Using Archetypes: The Hero (and Co.) [Part 1: The Hero's Journey]

in #writing6 years ago

All images in this article have been taken from Wikimedia Commons, and are in the public domain.

One of the things that often gets overlooked by people is the nature of the hero in fiction. While we can all conjure up images of the hero, we don't often see the hero for what it truly is: a broad archetype that appears in almost every creative work.

We're going to be presenting a very brief overview of what a Hero is, as well as some of the other forms that have come up in recent years (or ancient times), and then explain how it relates to writing and roleplaying games. Today, however, we're going to focus on the classic archetypal Hero and the Hero's Journey.

An archetype (to use an over-simplified description) is an idea or pattern that appears throughout literature in a universal way. The capital-H Hero is an archetype that is seen over and over in all sorts of stories, and is one that needs to be discussed as the core archetype from which all others flow.

Heroes are complicated creatures, but they bear a part of the psychology of everyone: they see challenges, face them, and are changed by their experiences to the point that they change their world.

The Flood Tablet
The Flood Tablet is one of the most well known cuneiform tablets, and holds part of the text of the Epic of Gilgamesh.

While heroes come in a variety of forms, the Hero always undergoes the "Hero's Journey", a series of events that make up what is known as the "Monomyth" by Joseph Campbell, who created a formula that we can use to illustrate stories.

For the sake of simplicity, I'm going to simplify the Hero's Journey quite a bit: most places teach it in 12 steps, but I'm going to shorten it to 5 (so hang on to your hats!).

1. The Hero's Beginning

The Hero is usually special in some way, but this is not necessarily a requirement. Early heroes, like Gilgamesh, were often of divine heritage, but more modern heroes, like Jean Valjean, often are everyday people with perhaps a few exceptional traits.

Jean Valjean and Javert, by Gustave Brion and an unknown illustrator

The Hero faces some challenge that pulls them into adventure, in Javert's case it is being released from work on a prison galley and having to deal with his re-entry to society. At this point the Hero is still a fledgling and needs to get further prepared for their adventures.

They live in what we would call their Ordinary World, and many heroes don't want to leave it (especially plucky young-adult heroes who want nothing more than to be ordinary kids). The adventure they face is something from outside their world: in Javert's case, dealing with a society that has cast him out because of his history.

2. The Hero's Forging

Once the Hero chooses or is forced to go on their adventure, they have a number of events happen that shape them from who they are into inexperienced, but prepared, Heroes. They gain skills, new awareness of the world, mystical power, or some technological device that can help them with their mission.

Bishop Myriel, by Gustave Brion

In the case of Jean Valjean, who is a particularly interesting Hero because his journey is primarily moral, he is forced to deal with his bitterness and exile. As he is forced into what we call the Supernatural World—the place the Hero must go to develop and find their reward—Valjean meets Bishop Myriel, who offers him a chance to stay at his home for the evening and feeds him.

Valjean's gratitude toward his host comes in the form of stealing the bishop's silverware and slipping into the night, at which point he is caught and taken back to Bishop Myriel. Myriel takes this opportunity to reform Valjean, acting as a mentor to him: while Valjean's interactions with Myriel are few, Myriel instructs Valjean to reform his life, and give him two silver candlesticks (in addition to the silverware he attempted to steal) so that he has a chance to start his life.

During this stage, we can start to see the Hero develop. They have gone from a nobody to someone who has been equipped with a special gift so that they can succeed in their endeavors.

3. The Hero's Trials

After the Hero has fully entered the Supernatural World, leaving their past behind (if only temporarily) they are subject to a series of trials and tests. These prove their character and their mettle; a Hero must be able to sustain a good deal of trouble from a variety of sources, though the sort of challenges they face are often dependent on genre and the message that a storyteller wishes to convey.

In the case of Jean Valjean, his trials predominantly involve overcoming his past and making a life for himself, while keeping to the moral character that he has been developing after Myriel's admonition that he should seek to turn his life around.

Valjean becomes a successful factory owner and the mayor of a small town under an alias, at which point he has an encounter with a woman named Fantine, who was working in her factory before she was revealed to have a daughter by a young man who had abandoned her, which disqualified her from employment.

It is at this point that Valjean's nemesis, Inspector Javert, appears. Javert arrests Fantine for striking a man who had been harassing her, establishing himself as a lawman with a strict adherence to the law despite his own moral codes. Valjean gets Fantine pardoned, to Javert's chagrin, but gains Javert's suspicion.

Cosette, by Émile-Antoine Bayard

As Fantine's health declines, Valjean discovers that she has a daughter, and vows to bring Cosette to her. At the same time, however, Javert discovers another man who he believes to be Valjean, apologizing to Valjean for suspecting him of being a criminal and telling him that the man will be sentenced to imprisonment as a repeat offender.

As part of his moral journey, Valjean vacillates on whether or not to reveal himself to save the innocent man from prosecution, and ultimately confesses his identity to Javert. Valjean asks for a reprieve so he can bring Cosette to Fatnine, but Javert denies it, and reveals his true past to Fantine, who dies shortly after. Valjean escapes Javert, however, and begins his quest to find Cosette, who he eventually rescues from the abusive circumstances her mother had inadvertently left her in and begins a life of hiding from Valjean while trying to raise Cosette as an adopted daughter.

However, events are shaken up by a student revolt (I've skipped a fair amount of the story, but we're giving a brief summary anywhere) and Valjean is forced to accept Cosette growing out of his care.

4. The Hero's Triumph

After the Trial comes an ultimate challenge, a Supreme Ordeal that the Hero must face. When this occurs, three things happen:

  • The Hero is forced to face their greatest challenge
  • The Hero is successful, potentially at great cost
  • The Hero changes themselves or gains a great reward

Marius and Cosette, by Émile-Antoine Bayard

The type of trials that the Hero faces vary. As Valjean's Hero's Journey is primarily a moral one, he faces two main challenges: Javert and dealing with Cosette growing up.

Valjean's final encounter with Javert happens during a student protest. The students have taken Javert prisoner, and plan to execute him since he was spying on their "revolution" and is an officer of the law.

Valjean, who had infiltrated the students' ranks to ensure that he could watch over Cosette's lover, Marius, whom he distrusted, is caught in the middle of this dilemma. On one hand, Javert's death would mean the end of the nemesis who was hunting him, but he cannot stomach the thought of willfully inflicting harm upon another person after so much moral progress.

Valjean offers to execute Javert, but releases him instead. Valjean saves Marius when the barricades fall, and carries him through the sewers to safety. Javert kills himself, unable to fathom the idea of a reformed criminal and come to grips with the fact that he was hounding a harmless man for years.

Valjean and Marius in the sewers, by Mead Schaeffer

Despite a mistrust of Marius, Valjean eventually accedes to Cosette and Marius' wedding, bequeathing them a large gift. At this point he reveals his identity to Marius, who is immediately repulsed and tries to alienate Cosette from Valjean.

By doing this Valjean has conquered the greatest challenges of his life: pardoning his nemesis and giving away the only person he has had a true relationship with in years through marriage. He embraces morality, even to the point of tolerating Marius' extreme reaction.

5. The Hero's Reign

After the Hero has completed their Journey to the Supernatural World, they return to the Ordinary World, where they are forced to deal with some final issues and given the chance to change their world.

Marius is offered blackmail against Valjean by Cosette's former abuser, at which point Marius realizes that the accuser's testimony contradicts his notion of Valjean as a hardened criminal. Marius realizes that Valjean saved him when he was unconscious at the barricades, and he and Cosette return to Valjean as he is nearing death.

Arriving at his deathbed, they come to a reconciliation and Valjean achieves true happiness before his death, leaving Cosette and Marius with a valuable lesson about how to live their lives and Cosette with knowledge about her mother.

What does it all mean?

The Hero is a core archetype in stories; it drives narratives and creates an emotional and vicarious attachment for readers. Without a Hero, stories often lack life and rationale.

As writers and gamers, creating a Hero means going outside the norms of risk-reward and biological imperatives and pursuing a greater purpose, even if that's not immediately obvious until the later stages of the Hero's Journey. This gives us the ability to tell great stories.

Stay tuned for more on archetypes; tomorrow we'll discuss the various variants of the Hero archetype, and the day after that we'll talk about how to use them to drive the narrative of roleplaying ones.

Two-minute Breakdown

Heroes are common in stories as characters that develop and change that an audience can relate to. They usually start as ordinary or slightly special people who have to grow and develop to face a supreme challenge that is even greater than themselves. They reap the rewards by changing themselves or the world around them for the better.


Make sure to check out our second and third parts of this series!

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