Archetypal Character Arcs, Pt. 3: The Hero Arc


Ah, the hero. Heroic stories are so important and so prevalent throughout the history of storytelling that the word “hero” itself has become all but synonymous with that of “protagonist.” That the Hero Arc is in fact but one of many important archetypal character arcs does not lessen its importance within the cycle.

The Hero’s Journey came to popular consciousness in the last century with Joseph Campbell’s exploration of the monomyth in The Hero With a Thousand Faces. The ideas in this book were famously utilized to create one of our most influential modern myths—George Lucas’s Star Wars. Later, the ideas would be more explicitly codified as a tool specifically for writers, most notably in Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey. Writers, viewers, and readers alike have clamorously embraced the Hero’s Journey for the obvious reason that it resonates and resonates deeply.

However, in more recent years, the Hero’s Journey has come under scrutiny for a number of reasons, including:

  • Over-emphasizing masculine agency at the expense of feminine agency.
  • Creating problematic social narratives around violence, saviorism, and even narcissism.
  • Indicating that it is the only—or at least the best—model for structuring a story.

These are all valid criticisms, but I find that most of them arise out of the simple problem that the Hero’s Journey has been asked to hold the spotlight alone, without reference to the other equally vital archetypal character arcs that can be seen to define the human life.

The Hero Arc is primarily a character arc of youthful initiation. Although it can be taken (or re-taken) by people later in life (particularly if they failed to properly fulfill the arc’s lessons in their younger years), the Hero Arc is one of the two “youthful” arcs belonging to the First Act, or approximately the first thirty years, of the human life.

As we discussed last week, the first of these youthful archetypes is that of the Maiden, which is properly a coming-of-age arc that lays the foundation for the independent “questing” of the Hero Arc. The Hero Arc itself then finishes the early initiatory phase of the First Act by asking the protagonist to complete his individuation and reach a level of maturity that allows him to reintegrate with the larger tribe or kingdom as an adult. If the Maiden Arc is about claiming one’s personal power, the Hero Arc is about learning to use that power in service to a greater good. The Hero will arc into the great responsibility of the first of the midlife or Second-Act arcs—that of the Queen—which we will discuss next week.

Once again, before we officially get started, I want to emphasize two important reminders that hold true for all the arcs we’ll be studying.

1. The arcs are alternately characterized as feminine and masculine. This is primarily indicating the ebb and flow between integration and individuation, among other qualities. Together, all six life arcs create a progression that can be found in any human life (provided we complete our early arcs in order to reach the later arcs with a proper foundation). In short, although I will use feminine pronouns for the feminine arcs and masculine pronouns for the masculine arcs, the protagonists of these stories can be of any gender.

2. Because these archetypes represent Positive-Change Arcs, they are therefore primarily about change. The archetype in which the protagonist begins the story will not be the archetype in which he ends the story. He will have arced into the subsequent archetype. The Hero Arc, therefore, is not about becoming the Hero archetype, but rather arcing out of it into the beginnings of the Queen Arc—and so on.

The Hero Arc: Slaying the Dragon

The Hero Arc is the story of the conquering champion—the ingenuous but perhaps immodest youth setting out to do a great deed that seems far out of his reach. He does the deed—he slays the Dragon—heals the sick old King—rescues the fair lady—saves the Kingdom. And in the end he does it not for glory but for love.

Throughout his adventures the Hero grows in experience and wisdom. He is often guided by a Mentor, which is the Flat-Arc form of the Mage archetype we will be discussing later on. The Hero is tempted by his own growing power over the material world (sometimes symbolized by actual magical powers), but if he is to successfully avoid falling into the Negative archetypes that constantly shadow him—the Coward and the Bully—he will eventually reach a place of understanding and with it a willingness to sacrifice himself in defense of those whom he loves and who are worthy.

It is interesting that the classic Hero’s Journey is not just about using youthful power to slay the Dragon, but also about returning to the village with the healing elixir. In short: it is love that brings him back.

Stakes: Leaving the Village to Save the Kingdom

The Hero’s Journey is often spoken of synonymously as the Hero’s Quest. It is necessarily defined by some sort of journey, often literal but also sometimes metaphorical. In The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Campbell lists possible ways the “Adventure World” can be presented:

This first stage of the mythological journey—which we have designated the “call to adventure”—signifies that destiny has summoned the hero and transferred his spiritual center of growth from within the pale of his society to a zone unknown. This fateful region of both treasure and danger may be variously represented: as a distant land, a forest, a kingdom underground, beneath the waves, or above the sky, a secret island, lofty mountaintop, or profound dream state; but it is always a place of strangely fluid and polymorphous beings, unimaginable torments, superhuman deeds, and impossible delight.

The young Hero, newly awakened to his individuality and growing independence, is compelled to leave behind his village in order to undertake an important quest. What he will find at the end will ultimately be his own maturity and his ability to now return to the Kingdom. More symbolically, what he will find is the “elixir” that will heal the wounded Kingdom.

The Hero’s departure from his home into (in Obi-Wan Kenobi’s words) “a larger world” is important because it symbolizes his complete and final separation and individuation from the tribe. What follows is his true test and initiation into adulthood—his “spirit quest.” As such, even if he gathers companions on the road, the adventure is one that emphasizes his aloneness (often represented as his “specialness” in some way).

In Sacred Contracts, her book on archetypes, Caroline Myss speaks about this in reference to The Wizard of Oz, which although it has many trappings of a Maiden Arc is obviously a quest story:

Dorothy’s journey takes her to Oz, where the house crashes down and she says famously to Toto, “I have a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.” She begins to sense that she has been separated from her familiar environment; that what is going on is happening only to her, not to the tribe; and that she has to find within herself the strength and courage to endure what is coming.

Antagonist: Facing the Status Quo

The antagonist in the Hero Arc is almost always externalized. It is something or someone—symbolized as the mindless, greedy, ever-devouring Dragon—that causes unhealth in the Kingdom and creates obstacles between the Hero and his ability to claim the healing elixir.

Campbell famously describes this deeply archetypal initiatory antagonist as the social “status quo” against which the emerging individual must prove he is willing and able to stand:

For the mythological hero is the champion not of things become or things becoming: the dragon to be slain by him is precisely the monster of the status quo: Holdfast, the keeper of the past. From obscurity the hero emerges, but the enemy is great and conspicuous in the seat of power; he is enemy, dragon, tyrant, because he turns to his own advantage the authority of his position. He is Holdfast not because he keeps the past but because he keeps.

Although the Hero may begin the story already chafing against his tribe’s stultifying confines (the poisonous effects of Holdfast), he will usually be at least somewhat reluctant to fully undertake his Quest. We speak of this as the Refusal of the Call—a beat that follows the Inciting Event halfway through the First Act. This refusal, whether represented by the Hero’s own reluctance or someone else’s on his behalf, is always an emphasis of all the reasons the Hero might be better off not taking up the challenge of becoming a fully individuated and independent adult. Campbell points out:

…beyond the protection of his society [is] danger to the member of the tribe.

As illustrated potently in Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man:

With great power comes great responsibility.

What's the Difference Between Your Story's Theme and Its Message?

What's the Difference Between Your Story's Theme and Its Message?

In many ways, that is a succinct summary of the challenges of every Hero Arc.

Theme: Resolving the Need for Power and the Need for Love

As an emerging adult, the Hero is on the brink of discovering his great power. This discovery is vital to his maturation, but it is also a dangerous challenge. The Hero’s power, should it ever grow unchecked, will be as great a threat to his own Kingdom as is ever the Dragon he now faces.

Therefore, the deep internal challenge of the Hero Arc is about reconciling his need and ability for power with his need and ability for love. As he grows in power throughout the journey, he will be given many opportunities to use it in his own favor and at the expense of others. If he is to positively complete his initiation into true and mature adulthood, he must face his own inner dragons and grow into the even more potent (and frightening) power of love.

Myss writes of the inner journey of the Hero:

The Hero is … a classic figure in ancient Greek and Roman literature, often portrayed as one who must confront an increasingly difficult path of obstacles in order to birth his manhood…. In the classic Hero’s Journey, as defined by Joseph Campbell and others, an individual goes on a journey of initiation to awaken an inner knowing or spiritual power. The Self emerges as the Hero faces physical and internal obstacles, confronting the survival fears that would compromise his journey of empowerment and conquering the forces arrayed against him. The Hero then returns to the tribe with something of great value to all.

Although the Hero’s manifestation of love is particularly about serving something great and reintegrating into society in order to do so, his love is often represented specifically through a love interest character. This character may be used to teach him about love and, particularly, to demonstrate his capacity to sacrifice for something greater in the end. Although the “damsel in distress” trope is widely criticized these days for contributing to a flawed social narrative, it’s worthwhile to understand that, as with all stories, the archetypal underpinnings specifically represent different aspects of a single psyche. In other words, within our own Hero Arcs in our own lives, we can recognize that the damsel we, as Hero, rescue is in fact just another part of ourselves.

Key Points of the Hero Arc

For easy reference and comparison, I will be sharing some scannable summations of each arc’s key points:

Hero’s Story: A Quest.

Hero Arc: Individual to Protector (moves from Normal World to Adventure World)

Hero’s Symbolic Setting: Village

Heros Lie vs. Truth: Complacency and/or Recklessness vs. Courage

“My actions are insignificant in the overall scope of the world.” versus “All my actions affect those I love.”

Heros Initial Motto: “I, the powerful.”

(This is via Spiral Dynamics’ “Red” Meme. If you’re not familiar with Spiral Dynamics, this probably won’t mean anything, but I was fascinated to realize that the six positive archetypal arcs line up perfectly with the “memes” of human development as found in the theory of Spiral Dynamics.)

Hero’s Archetypal Antagonist: Dragon

Heros Relationship to Own Negative Shadow Archetypes:

Either Coward finally uses his Strength because he learns to Love and wants to defend what he loves.

Or Bully learns to submit his Strength to the service of Love.

Hero’s Relationship to Subsequent Shadow Archetypes as Represented by Other Characters: Rescues Snow Queen or releases Sorceress with his love.

The Beats of the Hero Character Arc

Following are my proposed structural beats for the Hero Arc. I am using allegorical language in keeping with the tradition of the Hero’s Journey (and honestly because it’s so powerful). However, it is important to remember that the language is merely symbolic. Just as the Hero need not actually be a “hero” in any sense, neither do any of the other mentioned archetypes or settings need to be interpreted literally.

This is merely a general structure that can be used to recognize and strengthen Hero Arcs in any type of story. Although I have interpreted the Hero Arc through the beats of classic story structure, it doesn’t necessarily have to line up this perfectly. A story can be a Hero Arc without presenting all of these beats in exactly this order. For the most part what follows is in line with Campbell’s (and Vogler’s) traditional Hero’s Journey—because if it ain’t broke, why fix it, right?

1st ACT: Normal World

Beginning: Complacent But Unfulfilled

The Hero is a relatively mature young adult. He has awakened to his own adulthood and taken his place among the other adults in his village, but he chafes against the normality of it all. He has yet to try his wings or gain any real experience in the wider world. Before him stretches an unending road in which his life seems mapped out for him as he follows faithfully in the footsteps of all those who have come before.

And yet he does not choose to leave. He does not quite know how to leave, and deep down in the remnants of his Child heart, he retains fears of what it would mean to step beyond the comparative safety of his Normal World. This too, however, is an illusion, because all is not well in the Kingdom. Even if the blight has not yet reached his particular village, rumors abound—the Dragon is threatening.

luke skywalker tatooine star wars new hopeluke skywalker tatooine star wars new hope

In Star Wars: A New Hope, Luke Skywalker pines for a more exciting life, away from his uncle’s farm. He says he “hates” the Empire but feels little of its effects and isn’t yet motivated to personally face its oppression.

Inciting Event: Call to Adventure

Then—for what might seem like the first time in the Hero’s entire life—something happens. A stranger comes to town or the Hero makes a strange discovery. Though his tribal training and  his fellow villagers tell him to leave it alone, his curiosity gets the better of him. He engages himself with this new occurrence in an irrevocable way. He may act thoughtlessly with no real intent of getting involved, but he soon realizes he is involved. He is presented with a Call to Adventure that suggests he must go out on the road to complete an important quest in service to the Kingdom’s great need. For one reason or another, he attempts to reject this Call. The complacency of “what has always been” tries to keep him in the village.

In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy is swept up in a tornado, which carries her “over the rainbow” to her Adventure World in Oz.

2ND ACT: Adventure World

First Plot Point: Crosses the Threshold

But he does not stay—he cannot. The blight reaches the village in an undeniable way. The Kingdom’s problems cease to be theoretical and become irrevocably personal to the Hero. It may be that someone he loves is injured or killed, or the village itself comes under attack. Whatever the case, the Hero walks through a Door of No Return—crosses its threshold—and leaves behind his village.

The adventure he has always craved has now begun. Even if he bears great sorrow for whatever catalyst forced him from the village, a part of him will be excited by the prospects that now await him. He feels his power growing within, and he begins to explore himself beyond the limitations the village always set upon him. His intentions in aiding the Kingdom are good—pure-hearted—but his understanding of power dynamics is immature. He has no idea what he is getting himself into as he slowly begins to adopt the identity of Hero.

Uncle Ben's Death in Spider-Man Tobey McGuireUncle Ben's Death in Spider-Man Tobey McGuire

In Spider-Man (2002), Peter’s life is radically changed when he witnesses (and is partially responsible for) his beloved uncle’s murder.

First Pinch Point: Motives and Actions Questioned: “Who Do You Think You Are?”

He is brought up against his own limitations when his hubristic actions receive push-back from others. Mentors, allies, and love interests may caution him or express concern over his heedless actions. But he will also likely receive some sort of check from the antagonist or the antagonist’s proxies.

All of his motives and actions up to this point in the quest are put under scrutiny. He is asked, contemptuously, “Who do you think you are?”

The truth is, he thinks himself quite a lot—a Hero, thank you very much. But this setback forces him to contemplate a different answer. The truth is he doesn’t know who he is at all. He’s not really a Hero. So far, he’s just been playing at being one.

In Treasure Planet, Jim feels he failed after a crew member ostensibly dies because of him. Everyone, including himself, questions the progress he has made aboard ship.

Midpoint: “Remembering” Who He Is

The doubts raised in the previous beat come to a head as the Hero opposes the antagonist in a significant way. The outcome is ambiguous—in some ways a defeat, in others a victory. But most importantly, it offers a Moment of Truth that gives him great insight into both how he might more effectively oppose the antagonist in the external conflict, but also a glimpse into the glorious truth of his own identity.

He is a Hero. He is an individual. He is powerful. He glimpses his true potential and begins claiming his true power.

But he hasn’t yet conquered his shadows. A tendency toward grandiosity remains, along with the subtle lure of absolute power’s many temptations. Even as those he loves applaud his growing heroism, their doubts remain. The good-hearted boy who started this quest is growing into a powerful man. How he will ultimately use that power remains yet to be seen.

How To Transform Your Story With A Moment of TruthHow To Transform Your Story With A Moment of Truth

In Thor, the Midpoint functions to dramatically remind the protagonist of his hubris and that “who he is” is not currently worthy to raise his own hammer Mjolnir.

Second Pinch Point: Betrayal: “It’s All Your Fault”

The Hero experiences a betrayal of some sort by someone he trusted—whether an ally or an enemy in disguise. Despite all his good intentions, he is blamed for a setback in the quest to obtain the elixir. This accusation may be without merit but may instead be the result of someone else’s resentment toward his carelessness or arrogance earlier in the quest. Or it may indeed be the direct result of his own culpable mistake. Regardless, it is a blow that both sets back his pursuit of the elixir and forces him into a deeper contemplation of his own values.

In Far & Away, Joseph loses the boxing match trying to protect Shannon, and their crime-lord boss fires them, casting them out onto the street.

3rd ACT

False Victory: Means, Not Ends

As stakes rise in the Kingdom’s plight, the Hero executes a desperate gambit to finally defeat the Dragon and steal away the elixir. He gains a victory but compromises all he has learned so far in order to do it. He chooses false means in order to achieve his end—and the victory rings hollow as a result.

In The Hunger Games, Katniss embraces the lie that she is romantically involved with Peeta in hopes they both can win—only to have the hope reversed later on.

Third Plot Point: All Is Lost

As a result of his own mistake, the Hero suffers a great loss or wound. It seems all is lost. Death is everywhere. The Hero may lose someone he loves, either directly as a result of his mistake or because this person sacrifices themselves to correct the problem. It is also possible the Hero may literally or symbolically pay for his mistake with his own life.

Regardless how the symbolism manifests, he is forced to confront a life and death choice—probably literally but certainly internally. He must choose whether he is willing to let die the immature, power-hungry boy he once was. The time has come when he must once and for all face the choice between power and love—so that he might integrate them.

Thor sacrifices himself to his brother’s wrath in order to save others, and he seemingly dies.

Climax: Resurrection

Because this is a Positive-Change Arc, the Hero will choose rightly. He will choose life, and he will choose love. Symbolically (and in some stories literally), he will resurrect. The battle seemed irrevocably lost, but as he rises, so the tide turns. The death he faced in the previous beat was not one he faced willingly, but having embraced finding meaning in sacrifice for the greater good of those he loves, he now faces the possibility of true death willingly.

In Mulan, the protagonist “resurrects” into her true identity as both a woman and a warrior in order to confront the antagonist in the Climax.

Climactic Moment: Dragon Vanquished

The Hero’s inner transformation represents the symbolic destruction of the Dragon’s presence as tyrannical power. But the Hero must still defeat the Dragon literally, removing the blight from the Kingdom either directly or by subsequently claiming his reward of the elixir. It is always possible the Hero might indeed give his life and die to achieve this end. But traditionally, since this archetype is not the end of the larger story, the Hero will emerge triumphant.

star-wars-new-hope-death-star-luke-skywalkerstar-wars-new-hope-death-star-luke-skywalker

Luke Skywalker destroys the Death Star.

Resolution: Kingdom at Peace

He returns to restore the Kingdom with the elixir. He may return to his village, ready to truly take his place as an fully initiated adult. But more symbolically, he will be elevated to a new rank and take on greater responsibility in helping to run the Kingdom itself.

At the end of Back to the Future, Marty returns home to discover that his adventures in the past have completely redeemed and “healed” his family.

Examples of the Hero Arc

Examples of the Hero Arc include the following. Click on the links for structural analyses.

  • Luke Skywalker in Star Wars
  • Mulan in Mulan
  • Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz
  • Peter Parker in Spider-Man
  • Jim Hawkins in Treasure Planet
  • Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games
  • Thor in Thor
  • Marty McFly in Back to the Future
  • Joseph Donnelly and Shannon Christie in Far and Away
  • Mikey in The Goonies
  • Evie in The Mummy

Stay Tuned: Next week, we will study the Queen Arc.

Related Posts:

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Can you think of any further examples of stories that feature the Hero Arc? Tell me in the comments!

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