A hero’s journey is a hero story template that pops up in fiction, folklore, and mythology. In these stories, a hero goes on an adventure in which they face trials, challenges, and enemies. The hero returns home at the end of the adventure as a profoundly changed person with new strength and knowledge. In some stories, they might return with some magical object or reward.

It’s probably the most common type of hero story and can be found in many places. From Homer’s Odyssey to The Wizard of Oz and even many superhero films, many stories use the hero’s journey, also called the monomyth, as their template. In this teaching wiki, we’ll explain how these hero stories work, some of the main recurring character types, and how you can teach your class about hero’s journey stories.

How are hero’s journey stories structured?

There are a few debating ideas about how hero’s journey stories are structured. One thing they all agree on, though, is that this type of hero story is split into three distinct acts:

1: Departure: The main hero receives a ‘call to adventure in the first act, disrupting their everyday life. They might be reluctant at first and refuse to go on the adventure. In some hero’s journey stories, this first act is where the hero is born, grows up, and starts to understand their heroic purpose. At the end of this act, the hero leaves behind the world they know and ventures into a more uncertain, dangerous one.

2: Initiation: The second act is where things get interesting. In this section, the hero faces a series of trials and challenges. They might sometimes fail or be tempted to go down the wrong path (literally or metaphorically!), but they will eventually persevere and continue their adventure. At the end of the second act, the hero confronts the thing that’s been causing all the bother and receives their reward.

3: Return: Even though it might sound like the hero story is over, there’s still one essential act left to go. In act three, the hero leaves the new world they’ve ventured into. They might be reluctant to leave, or in some stories, they’re chased out by an angry guardian or god-like figure. When the hero returns home, they learn to use the new knowledge, power, or magic item they’ve gained.

What other characters can be found in the hero’s journey stories?

As well as the main hero, several character archetypes appear across many hero’s journey tales. These are some of the main ones:

  • The Mentor: This character type plays a crucial role in the plot. The mentor often motivates the hero to go on the adventure in the first place. They might also train the hero or give them helpful advice.
  • The Threshold Guardian: These characters can take several forms, but their role in the story is to challenge and impede the hero’s progress.
  • The Ally: Though not every hero story has one, the Ally is an essential archetypal character. As the name suggests, their job is to help the hero through their adventure. In more modern stories, they’re used to make the story more exciting and to provide some good back-and-forth dialogue with the hero.
  • The Shadow: The main antagonist of the story, The Shadow is a character with immense power who the hero must confront. While this might be a villain or monster, it can also be something more abstract, like the hero’s doubts and fears.

Why are hero stories so popular?

Although it might seem like they’ve been done to death, hero’s journey stories are still viral, and for a good reason. For one thing, a well-told hero story makes us feel good. There’s something universally satisfying about seeing an ordinary person transform into a hero and defeat an evil adversary.

Another reason the hero’s journey is such a tried-and-true format is that it allows us to sympathize with the hero. Seeing the hero face challenges and obstacles makes readers want to root for them even more.

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