- Books, Literature, and Writing»
- Literary Criticism & Theory
4 Reasons The Hero's Journey Story Is Popular
The Hero's Journey
Basically, the Hero's Journey is a story pattern found in stories in a diverse array of cultures, and in stories from ancient to modern. It's focused on the travails of a lone individual who leaves their comfort zone, goes on a mission or quest, ventures into the unknown, faces major obstacles, and returns home, having had a life-altering experience. My favorite example is probably The Hobbit, where Bilbo leaves the comfort of the Shire, faces the unknown and perilous world outside of it, and confronts not only the evil that is the dragon Smaug, but the evils of anger and greed in the hearts of men. There are Hero's Journeys in everything from mythology to anime.
Here are my reasons why I think this kind of story is entertaining and popular to a wide range of audiences.
1. We All Want to Be Heroes
Many heroes seem sort of bland or generic, without many of their own personality traits. The idea is that people can then feel free to write themselves into the story. We would all like to think that we could do something that really makes a difference. The hero's journey is about ordinary people setting out to accomplish something good, through individual effort. They prove their goodness of heart, and are in turn rewarded for their commitment to good. Everyone probably would like to think of themselves as similarly noble in spirit, or they just wish they had a noble quest in which to focus their ambitions in life. Heroes have a purpose in life, a mission. People seeking that often probably wish they could be more like heroes themselves, then.
2. Morality, Justice, and Fairness
Like how we'd all like to think inside us we have great potential, we'd all like to live in a just world. In a hero's journey story, the hero, like I said before, is rewarded and vindicated for being a good person. This includes things like not wanting power for power's sake. A good person does what's right for the sake of doing right, but we'd all like to think that there might be a benevolent entity that will see our deeds and recognize them as good and give us some kind of reward. It's somewhat paradoxical when a hero is rewarded with money or power after proving during the "temptation" part of their quest that they're above the influence of such, but it ultimately proves that the hero or heroine will be wise and responsible with such things. In reality, we can only wish that it really was the best people who ended up with the most power, authority, influence, and money.
3. Dealing With Uncertainty
A key feature of the hero's journey archetype is that the hero/heroine must leave their home and the comforts associated with it, and tackle a world that is unfamiliar and dangerous. For example, Katniss Everdeen leaves home and her familiar life of hunting in the forest to follow a dangerous, unfamiliar path to being a Hunger Games contestant. She deals with the customs of Capitol society that are alien to her, and has to learn quickly during the Hunger Games to survive. I think that most people undergo periods of change like that in life from time to time, where they have to go from what is familiar and safe to that which is unfamiliar and scary. Therefore, hero's journey stories help us become more comfortable with that idea of strangeness, risk, and unfamiliarity. Most people need to take some risks and handle some things that are not part of their usual routine in order to grow and prosper. But it can be a challenge. Through the struggles of heroes and heroines, we see the ultimate triumph that we, too, can have if we persevere during difficult moments, and if we are willing to risk something uncertain and unknown.
This comes into play more often in Japanese stories, both past and present, but even in Western tales where the focus is on the individual hero, they usually don't have to face every challenge alone. In the frightening world beyond what is known as the threshold, when the character is struck with the unknown, they usually have helpers, mentors, guides, and friends with them, or at least, with them part of the time. The protagonist makes his or her own decisions and is usually very independent, but people need people at the same time. Aladdin (Disney's) has Abu and then the genie, the latter of which challenges him and acts as his moral guide. Much of the time, the hero's dedication to a particular goal, like saving their kingdom, attracts followers who share that goal, lending their individual skills to the quest. In real life, most people like to think that they're not alone when they're crusading for a cause that is important to them.
So while it might be annoying to realize that most of your favorite fictional stories have this same basic plot, I like it for all the potential variations it allows. It also speaks to human nature and our desire to feel validated, and to feel like we're living in a just world, where good always triumphs over evil.
So what is your favorite hero's journey story? Which ones are your least favorite? What about this story type do you find appealing or unappealing? Let me know!