Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Road Trip with Obi-Wan...or a Hero's Journey

Joseph Campbell
I have a wonderful memory from childhood that involves Joseph Campbell. (Yes. I know. Geek.) My mom and I would curl up – she in her lazy boy rocker and me on the yellow naugahyde sofa (Yes. I know. It was the late 70s, ok?). We would watch Bill Moyers talk to Mr. Campbell during the now famous “Power of Myth” interviews.

Mr. Campbell was like some mythic figure himself – a cross between a grandfather and an oracle…or a priest and the best English teacher.  Even at 9 or 10 years old, I remember being fascinated with not only his good humor and great smile, but also with the stories he told. He talked of myths I’d never heard of before – stories from far away and from right around the corner. He introduced me to Odin and the idea of archetypes and the knowledge that there are many more creation stories than just the Book of Genesis. If I could have curled up on his lap and listened to his stories at bed time every night, I would have been in heaven.

Luke Skywalker
It could be…just might be…that his references to Star Wars helped capture my attention, along with the fantastical mythologies he spoke of. At the tender age of 10 or so, I’d already become quite the sci-fi fan (as was my  mother) and could recreate the first chapter of the space opera…with sound effects, mind you…using my first edition action figures, my Millennium Falcon space ship model, and my very own official light saber. The idea that someone like Joseph Campbell would reflect on the story of Luke and Leia and Han as part of a mythology was…well…pretty amazing.

He called it a “hero’s journey.” As an adult and as a wannabe storyteller – I find myself having ah-ha moments about the hero’s journey. I’ll be struggling along with some story idea or trying to overcome some plot problem or staring at my work computer wishing I was writing a story instead…and it will dawn on me that if only Obi Wan could step into my story, everything would be ok. If only my protagonist could find her very own Han Solo/Chewbacca sidekick or her very own R2D2 helper, my plot would magically fall into place.

So – the Hero’s Journey looks something like this:

1.      Readers get introduced to the hero’s world.
2.      The Hero is interrupted; some disturbance pushes him toward adventure.
3.      He crosses into a dark world.
4.      A mentor appears in the story to help the Hero.
5.      The Hero battles evil and darkness. Repeatedly.
6.      He has a dark moment within himself. He must overcome his own weakness to continue.
7.      The hero is given or somehow obtains a talisman to help on his battles against darkness.
8.      He fights a final battle.
9.      The Hero returns home – changed by his journey.

According to James Scott Bell in his book Plot and Structure, the journey as described above fits neatly into a traditional three act story. Act One = our introduction, hero is pushed into adventure and crosses into darkness. Act Two = a mentor appears to assist, our hero battles darkness or evil many times, he has a dark moment within himself and is gifted with a talisman. Act Three = the final battle and the return home.

"Old Ben" Kenobi
So…you know I’m a geek about this stuff by now, right? Here is something I love to do: I love to line up stories I’m reading with the Luke Skywalker/ObiWan Kenobi/Han Solo/Darth Vader version of the hero’s journey. I even have notes in many a notebook that say things like “protag’s Obi Wan!” and “Like Luke vs Vader in the cave!” or “Her very own Han Solo…the Dog = Chewie!” in the margins.

There is something soothing about it -- knowing that thousands of other storytellers have followed the same path. It is tried and true. It works. It exists for a reason…and it provides a sturdy, strong platform from which to launch into entirely new stories.

What is your favorite Hero’s Journey? Do you lean more toward Homer’s Odysseus instead of Luke Skywalker? I have my own opinions on more recent examples in the world of YA lit, but I’d like to know yours. Which heroes are your favorites and did they follow a true hero’s journey?

(By the way – if you want a fantastic example of this sort of three act plot, including the steps of the journey, with a very different flavor from the Star Wars version, try Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood. Very dark. Very gothic. Amazing.)


  1. I love this structure and in fact am using it as a vehicle for my in-progress first novel (not YA). As a guide, I'm using a book by Christopher Vogler called 'The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers & Screenwriters', which is based on the work of Joseph Campbell. As promised on the back cover, "This practical writer's guide reveals the secret patterns of mythology." Highly recommended!

  2. Cathy -- thanks for the book rec! I'll have to look that one up. Sounds like a good reference.

  3. Thanks so much. In my first year of college, I met a grad student who gave me one of Campbell's books and which sort of amazed me and set me on a whole other path (Not a hero's journey, but a journey nonetheless). I often think about the Structure of Star Wars (the original three) and why it works so well. this was really helpful.

    I will have to think about how it applies to my own writing.

    Thanks for the post