For as long as I have been writing and consuming stories, The Hero’s Journey, made popular by Joseph Campbell, has been the go-to story structure model for many writers. It’s not hard to see why. With it’s clear beats and act breaks, the Hero’s Journey provides a solid foundation on which to build a story. Many popular movies use this model including the original Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Lion King, and Spider-Man.
The Hero’s Journey takes the protagonist on a long and winding road of self-discoveries. In these tales, we meet young heroes with a problem and they go through trials and tribulations before solving that problem and saving the day. Many action films follow the same formula. And while the Hero’s Journey does provide writers with the opportunity to sprinkle moments of drama and pathos throughout their story, it is lacking in some aspects.
The films I mentioned in the first paragraph all have male protagonists. Their female counterparts are regulated to supporting roles. They are either the princess, the brainy best friend/sidekick, or the love interest. And while there is nothing wrong with this, the Hero’s Journey is only one way to tell a story and focuses mainly on male protagonists and their problems.
Thanks to increase of female led stories in recent years, interest in the Heroine’s Journey (sometimes known as The Feminine Journey) has risen. Films like Wonder Woman and Captain Marvel, and books like The Hunger Games have shown that there is more than one way to tell a story.
The Heroine’s Journey, in all its forms, is very similar to its masculine counterpart. Protagonists who follow this path have a problem, encounter resistance, and eventually (although not always), solve the problem. The main difference between the two is how the story is told. The Hero’s Journey forces its protagonists to face external conflicts. That’s not to say the protagonist won’t face moments of internal crisis, but primarily, the Hero’s Journey is about just that: being a hero. That’s why it has found favor with blockbuster films.
The Heroine’s Journey is more of an internal experience. While men often struggle with the concept of masculinity and how to demonstrate that masculinity (whether that means slaying a dragon or blowing up the Death Star), women are forced to be chameleons. They change their colors based on the situation. In the office, women must suppress their “feminine” traits if they want to make their way up the latter. At home with the family, women can soften and left their hair down. At the bar with friends, they must constantly be on their guard. Society forces women to play many roles. That’s why female-led stories often revolve around women finding themselves. They are trying to figure who they are and who they must be.
The Heroine’s Journey allows female characters to explore all different sides of themselves and, eventually, unite them in the end.
For the sake of this post, I am going to use the Feminine Journey as it is defined by Victoria Lynn Schmidt in the book 45 Master Characters. Maureen Murdock has her own version of the Heroine’s Journey which I will reference from time to time.
Schmidt’s Feminine Journey has nine stages:
ACT 1 Containment:
- The Illusion of the Perfect World
- The Betrayal or Realization
- The Awakening-Preparing for the Journey
ACT 2 Transformation:
4. The Descent- Passing the Gates of Judgement
5. The Eye of the Storm
6. Death-All Is Lost
ACT 3 Emergence:
8. Rebirth-The Moment of Truth
9 Full Circle- The Return to the Perfect World
I want to concentrate on the first stage of this journey: The Illusion of the Perfect World. In the Feminine Journey, our protagonist often starts off in a bad or unpleasant situation. She knows that there is something wrong with her world, but she is not yet ready to change it. She could be in an unhappy marriage, but holds out hope that her husband will love her again. Maybe she is forced to work at a job she hates.
Stage One, according to Schmidt, is “a negative place the hero can’t function in.” Even though she knows its bad, our protagonist is unwilling to change the world around her. She believes that everyone suffers, that there is nothing she can do that to make the world a better place. This is an often an excuse for the protagonist’s refusal to avoid the transformation she so desperately needs.
A great example of this stage can be seen in The Hunger Games. Katniss Everdeen lives in District 12–the poorest District in Panem. Men spend their days working in the coal mines. Women stay at home and raise children. There is little money or happiness. On top of that, District 12, along with the rest of Panem, must select a boy and a girl to compete in the the Hunger Games, a deadly competition with only one victor.
It’s a grim reality for Katniss, but she is reluctant to do anything to change her circumstances. Her main priority is to protect her family. She doesn’t have time to lead a rebellion against the Capitol. Katniss knows that this whole system is wrong, but as long as her family remains safe, she’s content. Or as content as she can be in her situation.
What Katniss needs is something that will shake up the whole world she has built for herself; something that will force her to go on a journey of self-discovery and rebirth.
That revelation comes with Stage Two which will be talk about next week.
I am still becoming acquainted with the all nusances associated with the Heroine’s Journey. But the more I study it, the most fascinated I become, and the more I hope that this model catches on in the mainstream.
So until next time, kill your darlings, slay your dragons, and keep writing.