A 12-Step Program For The Hero’s Journey

One of the hardest yet most crucial things to deduce for one’s prose is how to structure the plot. Whereas each individual genre has its own form of structure–a thriller is structured differently than a drama, and both are structured differently than a comedy–, all genres tend to follow The Hero’s Journey.

The Hero’s Journey is a 12-step process commonly seen in Hollywood movies, memoirs, and even (gasp!) religious tomes. If you have absolutely no clue how to start your prose, take your main character, and have them follow this arc.

  1. The Ordinary World – What does the Hero do before he has any inkling about his quest? What is his life like? Where is his safe place? What does he love? What does he hate? This is your chance to introduce us to our Hero and show us why we should like him and root for him!
  2. A Call To Adventure – Our Hero’s adventure begins when he receives a call-to-action of some sort, such as a direct threat to his safety, his family, his way of life, or his community. It can be as simple as a phone call or as dramatic as an explosion, and it must ultimately disrupt the tranquility of life as our Hero knew it and present a challenge or quest to undertake.
  3. Refusal Of The Call – “Why do I have to do it?!” Our Hero may absolutely refuse to join the quest. Other times, he may want to join the quest but hold himself back due to his own fears. Seeing as our own responses would be similar, this also humanizes your Hero further and gives us another reason to empathize with him.
  4. Meeting The Mentor – What do you do when you don’t know what to do? You see a mentor! A friend, a family member, a teacher, or just the wise old person in town. The mentor is crucial, as he provides our Hero with the tool (whether physical, mental, or magical) needed to pursue the quest at long last.
  5. Crossing The Threshold – Our Hero finally leaves the world he is familiar with in order to travel into a land unknown. It can mean leaving home for the first time or facing a fear. The most important thing that you can do as a writer in this stage is to signify the Hero’s commitment to his journey, and why that commitment has finally occurred.
  6. Tests, Allies, And Enemies – The Hero is no longer in his safe space! This means being bombarded by a series of challenges that test him in a variety of ways. Whether these are physical hurdles, mental breakdowns, or an army of enemies trying to kill him, the Hero must overcome each challenge in order to reach his ultimate goal. In this stage, it is crucial for the Hero to discover who is an Ally and who is an Enemy. This is where plot twists can occur 🙂 Each challenge prepares our Hero for the next challenge that occurs and gives us a deeper look inside of our Hero.
  7. Approaching The Innermost Cave – The innermost cave can represent many things in our Hero’s journey, such as an actual location in which lies a terrible danger or an internal conflict that our Hero has avoided dealing with until now. Some of the doubts and fears that arose in step #3 often now come back to hurt our Hero, and our Hero will need time to collect his thoughts, plan a new course of action, and get back on track. Again…empathy opportunities!
  8. The Supreme Ordeal – This is the tip of the iceberg. The endgame. The big bad wolf. Everything in our Hero’s journey has led up to this, and the Hero must conquer this Supreme Ordeal in order to survive and continue life as it once was. Our Hero must draw on everything that he’s learned up until this point in order to come out on top. When we talk about life and death…this is it.
  9. The Reward – After the Supreme Ordeal is defeated, our Hero becomes transformed. He emerges from battle as a stronger person. He also often receives a reward for his hard work and sacrifice. Again, this reward may be either physical or mental. However, the celebration must be short, as our Hero needs to prepare for the journey back home.
  10. The Road Back Home – This is called the fake-out. Our Hero’s anticipation of danger is replaced by the anticipation of acclaim and victory. But, nothing is ever that easy, is it? One last challenge faces our Hero on his journey home, and this often leads to a moment where the Hero must choose between his own personal objective and that of a Higher Cause.
  11. Resurrection – Okay, so that spiel in #8…I lied. I lied a lot, and I am not sorry. The Resurrection is where our Hero has his final and most dangerous encounter with death, demise, or some other scary word that starts with the letter D. The outcome reaches beyond the Hero himself, as the consequences for his failure will affect everyone he holds dear. Unless you are writing a tragedy, our Hero prevails and emerges from the battle cleansed and reborn.
  12. A Return With The Elixir – Our Hero returns home a changed man. His final reward can be either figurative, metaphorical, or both. It represents change, success, and proof of the journey completed. The return home also signals the need for resolution for the story’s other key players. Our Hero’s doubters will be ostracized, his enemies will be punished, and his allies will be rewarded. If a sequel is anticipated, the stage is set for our Hero to now become an available mentor.

While reading through this, I’m sure you thought of several tales that follow this structure. It exists for a reason…because it works!

However, it does not have to be followed to a T. Many plots will skip over a step here or there, or they will reorder some for the benefit of their own narrative. Do what feels right for your manuscript, but keep this nearby as a guide whenever you get stuck.

The Easiest Way To Develop Believable Characters

In our last installment, I mentioned how believable characters are the key to writing success. Whether it is starting your prose or continuing your prose or hoping that your readers enjoy your prose, your characters will make or break your prose in general.

So, the question becomes…how do I create believable characters?

Many websites feature 100-200 question “interviews” to give to each of your characters. The purpose of these interviews is the belief that–once you are done filling it out–you will know everything there is to know about that character: where they came from, who they are, their hopes, their fears, their strengths, and their faults. And this logic is not wrong, as you will know virtually everything that there is to know about that character after answering every question.

But it is completely absurd to think that a writer will feel like working on their manuscript after filling out a detailed 200-question interview from one character’s perspective…much less filling out this same interview for multiple questions.

“I don’t care WHY you failed the third grade, Margaret. Can’t I just say that you were a dumb kid and move on?”

Not only is this process unnecessarily time-consuming, but it takes away some of the fun of writing. Yes, you should know many of the basic facts for each character, but you don’t need to write their biography before you’ve even written your prose.

I always create a document with a separate page for each character, and I list down their full name, their preferred name, their birthday and age, their hair colour, their eye colour, their ethnicity, and five-to-ten bullet points regarding major life events and odd quirks. This is all that is needed to get started. As I make my way through my prose, things happen, and things get added to their initial “About Me” document. I learn more about my characters the more I write about them. Unexpected plot twists change some of their dynamics and cause them to make more sense in my mind. I find myself bonding with them more and more.

I wouldn’t have these experiences had I written out a 200-question interview about them prior to starting my prose. Mostly because I would have been so bored and frustrated that I’d have never started the prose in the first place.

So, how should you quickly get started with fleshing out characters? Borrow from reality.

All of my characters are birthed as a mix from people I know in real life and other fictional characters that I’ve found myself connected to over time. I’m not saying to write Thor into your prose. I’m saying to use Thor as an inspiration.

First of all, his name can’t be Thor. Let’s call him Daniel. Hi, Daniel!

Daniel Andersen, CrossFit extraordinaire and our lead protagonist. Remember to take the cape off of him.

Instead of Thor’s superpowers, Daniel is a professional weightlifter who can solve many of life’s occurrences through the power of physical fitness. He still retains his pretty blond hair, which makes him quite the ladies’ man. He is also still slightly aloof.

But what if that aloofness was due to a brain injury that he suffered as a teenager? Say he got into a car accident that killed his brother (sorry, Loki…I mean, Alan), and he’s got memory issues due to the effects of the physical and mental trauma. Oh my goodness gracious, we now have a whole new element to Daniel for us to explore.

He is now a flawed hero.

We can work with this.

Daniel needs a girlfriend. Let’s base her on your spastic friend, Lola. We’ll call her Brandi for the sake of the prose. Brandi retains Lola’s pixie cut, but it’s auburn rather than hot pink. We’ll also add glasses to Brandi to further distinguish her from Lola. Let’s make the glasses cracked to accentuate Brandi’s eccentricness.

When Lola finds a new mate, she overthinks things and drives him or her away. Brandi does the same thing. But since Daniel is quite aloof and also desires companionship to fill the void left by his dead brother, Brandi’s what-ifs don’t fully register in his mind. So, rather than Daniel being driven away, he just stares at Brandi oddly and then holds her until she takes a breath and calms TF down.

See how nicely this is coming along, folks? Be sure to credit me if you use Daniel and Brandi in your prose; I don’t do that ghostwriting shiz.

Believe In Your Characters, Or Fail In Your Writing

In my last blog post, I discussed how to make it past “writer’s block” to continue crafting your prose and create prose with less filler. But then arises the question of How do you keep your momentum?

Even if you don’t hit a wall of writer’s block and not know where to go, how do you prevent just…well…just not caring about the prose anymore? How do you prevent yourself from finding everything and anything else more desireable to do than sitting down and typing out words? How do you ensure that your words just flow from your fingertips in rapid speed without dragging along for page after page?

One word:

Characters.

Think about your favourite books, television shows, comic book characters, movies, etc. What do you like best about them? I’ll bet you just thought of a character. Maybe several characters. The first thing you thought of when picturing this beloved craft was a character related to that craft. And there is a reason for that.

Think about a series that you used to love that has since then gone into the toilet, yet you continue to hate-watch or hate-read anyway. Pretty Little Liars. Lost. Riverdale. The list goes on and on. The series makes you rage with its absurdness, but you continue to consume it anyway. You know you’re most likely going to be disappointed with the episode/book, but you go forth anyway.

This damn show went from amazing in Seasons 1-6A to terrible in 6B-7. Yet I continued watching those last 1.5 seasons because I loved these girls and wanted to see their stories played out. Create characters that do the same thing (but also don’t nuke your show with bad writing and unbelievable plotlines).

Why?

Again:

Characters.

Believable characters are the key to making or breaking your product. If your audience loves (or loves-to-hate) your characters, then they will keep coming back for more. If your characters are stiff and dull–despite an amazing setting, descriptions, and plot–, your audience is going to tune out, or put your product down and forget about it. It lands on the shelf of “I’ll come back to it eventually”.

The same is true for you and your writing. You need to love your characters. Care about them. Make them stand out enough that it’s easy to keep going no matter what rut or other life responsibilities you’ve found yourself in.

Let’s look at the primary characters from my series, the Belle Âme Chronicles: Blythe, Nathalian, Edwin, Sevii, Ramona, and Jaxyn (yes, I know that there are more primary characters from that series, but those are called SPOILERS). I can literally pull a random scene out of a hat and write a good 1000-1500 words of dialogue and action within 15 minutes that correspond to that scene. That is because I care enough about those characters to instantly know what they will say and how they will react, both to the situation and to the other members of their family.

Wha this means is that–even on a bad day–I can sit down, take a look at my outline, and know what scene needs to be written. And then I can just tunnel-vision churn out that scene (or entire chapter, in some cases) without having to stop and strain over “What would they say now?” Enjoying and truly knowing your characters makes the writing process so much easier.

Real talk: I wish I still had my old typewriter. My mom let me use it from ages 4-9, and then it was GONE one day. Maybe I’ll try to find one on eBay 🙂

When you do not care about a character, it is almost a guarantee that your audience will not care about them either. They will cause your writing to drag, and you will start to hate scenes that this character is a part of. While it is hard (and sometimes heartwrenching) to kill off a character–especially a protagonist or anti-hero–, it is quite therapeutic to kill off a character that has just fallen too flat to meet your expectations 🙂

A lot of people recommend doing those lengthy, 200-question surveys to develop your characters. If that works for you…cool. Do it. But to me, there is a much easier and much more practical way to develop characters that actually mean something to you (and to your readers). I will discuss that in our next blog installment, so stay tuned!