The Hero With a 1,000 Faces

List of heroes.jpeg
Form an orderly queue.

Almost every tale is centred on at least one hero. Find out more about the elements of the hero’s journey and how they can be applied to your own stories.

If you do any research on the subject of story-telling you’ll soon come across a book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. Campbell was a professor of literature whose principal interest was in comparative mythology and religion. Through his studies Campbell noticed that nearly all mythological stories (everything from the legends of King Arthur to the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm) have the same basic plot. Campbell also suggested that every good story has to follow the same set of rules.

Campbell’s basic plot comprises the following steps:

  1. We see the normal, ordinary, everyday world of the hero.

  2. Something happens (‘The Call to Adventure’) that disrupts the hero’s world.

  3. The hero knows that he, or she, ought to do something to overcome the disruption but is afraid.

  4. Something happens to convince the hero to take action.

  5. The hero receives advice (usually from an aged mentor) and is given a magical weapon to help them in their quest.

  6. The hero sets out to do battle.

  7. On the journey to do battle the hero meets with obstacles, evil forces of deception and temptation that try to divert them from their path. However, the hero also meets friends and allies who offer help and advice.

  8. The hero meets the forces of disruption and, after a hard fight, overcomes them.

  9. The hero find him or herself changed by their experience. It’s almost as if they’re reborn.

  10. The reborn hero returns home and restores normality.

As you can see the list above contains the two-plot points discussed in Basic story structure. The first plot-point, the inciting incident, is the ‘The Call to Adventure’ (step 2), while the second plot-point occurs when the forces of evil are defeated (step 8). Between these points, steps 3 to 7 contain the main interest of our story — the complications, reversals and changing goals that will, hopefully, enthral our audience. These terms are discussed in detail in Expanding the basic story.

It’s fairly easy to find elements of this plot in classic adventure stories such as Star Wars, Jaws (see below) or The Wizard of Oz, but harder to see them in Sense and Sensibility, Dumb and Dumber or an episode of Fawlty Towers. These elements are there (some of them at least) they’re just not so obvious.

For example, there’s an episode of Fawlty Towers called ‘Gourmet Night’ where Basil Fawlty decides to attract a better class of visitor to his hotel by hosting a fancy dinner party for some local bigwigs. Basil has hired a new chef, Kurt, to wow his guests, but the man is an alcoholic who succumbs to drink on the big day and is unable to perform. To save the situation Basil seeks help from a local restaurant owner, Andre, who agrees to cook the food in his own kitchen. Basil then has to drive to Andre’s restaurant to pick up the food - a roast duck - which Manuel, the waiter, then manages to ruin by treading on it. Basil’s second attempt to get a roast duck is hampered by his car when it breaks down coming back from the restaurant. Basil runs back to the hotel with the duck only to discover that he’s accidentally picked up a huge dessert by mistake. He then tells his guests that the duck is off.

 

How many of Campbell’s story elements can we find in the above? We’re already familiar with the hotel, so step 1 is a given. The ‘Call to Adventure’ (step 2) is likely the point at which Basil discovers that Kurt is blind drunk. Nothing particularly stands out as an occurrence that convinces Basil to take action, but he knows his reputation is going to be ruined if he doesn’t deliver (steps 3 and 4). Andre certainly qualifies as the ‘aged mentor’ (step 5) and Basil’s journey to the restaurant is step 6. The forces of evil in this case are Basil’s rather eccentric guests, the clumsy Manuel and his unreliable car (though the car is also the only contender for ‘magical weapon’), but he is helped by the rest of the hotel staff (friends and allies) who do their best to buy him time by performing songs and skits for the impatient guests (step 7). Basil doesn’t exactly defeat the forces of evil, though he does get to thrash his car with a tree branch, and when he throws down the dessert in front of his guests and tells them that the ‘duck is off’ he has, in a sense, defeated their expectations. However, it’s almost certain that he hasn’t learned anything useful or been changed by the experience, so cross out step 9. At the end, normality is certainly back on the menu as it’s by now certain that the hotel is not going to become famous for its gourmet dining (step 10).

 

As said earlier, Campbell’s plot structure can be difficult to apply to some stories (especially a sitcom where the audience is already meant to be familiar with the characters and situation), but thinking about how it might apply is a useful exercise as it prompts you to examine the elements of your story more deeply.

When you’re creating your story don’t think you have to follow this plan like a blueprint. Think of yourself as a painter and the elements of Campbell’s basic plot as the colours on your palette — it’s up to you which you choose.

Try this

The next time you watch a movie or read a novel see how closely the story follows Campbell’s plot. Try answering the following questions, completed here for the movie Jaws.

Who’s the hero?
Police Chief Martin Brody.

What’s normality?
The seaside resort, Amity Island.

What disrupts normality?
A huge bad-ass shark.

Why is the hero reluctant to act?
He’s afraid of water/shark.

Why does the hero take action?
His son has a narrow escape.

Who’s the mentor?
Captain Quint/Matt Hooper.

Who acts as an obstacle?
Mayor Vaughn/the islanders.

Who acts as an ally?
Matt Hooper/Captain Quint.

What’s the magic weapon?
The Orca/Matt’s poison dart.

How are the forces of evil defeated?
The shark is killed.

How is the hero changed/reborn?
Brody loses his fear of the water.

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