an important aspect of the hero’s destiny.
5. Crossing the Threshold
A single step can take the hero from his ‘ordinary’ world into the world of adventure. As the hero passes into the new ‘World of Adventure’, she often meets some ‘Threshold Guardians’: characters who would prevent her from entering the new world. She often has to battle them with strength or skill, or both. This is a kind of preliminary test to make sure she is worthy. In True Grit, Mattie crosses a threshold when she makes Blackie swim the river in order to prove to the ‘threshold guardians’ (Rooster & LeBoeuf) that she has the right to come on the adventure. Rango’s threshold is the desert highway he must cross to enter ‘the land without end, the desert and death are the closest of friends…’ My 12-year-old hero climbs on top of a passing stagecoach and flattens himself “as flat as a postage stamp” as it passes through Devil’s Gate from the desert into Virginia City AKA Satan’s Playground.
6. Enemies and Allies
In the new world, the hero begins to meet various characters. Some are enemies. Some are allies. Some are both. One fun archetype in this type of story is the apparent enemy who later becomes a friend. True Grit and Rango are both chock full of interesting and unpredictable characters. In my book, P.K. makes valuable allies in the form of several newspapermen, a Soiled Dove named Belle and a Chinese boy called Ping. And of course there is Poker Face Jace, who knows how to read body language.
As the hero gets closer to his goal, he must often learn new skills in preparation for meeting the ultimate opponent. Mattie learns that hunting a wanted man ‘ain’t no coon hunt’. Rango learns how to play a new role, that of a gunslinger and action man. P.K. Pinkerton learns to find his way around Virginia City and how to read people.
8. Approach to the Inmost Cave
The tension and stakes increase as the hero nears the ‘inmost cave’ where he will battle the ‘monster’ for the prize. Think of Theseus, who travels from Corinth to Athens, vanquishing baddies, beasts and tricksters along the way. This is not the big battle but it prepares our hero for the big battle.
9. The Supreme ordeal or Battle
There may have been several battles along the way but this is the big one, the one that counts. Theseus finally lands in Crete and descends into the labyrinth to fight the minotaur and win the prize of his people’s lives. Often the hero first comes face to face with death and his own mortality. It is at this point that the hero realises their true identity, often as a leader. Mattie must face the man who killed her father, Ned Chaney. Rango must face the Mayor, the worst of several baddies. P.K. must face Whittlin’ Walt, the most notorious desperado in Nevada Territory.
10. The Reward
If the hero wins the battle, he gets the reward. This can be a sword or a golden fleece or a beautiful princess. Mattie is after revenge; Rango seeks water and P.K. wants to cash in a valuable document. But the prize itself is almost always immaterial. The real prize is the knowledge the hero gains, sometimes even if he ‘loses’. In the Western genre the lesson is often a hard one. Mattie learns that revenge does not come without a price. Rango learns that as sheriff, he can be a real contributing member of a community not just a play actor. P.K. learns … well, I’ll leave that for you to find out.
11. The Resurrection
In Greek myths, this is the part where the hero emerges from the Underworld. He is the same, but different. His journey has changed him forever. Mattie almost dies but is brought back by Rooster Cogburn’s almost superhuman effort. Rango is reborn as sheriff and takes on the name he gave himself: Rango. P.K. realises who he really is.
12. Return with the Elixir
In mythology Jason returns with a fleece that will heal the sick. Mattie pays a great price and learns a terrible lesson, returning with the knowledge of what the world is really like. Better she had never gone on this particular quest. In the hands of the Coen Brothers, hers is a bleak story, with a bitter ending. Rango, on the other hand finds his place in the world, among new friends and lovers. P.K. returns from the depths of a mine shaft with a new certainty about his particular calling and identity.
The Hero’s Journey Structure is both formulaic and powerful. It isn’t right for every story, but when it can be applied it makes for some mighty good storytelling. Have fun with it y’all!