A Problem with the Hero’s Journey

I’ve taught the Hero’s Journey for years.

I learned the Hero’s Journey in a screenwriting course back in 2007, and it’s been my main focus in my own writing classes ever since, because it seemed so logical. It’s the monomyth, after all. It’s Joseph Campbell, after all. It just made sense.

We saw it in Star Wars, didn’t we? And thanks to The Memo from Christopher Vogler, we’ve seen it in just about every Hollywood movie since the mid-80’s.

The Hero’s Journey is our journey.

But is it?

The truth of the matter is that in promoting the Hero’s Journey, we’ve created a monster.

2020 has revealed the Hero’s Journey to be a pandora’s box of problems when the shit really hits the fan. Because you see, the problem with the Hero’s Journey.. for most of us… is that we are usually not the hero.

The Hero’s Journey teaches us that we are all the hero of our own story, that we are the ones experiencing the inciting incident, refusing the call, crossing the threshold, fighting the threshold guardians, entering the dark night of the soul, finding the strength to overcome and ultimately overwhelm our adversaries, and returning home, older and wiser.

Harry Potter, Frodo Baggins, Katniss Aberdeen… all heroes. All us. Right?

But the problem is that most of us aren’t the hero. Most of us are the ones on the sidelines, dealing with the decisions of the hero. Most of us are the plebes. Sometimes we’re even the threshold guardians working against the hero.

But we all think we’re the hero.

And the Hero’s Journey doesn’t have a place for the plebes and bad guys who think they’re the hero. It’s only concerned with the hero.

So, the Hero’s Journey is problematic, because for most us, the heroic story isn’t our story. We’d like to think that it is, but for most of us, our story is just getting through the day. Our story is dealing with what the hero does. Our story is survival.

And we’ve really seen this during 2020, haven’t we? Acts of heroism in 2020 are staying home. Wearing a mask. Putting others before ourselves. Not Hero’s Journeying. Not going out and fight dragons and defeating The Empire and putting Lord Voldemort in his place.

That’s where we’ve been deceived with the Hero’s Journey. It’s not nearly as sexy and self-absorbed and hero-centric as we’ve been led to believe it to be.

The real and true hero’s journey is not about us and our journey. It’s about the other…. putting the needs of others before ourselves. It’s about realizing that we are nothing but bit players in a larger production, and our being okay with our just doing our part.

Sure, there are heroes among us. And God bless them. But for most of us, we are not those heroes. We are just players acting out our parts. We are often the plebes. We are often the antagonists.

We need to recognize the truth in this.

And so, as I think about what I will teach my writing students in the future, I realize that I need to retool what I teach about the Hero’s Journey, about the monomyth. Yes, it needs to be acknowledged as a method of storytelling, but does it need to be applied to our lives like some sort of universal truth?

I don’t think so.

Because we are often not the hero.


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