The Hero with a Thousand Faces

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The Hero with a Thousand Faces

Hero With a 1,000 faces image - Flowerpot hero

If you do any research on the subject of story-telling you’ll soon come across a book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. Campbell noticed that nearly all mythological stories (everything from the legends of King Arthur to the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm) have the same basic plot. Campbell also suggested that every good story has to follow the same set of rules.

Campbell’s basic plot runs along the following lines:

We see the normal, ordinary, everyday world of the hero.

Something happens (‘The Call to Adventure’) that disrupts the hero’s world.

The hero knows that he, or she, ought to do something to overcome the disruption but is afraid.

Something happens to convince the hero to take action.

The hero receives advice (usually from an aged mentor) and is given a magical weapon to help them in their quest.

The hero sets out to do battle.

On the journey to do battle the hero meets with obstacles, evil forces of deception and temptation that try to divert them from their path. However, the hero also meets friends and allies who offer help and advice.

The hero meets the forces of disruption and, after a hard fight, overcomes them.

The hero find him or herself changed by their experience; it’s almost as if they’re reborn.

Finally the reborn hero returns home and restores normality.

As you can see, the above contains two plot-points and opportunities for complications, reversals and changing goals (for explanations of these concepts see Basic story structure and Expanding the basic story.

It’s easy to find elements of this plot in stories such as Star Wars, Jaws or The Wizard of Oz; but harder to see them in Sense and Sensibility, Dumb and Dumber or an episode of Fawlty Towers. They’re there (some of them at least) they’re just not so obvious.

When you’re creating your story don’t think you have to follow this plan like a blueprint. Think of yourself as a painter and the elements of the basic plot as the colours on your palette — it’s up to you which you choose.

Try this

Next time you watch a movie or read a novel see how closely the story follows Campbell’s plot. Try answering the following questions, completed here for the movie Jaws.

Who’s the hero?
Police Chief Martin Brody.

What’s normality?
The seaside resort, Amity Island.

What disrupts normality?
A huge bad-ass shark.

Why is the hero reluctant to act?
He’s afraid of water/shark.

Why does the hero take action?
His son has a narrow escape.

Who’s the mentor?
Captain Quint/Matt Hooper.

Who acts as an obstacle?
Mayor Vaughn/the islanders.

Who acts as an ally?
Matt Hooper/Captain Quint.

What’s the magic weapon?
The Orca/Matt’s poison dart.

How are the forces of evil defeated?
The shark is killed.

How is the hero changed/reborn?
Brody loses his fear of the water.

Main image: sunlight19 c/o Shutterstock

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