The idea of the hero’s journey – Joseph Campbell’s heroic monomyth – is quite a well-known one, and can be seen in almost all modern action stories. It’s a really good foundation to work from, although you should never feel compelled to use it as a step-by-step guide on how to structure your story. But one of the ways it really shows its age is the basic assumption of the heroic figure.
Campbell was a fascinating scholar but he was also, as we all are, a product of his environment: a white American man in the early-mid 20th century. He did a huge amount of research into other cultures (particularly Asian mythologies) and was widely read, but there were certain underlying ideas that he never really explored. Gender was one of them.
The figure of the heroine in western storytelling has evolved along a very different route to that of the hero. For a long time she was a damsel in distress, or a prize to be won. She didn’t head off on quests, or go through an arc of revelation and transformation. She certainly didn’t pick up a weapon and do battle. The concept of the heroic monomyth is pretty flexible but, when it comes to heroines, you have to work a bit harder to make it fit.
I’ve touched on this in the past. Christopher Vogler, a modern screenwriter and student of Campbell, says that the hero’s journey is a straight line about overcoming odds, achieving goals, and growing as a person; whereas the heroine’s journey is more about circumnavigating challenges, understanding who she is and therefore how she fits in society. It’s a fairly subtle difference, but an important one.
Maureen Murdock has gone into the subject in a lot more depth. She talks about ‘finding balance as the heroine struggles between sides of a duality’, where one side of that balance is the feminine and the other is the masculine:
The feminine is the side of the duality that your heroine identified with as a small child. However, society undervalues the feminine. The story begins as the heroine chooses to reject it.
The masculine is the side of the duality that your heroine adopts as she comes of age. Society prizes the masculine, but in many tales it has been poisoned, misinterpreted, or taken to such extremes that it has become harmful. The heroine sets out on her journey by embracing it.
Like Campbell, Murdock created a cycle for the journey which focuses heavily on exploring this dual nature:
This blog post goes into more detail about each of the steps but, broadly speaking, they match up with the heroic journey pretty well. The difference is on the emphasis – external struggle vs internal struggle.
To be honest, I don’t really subscribe to all this. Making the assumption that heroes can’t undergo the same identity crises seems somewhat belittling, not to mention hypocritical. Men can struggle internally, just as women can pick up a sword and whack something over the head. The heroes that have to find balance with their duality are deeper, more interesting people than those who don’t. Yes, heroes and heroines have traveled different evolutionary paths but I think we’ve now reached an age of storytelling where we can stop talking about heroes and heroines, and start talking about people.