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6 minutes
February 25, 2016

Moving Beyond The Hero's Journey

Many writers discovered the limited potential of the Monomyth two decades ago.

Professional screenwriter Sean Hood rallies against the Hero’s Journey, the Monomyth popularized in the 20th century by Joseph Campbell:

I maintain that “the Main Character” and “the Hero” are no longer synonymous, and perhaps never were. Insofar as the archetype does appear in our stories, the Hero is often not center stage. Take Mad Max: Fury Road. While the main character in the script and film is Max, he is not the Hero; that archetype is embodied by Furiosa.

No longer synonymous? They haven’t been synonymous for over 20 years now. The Dramatica theory of story came out in 1994. One of its more groundbreaking concepts was the idea that the Main Character and Protagonist could be found in two different characters.

Hood uses “Hero” when he means to say Protagonist, that is, the one who pursues the story goal as an objective function of the Overall Story. In fact, Dramatica reserves the term Hero to describe a character who is both Main Character and Protagonist—as he or she would have to be in order to fit nicely into Campbell’s Hero’s Journey mythology.

Not every story is a Hero’s Journey. Masters of narrative understand this. And have since 1994.

Archetypal Characters

She’s [Furiosa] the one who goes through all the traditional stops of the hero’s journey, and she does it as a supporting character. The main character, Max, is what Campbell would call a “Helper,” someone who assists the hero on her journey.

If anything, Max could be seen as the Guardian Archetype in Mad Max. The Guardian’s objective character elements consist of Help and Conscience. They chip in and physically assist the Protagonist along their way, and they frequently act as a voice of conscience or tempering force on the drive to resolve the story’s problem.

Furiosa is about as far away from a “supporting character” as you can get. Her objective character elements of Pursuit and Consider literally put her in the driver’s seat of the story’s narrative.

As another example, the Showtime series Homeland is not a story about the Hero either; it’s about the woman who foils the Hero’s plots.

Not too sure about this one. Depending on how you look at it, Carrie is either trying to prevent terrorist attacks or she is pursuing those who plot terrorist attacks. With the former she would be acting like an Archetypal Antagonist; with the latter a classic Protagonist. In contrast to the Protagonist’s character elements, the Antagonist is made up of Prevent/Avoid and Reconsider.

This is the same argument surrounding most James Bond films. Is the super spy trying to prevent the bad guy’s diabolical plan or is he pursuing the bad guys into their super lairs? Here we defer to the Author’s sensibilities and who he or she wants us to side with, who we are pro, for. In the case of most Bond films, that would be James—making him the Protagonist. I believe the same can be said for Carrie.1

I’ll go so far as to claim that we don’t even identify with the Hero. Or rather, we identify with far more than just heroes. We are also villains, with dark urges to tear, rend, torture and burn. Our psyches are jam-packed with identities: mentors and tricksters, blacksmiths and chambermaids, sad queens and wicked children, femmes fatales and stylish pimps. To understand ourselves and tell our authentic stories, we must listen to each of these inner voices equally. The Hero likes to believe he is “the One,” but he is just one among a multitude.

This is fantastic. “Typical Hollywood” puts us smack dab in the middle of character who is both Main Character and Protagonist. Great narrative breaks us free of those shackles.

No matter what happens at each signpost of the The Hero ‘s Journey, no matter what other characters or stories populate his world, it’s all about him. While it may be nice to have this type of conceited blowhard on our side when we’re sacking a city or slaying a monster, we don’t have to let him rule us.

This is great too. We don’t always get to be quarterback, running the plays, and driving the show. Sometimes we sit on the sidelines with our own issues to deal with. Sure we are still a part of the on-game antics, but we are often not responsible for what transpires.

The Meaning of a Story

It is meant, not to cure our symptoms, but to interrupt our structured templates so that we may engage with our lives more deeply. To identify with the Herculean Ego, is to take the hero archetype literally, instead of seeing it as just one metaphor among an endless variety.

So I guess now I have to read some Hillman. Here I believe Hood is referring to the idea that regardless of Main Character or Protagonist or Hero a story can end in abject Failure. Or the Main Character can end emotionally “disintegrated” or “decomposed”. Or even a combination of both, as it is in most Tragedies. Most Monomyths conclude with happy endings; killer narrative exists without this restriction. The ending of a story carries with it the meaning of the narrative.

That’s why the only authentic embodiment of the Hercules myth in all of cinema is Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson, The Shining). Or did you forget that Hercules, hero of heroes, murdered his wife and children in a drunken fit of madness? Disney forgot too.

Hilarious. Never realized that, but now it seems so obvious.

The sanitized Monomyth tends to cover up the violence, horror and perversity of myths. In the original version of Sleeping Beauty, Prince Charming rapes the princess while she is unconscious, and she awakens nine months later with twins suckling her fingertips. Then, Prince Charming, who is already married, burns his wife alive so he and Sleeping Beauty can live happily ever after.

As an ex-Disney animator I can say that would have been a tough version to work on for several years. Pretty sure Frank, Milt, Marc, and Ollie would have rejected it too. Though maybe not Milt.

But again, when he refers to the “sanitized” Monomyth I can’t help but think he calls out the typical Changed Main Character with a Story Outcome of Success and a Story Judgment of Good. He focuses mainly on the storytelling rather than the storyform, which is our passion here; but that lighter, friendlier fare lends itself to that usual form.

What I’m arguing is that while Joseph Campbell’s work remains classic, and the Monomyth remains a powerful insight, to recognize story only in terms of one abstract schema is to ignore both the idiosyncrasy of ancient myths and the complexity of contemporary cinema and television.

It also ignores the inescapable fact that complete narratives serve as models of the human mind trying to resolve a problem. Doesn’t matter if we’re looking at ancient cave paintings or the latest HBO series, story models problem-solving.

The Monomyth is ineffectual.


  1. Though I have only seen the first season. Homeland’s structure could be different in subsequent seasons. ↩︎

Concepts covered: Dramatica, Hero, Protagonist & The Hero's Journey.

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