Hero’s Journey as Psychological Narrative

An inversion of the typical reductionist approach to The Hero's Journey.

Joseph Campbell was born on March 26, 1904, so in his honor yesterday, I tweeted this series of quotes:

When I sold K-9 as a spec script in 1987, I did the whole bottle water tour (back then, it was known as 'flavor-of-the-week') meeting producers, execs, and talent. During that whirlwind jaunt through Hollywood, I was shocked to see a copy of Campbell's book "The Hero With a Thousand Faces" in peoples' bookshelves. I had first discovered Campbell when I was an undergraduate at the University of Virginia and we studied him as part of my religious studies honors program. So in every one of these meetings, among the things racing through my mind was this question:

How did this academic book end up in Hollywood?

Two words: Star Wars. In an interview in "Joseph Campbell: A Fire in the Mind" (Larsen and Larsen, 2002, p. 541), George Lucas is quoted as saying that after making American Graffiti:

…it came to me that there really was no modern use of mythology…so that's when I started doing more strenuous research on fairy tales, folklore and mythology, and I started reading Joe's books. Before that I hadn't read any of Joe's books…. It was very eerie because in reading "A Hero with a Thousand Faces," I began to realize that my first draft of Star Wars was following classical motifs.

The fact Star Wars, one of the most successful film franchises of all time, used "classical motifs" as elucidated by Joseph Campbell pretty much ensured that any conversation about screenwriting in Hollywood has to involve The Hero's Journey.

Unfortunately much of what is passed off as The Hero's Journey in Hollywood development circles is a reductionist take focusing almost exclusively on narrative 'stages'. Campbell details 17 of them in his book. To simplify for screenwriting, they have been reduced to 12 'steps'.

Herein lies the rub. Check this out from a previous GITS post:

Killer Films producer David Kaplan made a comment on twitter denouncing Campbell. I asked him why and he told me that 90% of the scripts he reads follow the same formula and this, he insinuated, made them flat and, well, formulaic.

This galls me. In an attempt to 'figure out' or 'distill' the Hero's Journey to some sort of paradigm, people have simplified it into a formula.

This is as far away from Campbell's intention as you could possibly get.

Just look at the series of quotes above. Notice something? They are ALL about the individual and CHANGE. Campbell asserted that the entire point of the Hero's Journey is transformation. The universal theme of Story is this: Follow your bliss. To know one's bliss, one must go inside and sort through wants, needs, memories, desires, impulses, fears, and all the rest of our psychological lives.

Which is to say that a better way to think about the Hero's Journey insofar as writing is concerned is to invert the typical focus on Plot and instead start with Character.

Delving into Characters is inherently messy because Characters are living, breathing beings with their own backstories and personal histories, their world views and personalities, and their own psyches, both functional and flawed.

Consider this Campbell quote:

The first work of the hero is to retreat from the world scene of secondary effects to those causal zones of the psyche where the difficulties really reside, and there to clarify the difficulties, eradicate them in his own case (i.e., give battle to the nursery demons of his local culture) and break through to the undistorted, direct experience and assimilation of what [Carl] Jung called "the archetypal images."

That is some pretty heavy academic language, so let me try to translate it into language screenwriters can access.

  • "World scene of secondary effects": There's your Plot, my friends. All the events and obstacles, roadblocks and reversals, yes, they are important, but they are SECONDARY to the…
  • "Causal zones of the psyche where the difficulties really reside": Here we are talking about the interior life of our story's Characters. THIS is the real deal. In a well-told story, the events of the Plot must be tethered to, even inspired by the inner drama of a Character's metamorphosis. Of the beginning of the Journey's narrative, Campbell says: "The hero is just making do… they need to change." As a writer, that should be your starting point in dealing with any Protagonist figure: How are they living an inauthentic life? What does that state of Disunity look like? Why do they need to change?
  • "To clarify the difficulties, eradicate them… break through the undistorted direct experience and assimilation of… 'the archetypal images'": The events of the Plot help characters to "clarify" "difficulties", even "eradicate them" which in turn allows the Character to have a "direct experience" of "archetypal images". For our purposes, we can take this to mean that what transpires in the Plot services what takes place in terms of the Character's transformation.

That's the inversion I noted up top: You want to discover a story's Plot? Start with Characters. Per Campbell, the Hero's Journey ultimately is about the Protagonist's transformation, their change, the events of the External World influencing the movements in their Internal World.

Whatever you may have learned about Joseph Campbell and the Hero's Journey, if it isn't first and foremost about the central character's metamorphosis, journey as transformation, the psychological narrative…

That does a grave injustice to what Campbell was about.

Moreover you, as a writer, miss out on a huge opportunity to make this adage come to life: Character equals Plot.

To learn more, visit the Joseph Campbell Foundation website.

Special thanks to Trish Curtin for the visuals accompanying the Joseph Campbell quotes as featured above.


Hero's Journey as Psychological Narrative was originally published in Go Into The Story on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Go Into The Story – Medium

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