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?

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 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 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 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-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!

Click the “Play” button to Listen to Audio Version (or subscribe to the Helping Writers Become Authors podcast in Apple Podcast or Amazon Music).

___

Love Helping Writers Become Authors? You can now become a patron. (Huge thanks to those of you who are already part of my Patreon family!)

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Thank you so much for this post! I could never relate to the hero’s journey, as it is often depicted way too simplistic. I refused to believe that the arc of my protagonist follows that route. But your detailed explanation opened my eyes! Every single bit you write fits PERFECTLY to my protagonist’s journey – as if you wrote down his story here. It is kinda scary, but also fascinating at the same time how my intuition has lead me to the hero’s journey after all. Thank you for all your great content – this is my first comment on your blog, but I’m a regular reader!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, intuition is endlessly fascinating to me. I still remember how powerful the moment was when I realized that my stories followed a classic structure long before I even knew there was such a thing.

  2. Great post as always, K.M! I can’t wait to learn about the other arcs. I always thought Katniss was a Flat-Arc character though.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It’s true I do tend to see Katniss as a Flat-Arc character, but there’s room for argument there. Regardless, I do see her story (like Wonder Woman, which I also tend to see as having a Flat-Arc protagonist) as offering many of the trappings of the Hero’s Journey. Ultimately, I included her here because I wanted another female example to illustrate the point.

  3. Another very informative post, thanks.

    I deliberately have avoided the classical male hero and instead created a “Regiment of Monstrous Women”, my strong, feisty and on occasion downright dangerous heroines.

    I recognise the maiden arc in the (unpublished) first Arcturian novel. Jane is living on her parents farm, but studying for a career in electronics. Her curiosity gets the better of her and she is pitched into an adventure where she becomes an accidental hero:

    Jane ate in silence for a while, deep in thought. Four years ago she’d sat beside the pool at Simon Garrett’s house on Topanga, an awkward teenager in a swimsuit, while Space Fleet technicians had torn into Garrett’s computers and found evidence of crime after crime. Each time there’d been another reward and she’d been the only person who could collect it. In two hours she’d gone from being just another farm girl to the richest citizen of her home planet.
    Then two Space Fleet lieutenants had come to her, and explained her options. And, only half seriously, one of them had said, ‘In an energy weapon fight, after the first shot’s been fired, don’t turn the bloody thing off and put it in your handbag!’
    That had hurt. She’d fired just one shot, badly aimed, with a weapon she didn’t understand, trying to burst the nosewheel tyre of Garrett’s ship to stop him getting away. She hadn’t known that click seven on an energy weapon was the armour-piercing setting. Instead of the tyre she’d blasted the whole nosewheel assembly—strut, oleo leg, steering, retractor gear, the whole works—out of the ship. Then she’d turned the weapon off and Andrew had appeared. And while she was kissing him, Simon had fired.
    It had been her first operation.
    She had no training, no idea of what she was doing—and she’d done most of the right things by instinct.
    And after that she knew that her future had to be in Space Fleet operations—there was nothing else she wanted to do and nowhere else she wanted to be.

    At this point she realises that despite getting into things she’d never dreamed of, she has acquired promotion to hero status, she coming home with a lot of money.
    She then goes on to join Space Fleet, but in each subsequent adventure the arc repeats, she leaves security to fight another dragon and each time comes back stronger, but a little colder and more distant.

    ‘Luke,’ she said, ‘there’s one thing I’ve got to show you, right now.’ She held out her left hand.’
    ‘A wedding ring? You’re married?’
    ‘If only.’ For a moment there was intense, bottomless pain in her eyes. ‘It’s an Arcturian widow’s ring. I don’t want to load my problems on you, but it’s easier if you know. A young man called Alan cashed all his savings to travel fifty light years so that he could find me and ask me to marry him. He turned up in the middle of a very messy operation. There was a sniper looking for me, but in the dark he hit Alan instead. I killed the sniper, and tried to patch Alan up, but he died in my arms twenty-five minutes later.’
    ‘So–What about the ring?’
    ‘Arcturian tradition. One black band means I’m widowed and looking for a new partner, two I might be interested if the right person comes along.’
    ‘But that’s got three.’
    ‘I don’t think I have to tell you, do I?’
    ‘Three bands. Does it mean you’re telling me to keep my distance?’
    ‘Yes, I’m sorry but it does. We can eat together, work together and be friends, but that’s as far as it goes. I don’t want what happened to Alan to happen to anyone else, ever.’

    So my take on this is that in the lifetime of a hero there is arc within arc, Luke destroys the death star, but within that arc he helps to rescue the princess.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, definitely. In fact, as I’ve mentioned, it’s fascinating to realize that even though all six of these archetypes present full story structures on their own, they are in fact found, within a smaller spiral, in the complete story structure itself. E.g., in a Positive-Change Arc, the First Plot Point can bee seen as a micro shift from Hero to Queen, just as the symbolism of the Third Plot Point can be viewed through the lens of the shift from King to Crone—etc.

      • SE Blackman says

        Will you be writing a post on how each one leads into the other? (Hint hint nudge nudge!)
        Part of the reason I’m so excited about these new plot arcs is because I’ve been stuck for a long time in this series I have planned. I’m wondering if my MC must follow these arcs as she matures, rather than simply going through a positive change arc, and then a flat arc next–after all, what’s to do in the next 2 books?
        I’m very interested in the Queen/King arcs and what follows. I suspect this is the piece I’ve been missing all along to finally finish this well.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          I will talk some about the links between arcs and archetypes, but hopefully the progression will be self-evident.

  4. Grace Arons says

    An example of a Hero Arc occurs in one of my favorite kids movies, BIG HERO 6 in each of the six main cast, especially the protagonist Hiro Hamada (pun intended).
    I am a little confused about this concept of story archetype and how it relates to your earlier writings on character arc. Is the Hero undergoing a flat arc or a positive arc in his Journey? Or can Heroes undergo either type of arc and still have their story archetypes be considered a Hero’s Journey?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      This system of archetypal arcs is much more flexible (and limited) than the general concepts of character arc that I discuss is my book and earlier series on that subject. However, I tend to see these six archetypal journeys that we’re studying right now as representing Positive-Change Arcs. Later on, I will be covering six Flat archetypes that appear in the “resting” stages between each journey (e.g., between the Hero and the Queen Arcs, we find the Flat archetype of Parent).

      • Oh! Well that’s fascinating and I’m excited to read more about it! Thanks for another great post!

  5. Eric Troyer says

    Great post/series! I wonder if gender-neutral titles would be better for the arcs to better help people differentiate the arcs from gender-specific protagonists. Coming-of-age could replace Maiden. Hero isn’t gender-specific, but it has a history as such. Perhaps Champion could replace Hero. Pondering, pondering.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Totally. You can also choose opposing titles for each archetype (for example, Kim Hudson, in The Virgin’s Promise, suggests “Prince” as an alternative title for the Maiden/Virgin). Archetypes are very much about personal resonance, and it is definitely be easy to get hung up on some of the titles.

  6. Great stuff as always! Really excited about this series, thank you!

    You mention several antagonistic (Dragon), ally (Protector), and shadow (Coward/Bully) archetypes. Are these fully explained in other posts or can they be found in the works you referenced? I’m able to infer what they are through the article but would like to follow up with additional research.

    Also will your archetype series also cover flat/negative archetypes?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The Negative shadow archetypes will be covered in their own individual posts later in the series, as will the Flat or “resting” archetypes that appear in between each of the Positive journeys. I don’t cover the archetypal antagonists (e.g., Predator, Dragon, etc.) in this series. But I may do a supplement later on!

      • Thank you! Where could I read more about the antagonistic archetypes?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          All the books mentioned throughout the series touch on them in some degree, although I’m not currently familiar with a source that directly studies them.

  7. Great post! I’m loving this series so far. Is there a way to tell which archetypal character arc your protagonist is? Or any of your main characters?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I would suggest going over the “key points” section that I’ve provided in each of these posts and checking to see which lines up best with your story. For example, if a character physically leaves his or her opening setting to go on a Quest of some sort, that’s usually (although not always) a sign of a Hero Arc. You can also examine the suggested Lie/Truth to see if your story’s themes fit naturally under their umbrella.

  8. Usvaldo de Leon says

    This puts me in mind of the Amish concept of rumspringa, where the youth leave the village for a time and venture into the wider world only to (hopefully) return re-committed to the village.

  9. I don’t know, but I thought of Bob Parr from “The Incredibles” (2004) as a Hero Arc.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Bob is interesting. I think he’s more properly a Queen Arc, but as a story about a mid-life crisis, it *is* very much about a more mature character who is trying to return to the Hero Arc. It’s sort of a Hero-Arc-Within-a-Queen Arc.

  10. So… Wayfarer would be a Hero Arc, then? I feel like I’m recognizing Will Hardy as I read through this. 🙂

  11. I need to thank you for your podcast. I mentioned before that I got your book and having a listening piece as well is helping me a lot.

    I have a question. When you have more than one protagonist, how would you handle the journey of each one?

  12. Verity Sandahl says

    I think the How to Train your Dragon movie trilogy is a good example of the Maiden arc to the Hero arc to the Queen arc.

    (I’m guessing a lot of trilogies are.)

    Excellent post as always! I’ve read quite a bit on the hero’s journey, and this gave me more to think about that I had not thought of.

  13. This post really clarified the Hero’s Arc for me. I’m seeing it anew. Thanks for the refreshing refresher!

  14. Carl Kjellberg says

    I am wondering that if, in terms of human development, the maiden arc corresponds to the teenage years of life then the the hero arc corresponds to the phase of one going out to work. During this phase the individual uses his or her skills to contribute to society. The next phase, as I see it, would be the forming a new group ie. falling in love and starting a family (the queen arc?). This phase in turn would lead naturally into the mentor arc- a phase in life involving the training up and equipping of one’s children. This phase too comes to and end as one’s children inevitably grow up and leave the nest. This then leads to a further phase of life, one where the individual rediscovers his or her individuality and consolidates the wisdom of the many lessons learnt throughout his or her life (The mage?).
    Am I on the right track here?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Pretty much spot on, as I see it. I see the Flat archetype of the Parent occurring between the Hero and the Queen, with the Queen (as we’ll get into next week) being more specifically an arc of social leadership.

  15. It’s not accurate to characterize Back to the Future as a Positive-Change arc as Marty McFly is actually a steadfast (I think you would call this ‘Flat arc’) character. He sticks to his guns while George McFly (Marty’s young father and the most prominent Influence Character) changes his perspective. You can see the moment of George’s change most prominently when he clenches his fist and turns back to the car to punch out Biff.

  16. I just love this series of archetypes you’re doing. It’s such an important topic, and if you write a book on it I’ll buy it.
    I’m a long time fan of yours and think I’ve listened to hundreds of your podcasts over the years. You’ve been so helpful to me, and I’m finally (finally!) working on that women’s fiction story of mine. This series is timely, as I can see the archetypes played out throughout my characters.

    I’m glad you have a Patreon. I’m glad to be able to support you.

  17. What a comprehensive deconstruction of a timeless archetype. You gave me new insight on the hero arc. Thank you.

  18. the amazing thing about K.M is the obvious care she puts into these posts. I’ve seen others comment on these issues. But she always treats her contributions as if they were destined to be definitive. and as if our lives as authors depended on it, as indeed they are, and do.

  19. couple more possible heroes
    – Bilbo baggins from the hobbit
    – neo from the matrix
    – logan from xmen
    – Thomas from the maze runner
    the two biggest moments I could think of by any of them was when they “cross the threshold” in dramatic fashion, especially neo and thomas, and all except bilbo from what i can remember have a part at the end were they pretty much literally die and come back.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Neo is interesting. I think he actually aligns more with the Maiden, as someone else pointed out in the comments on that post, but his story certainly has some Quest trappings. I see Logan, at least in Logan, as a King Arc, but earlier on he probably does have some Hero trappings. I can’t remember for sure.

  20. I feel in this series you are delivering a doctoral course in writing theory, and I greatly appreciate it, even if I likely should be placed into remedial coursework.

    My main concern with the Hero’s journey is it is so easy to have a flat antagonist who’s just a bad dude, often as not a legitimate sociopath. This is not the lens we should be viewing daily life through, and if we are trying to use stories to teach truth, this is a problematic one.

    Lord knows, I have no basis to say authors shouldn’t be using this one but I wish more would give Emperor Palpatine a heart.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The Journeys themselves often present the antagonistic force as just that–a force–a symbolic representation of Evil. In the Hero’s Journey, the antagonist is often a bestial Dragon or sometimes a mad or sick Tyrant King. But, of course, if what we’re writing is less metaphoric and more realistic, a great range of nuance becomes available in characterizing a human antagonist.

  21. Edward Denecke says

    Where would Rudyard Kipling’s Captains Courageous fit in the Hero’s Journey exposition of story? Is spoiled brat Harvey a “Maiden” on his way to becoming a “Hero” or is he a “Hero” on his way to becoming a “Queen”? I’m a little confused. If Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz is on a Hero’s Journey, then is Harvey of Captains Courageous as well?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’d say Harvey is definitely a Maiden. I can easily see him as a Hero in a sequel. There’s often crossover between arcs in the same “act,” such as the Maiden and the Hero. To some degree, both Dorothy and Harvey are exhibiting traits of both archetypes. However, I’d ultimately call Harvey’s story that of a Maiden because it is fundamentally about individuating and Dorothy’s that of a Hero because it is fundamentally about being able to re-integrate into her home life.

  22. There is a hero to this work in Progress.
    Example: A healing hut is outside on the grounds of where they live on Mayline Island. The hut is made out of trees and it has a big opening for a door. Inside the hut has beds for the sick, or ill.
    Now inside is an elder is a force field of rainbow light. This elder is on one of the beds. She looks asleep, but in reality she is dying.
    The hero will have to go on a journey to save this person.
    What do you think?
    Do you also use calligraphy when you do your writing?

  23. Hi K.M., Great job–as always–on this series. I’m enjoying it!

    I have a question about the Mid-Point. I’ve read a number of books on screenwriting and everyone seems to have a different take. I’ve sort of settled on this is when the protagonist decides it’s the “point of no return”.

    Am I going down the wrong road?

    Thanks,

    Bob

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “Point of no return” can mean a lot of different things in different contexts–and many different sources use it to apply to different parts of the story. Personally, I refer to the First Plot Point (at the 25% mark) as the “Doorway of No Return”–signifying that the protagonist’s departure from the First Act’s Normal World is definitive in some way (even if he does physically return later, or never left).

      That said, the Midpoint *is* a “point of no return” in that it is a turning point of major proportions within the story. You can read more about my take on it here: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/the-midpoint-as-the-swivel-point-of-your-storys-linked-structure/

  24. /an loving this archetype series! I have two questions and I apologize if this has been covered elsewhere # 1-Let’s say you have eight main characters in your story. Does each character take an archetypal journey? in the course of the story? #2-As in life do some characters get stuck in one level of the journey and can’t break out? I have one main character who does not want to journey outward and take responsibility for ruling an empire but wants to be a calligrapher.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Really, that’s up to you. It’s important to identify which character is your protagonist/throughline character (i.e., which character decides the Climactic Moment). That will help you identify the main archetypal journey you’re working with, and then you can build the rest of the characters around that. You can deepen complexity by offering a variety of characters in different archetypes, arcs, and moral orientations.

    • Eric Troyer says

      From K.M.’s “Writing Your Story’s Theme.” Great book.

      All you need to create complex supporting characters—no matter how large or small their roles—is to answer five important questions about each of them. (But first decide what type of Character Arc they will have: Positive, Flat, or Negative.)

      1. What Does This Supporting Character Want?

      2. What Is Your Supporting Character’s Goal?

      3. What Lie Does Your Supporting Character Believe?

      4. What Flaw Results From Your Supporting Character’s Lie?

      5. What Truth Will Your Supporting Character Discover?

  25. Hi K.M. Great stuff, as always. Lost track of you for a while.

  26. Elizabeth Richards says

    One aspect I loved about the maiden arc was the emphasis that the aspect could be internal as well as external. That gave it a great deal of flexibility. With the Hero arc (as you say), the antagonist is most likely to be external. Most of the examples tend to be in a swashbuckling category. I’m wondering about examples that aren’t quite so adventurous. Especially since the Hero Arc is parallel to a human stage of life and we don’t all go off and swashbuckle.

    I’m struggling to find some less physically adventurous examples probably because the swashbuckling versions are so appealing.

    Maybe Anne of Windy Poplars? Or some story about going off to become a teacher, doctor, poet?

    Anyone else have any ideas?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Any story about a character leaving home in some capacity–going on the modern-day version of the Quest—to attend college or get a new job, etc., could be a Hero Arc. So, yes, I think Anne of Windy Poplars is a good example (although the story in that book is more episodic than overarching).

  27. The cycle of archetypal character arcs is truly fascinating! As I try to wrap my head around them, there is a point I can’t quite catch… when does the protagonist become the hero? Because (if I understand correctly), the hero’s journey is about arcing *out* of the hero and into the queen… yet up until the midpoint you say he has just been “playing at” being the hero…

    Is each arc the struggle of becoming, with the protagonist achieving the archetype at the climax? And simultaneously finding that they are at the beginning of a new journey of becoming? Something like this?

    Act 1: The maiden is called to leave what she has achieved to be a hero, but wishes to remain where she was.
    Act 2: The maiden can no longer avoid the journey, embraces the identity of the hero.
    Act 3: The hero emerges, eventually (we hope!) victorious, yet a new season of growth awaits.

    Or are they most truly the hero at the midpoint, and can only “win” by taking the next step into the queen archetype?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Most of the time I don’t think it’s literally as cut and dried as this. But to me, it ties in with the progression of Lie/Truth in a character’s arc (whether archetypal or not), in which the character recognizes the Truth at the Midpoint, but not does fully relinquish the Lie until the Third Plot Point, and therefore does not fully act upon the Truth until the Climax.

      We can look at the “initial” archetype in an arc as representing the “Lie” (if only in that it is about to become an outdated mode of being) and the subsequent archetype, into which the character is growing, as the “Truth.”

      So, for example, the “Maiden-ish” way of being is the “Lie” in which the Maiden starts out her story. By the time she reaches her Midpoint, she is able to step into her new individuated role of “Hero.” But her story is not over because she does not yet fully relinquish the Maiden archetype until the Third Plot Point and therefore does not fully act upon her new Hero mode until the Climax.

      And then if the story is to continue in a sequel, the newly born Hero character will not begin the next arc until life dictates the Hero archetype is itself outmoded (and therefore now representing a “Lie”) and it is time for the character to begin growing into the new “Truth” of the Queen.

      I hope that makes sense.

      • “And then if the story is to continue in a sequel, the newly born Hero character will not begin the next arc until life dictates the Hero archetype is itself outmoded (and therefore now representing a ‘Lie’)”

        Yes, that does make a lot of sense… the hero arc is about the maiden growing into a hero… then comes a flat period… then the queen arc starts when a hero is no longer what they need to be… Each time I say and re-read it, it sinks in a little more. 🙂

        Wow… ok, I’m really starting to see how this applies to real life now… *runs to learn about the Queen arc*

  28. Robert L Hazlett says

    Hello Kate:

    Comparing Maiden’s Arc and Hero’s Arc

    Your use of “Bully” and “Coward” leads me to believe that the following two statements need to be reversed (or something else needs to be reversed)

    Maiden’s Relationship to Subsequent Shadow Archetypes as Represented by Other Characters: Inspires Coward or outwits Bully. (should be in Hero’s Arc)

    Hero’s Relationship to Subsequent Shadow Archetypes as Represented by Other Characters: Rescues Snow Queen or releases Sorceress with his love. (should be in Maiden’s Arc)

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sorry for any confusion. These are in reference to subsequent negative archetypes, so this is pointing out a relationship between the Maiden and Hero’s negative archetypes and then the Hero and the Queen’s negative archetypes.

  29. Anthony Pero says

    I would argue that part of the reason back to the future is so compelling, Is that both Marty and George go on separate Heroic journeys. In That capacity, Marty access and mentor for George. It’s not Marty’s triumphs that change and heal Marty’s family–It’s George’s choices. George is the 1 who comes away with the elixer in the 1st movie, In subsequently changes Marty’s life and family. Yes Marty certainly helped in that, but in the role of mentor.

    Marty doesn’t actually learn his lessons in this movie–I don’t think he actually completes his heroic arc. That is saved for the 3rd movie, ultimately. The 1st movie is all about what George learns.

Trackbacks

  1. […] setting, Bonnie Randall shares how to write rich characterization, and K. M. Weiland elaborates on archetypal character arcs (part 3): the hero arc, while Brian Andrews focuses on how to write amazing action scenes (part […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.