Hello, and welcome to our third, final, and largest installment on using the Hero as an archetype in storytelling and game design. You should familiarize yourself with the first part, which covers the basics of the Hero as an archetype, and the second part which deals with the various other archetypes before continuing, unless you already have a good idea of what the Hero is and how the Hero's Journey works, and what epic, tragic, and anti-heroes are.
The problem with archetypes is, of course, that they are universal patterns. Because they are not simple systems and they meander about in their execution, you're going to see some issues when you try to use them in your own storytelling.
For starters, you need to approach writing and design in a very deliberate system to pull off the archetypes. You may be able to do this step-by-step as you go through the process, but it is probably prudent to outline the things that lead through the Hero's Journey archetype in the stories you want to tell before you begin laying out a story or mechanics.
For the sake of simplicity, I'm going to split this article into two sections: archetypes for writers, and archetypes for game designers. The first section will focus on writing.
Using Archetypes as a Writer
Archetypes are important to us as writers because they are great guides that make sure that the stories we tell are engaging and vivid, but they also give us an ability to communicate with the audience. Following an archetype does not mean swearing blind allegiance to it. It means entering into an unspoken agreement with your audience about the type of story you are going to tell. Most people do not think that they want to read a Hero's Journey or watch a Hero's Journey or listen to a Hero's Journey.
But they do, nonetheless. The fantastic success of Mad Max: Fury Road is an example of this; it is a single story that includes many heroic figures; Max, Furiosa, and their companions go on the Hero's Journey both independently and collectively, with both individual and shared nemeses.
To get the Hero's Journey to work, you want a nemesis. You can have the Hero fight against a cold impersonal world, but that really works best with the anti-hero, and even then the most notable anti-heroes, those of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell, have a very obvious face to the evil that they are trying to confront.
When you are planning your hero's life, you need to make a few decisions:
• What type of hero tells my story best?
• Where am I going to hit the divides between the sections of the Hero's Journey?
• Who is my hero going to try to appeal to?
• What lesson does my hero have to learn, and what lesson do I want to teach my audience?
Choosing a Hero Type
The first part of telling a heroic story is choosing the sub-type of hero that fits your tale best. You don't have to commit thoroughly to one or another; you can have a flawed hero with elements of the tragic hero who starts low, suffers a setback, and ends low, but has a period of nobility, or even a hero who starts low, rises, has a tragedy, but still ends in a better place and able to shape the world for the better. Perhaps your anti-hero suffers, but their sacrifice paves the road for a new generation to rise to freedom. Your epic hero may be brought low by his own ambition or flaws (like Hercules often is portrayed as doing) and need to find redemption or end in destruction.
Choosing a type is simple:
Most lessons and themes are explored quite easily with a standard hero. They are the easiest type to work with, as you can make them sympathetic to your audience and reward your audience with an uplifting message at the end. They grow and develop and change the world, which is what most people aspire to do in their lives, so most people enjoy watching a standard hero.
Cautionary moral tales are best taught with tragic heroes. Othello is a great example of this: he is one of my favorite characters from Shakespeare because of his great nobility and the dignity he maintains even as he begins to fall. Chinua Achebe's Okonkwo is likewise an unforgettable figure of the human costs of colonialism. Tragedies reflect very real truths about our lives, and while they may start at such a distance that they are difficult to sympathize with (think Shakespeare's Hamlet, who is perhaps a little too self-absorbed and elite for the average reader to immediately like) they will certainly be pitied by their end.
William Shakespeare, portrait by unknown artist.
Epic heroes do a great job at showcasing morality: they are powerful enough that it is unlikely that they fail unless they make egregious mistakes. While a regular hero will probably face setbacks because they are not ready, epic heroes face setbacks because they are not worthy. Odysseus is a great example of this, where his unwillingness to communicate (stemming from trust issues) and his hubris often result in him making mistakes that even the least intuitive reader can see coming, and cost him no end of grief and sorrow as he lets his beloved followers die by his own mistakes.
The anti-hero is a final form of hero, and I think they're the hardest to use (for reasons including the fact that anti-heroes often seem to result in awkward plots fizzling out). When I was taking a creative writing class while pursuing my Bachelor's degree, I found five or six cases of stories written with anti-hero protagonists that just didn't work.
The secret of the anti-hero, as in Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis is that they show us some deep aspect of ourselves unfulfilled or stifled by our society. They need to stare into the Nietzschean abyss and be changed by it. They are no less voyagers and sojourners than any of the other forms of hero. The lessons taught by anti-heroes are more difficult to convey, as they must be told strictly in a cautionary sense without using too many of the hero's virtues.
Telling the lesson is not the hard part. Telling the lesson without seeming gratuitous is.
Dividing the Sections of the Hero's Journey
I divided the steps of the Hero's Journey down to five parts earlier, though traditionally it is split into twelve or more. Having more steps makes outlining your story much easier, but it also can lead to distractions from your goal (and, I have noticed, seems to compel novice writers to having twelve sections of equal length, which violates the more basic rules of narrative development involving exposition, inciting incident, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution).
However, even with simply five steps, you still have nine points to plan: the steps themselves, and the transitions between them. If you are writing a series or a complicated story where a character completes more than one Hero's Journey, you can add a tenth: where they go from the final reward back to the initial stage of finding a new challenge to confront (think of comic-book superheroes or any character who has a series of novels dedicated to them: I can guarantee that in at least 99% of cases each volume is at least one complete Hero's Journey).
These steps are roughly as follows:
• Show what the hero is in their daily life before they become a hero (or extend beyond their current abilities, if your character is an epic hero, tragic hero, or a standard hero who already has been heroic in the past)
• Show how the hero moves beyond their ordinary life and into the Hero's Journey proper.
• Show what happens to make them into a hero (or break them, in the case of tragic heroes)
• Now that they have begun their transformation, show how they leave that transformative moment behind and go on with their Journey without their old life involved.
• Show how they deal with the various challenges that they face along the way.
• Show how they finally come face-to-face with their nemesis.
• Show how the confrontation with their nemesis turns out. Note that this will rarely, if ever, kill them. Cliffhanger endings at this point are dangerous.
• Show how the hero finds a pathway back to their ordinary world.
• Show how the hero transforms their world.
These final two steps are the ones that can be played with the most: they are often short and simply exist for closure. See "The Most Dangerous Game" for a great cliffhanger that lets the reader come to their own conclusions about what journey the hero takes.
Designing an Appealing Hero
There are a few secrets to an appealing hero, and we already talked about this earlier. Making characters that connect with an audience is both something of an art that needs to be practiced and a very complicated topic in and of itself, but there are four things that every good hero I can think of has:
• A sense of purpose
• Relationships with other people
• Transformation during the journey
A hero without purpose is very unlikable. Even an anti-hero has some sense of purpose, some grand vision. There is nothing saying that the purpose has to be good, and it can certainly change during their Hero's Journey, but a hero without a purpose stinks like a long-dead fish. We don't get the vicarious psychological payout of purpose if our hero has none. Even waiting for Godot has its own purpose.
Relationships also make heroes. Not only do they provide a compelling reason for heroes to do what they do, lending credibility to your message, but they also give you the opportunity to work with sub-plots and tailor your message with additional strands of thought. Have people both in the hero's ordinary world and in the supernatural world that they interact with. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings provides Frodo with three nemeses: Sauron, his own weakness, and his relatives in the Shire that covet Bag End. The final parts of The Return of the King present the best example of a hero transforming their ordinary world that I have ever seen.
Vulnerability is key to a hero's appeal as well. They have no bravery who have no risk. Even immortal gods in mythology are prone to suffering failure and setbacks. Gilgamesh quests for immortality, but has to make do with a legacy. Heroes need their goals to be potentially unobtainable, and their threats to be potentially damning.
Finally, heroes transform. A hero who starts great and ends great is less appealing (this is why epic heroes are harder to write than regular heroes), but a hero who manages to turn themselves into a hero from humble beginnings (e.g. Luke Skywalker going from a moisture farmer to the destroyer of the Empire's superweapon) is incredibly attractive.
You can trace this model with any number of characters, and doing so will make writing good characters a lot easier.
How to Choose a Lesson
One of the things that makes Fury Road so compelling is that there is a clear lesson that everyone learns: some things are worth hoping for, even to the point of sacrifice. It's actually quite an uplifting movie past the post-apocalyptic violence and flame-thrower guitars. That's what makes it compelling in the same vein as the original Star Wars, which came out in a cynical time but told the classic archetypal story of good triumphing over evil (the Christ story).
Ultimately, the lesson you want to tell must be authentic. If you don't have a great moral lesson, then don't try writing a great moral lesson. What makes you passionate will come across in your work. Jean Valjean is a great hero because Victor Hugo was concerned about how the ex-criminal was treated in his society. By starting from a point about which you feel passionate, you can harvest that energy for yourself.
It is also important to remember that you can tell more than one lesson. Many people are surprised to review their writing and see trends and messages they had not even written into it, products of subconscious passion and love poured out in the creative process.
Using Archetypes as a Game Designer
When you want to use these archetypes in a game, you need to think about how you are going to see play unfold and subtly channel it in certain directions. Enough water flowing over a surface for a long enough time will erode a channel directing the flow. You can do the same thing in your game. The more natural the process, the better.
Your game will, however, ultimately fall into other peoples' hands and be transformed. It is not the end of the world to directly communicate to the players what your motives and methods are. You are not part of some secret conspiracy hoping to sway them, you want to entertain them and teach them a lesson as much as any other storyteller, your methods are simply to create the framework rather than the finished execution.
Understanding Good Methods
Your methods are everything you have as a designer. You should approach everything with both a logical and a creative view. Simply creating numbers does not make a good story, and definitely runs the risk of ostracizing players when the mechanics go against their interests.
I remember Star Wars: Saga Edition as an example of a game where characters could have issues with Dark Side skills. The intent was to avoid having evil characters (in part to protect the Star Wars brand, and in part because meaninglessly evil characters tend to be unappealing), but the consequence was that players who didn't follow a moral code would get their characters taken away. Worse, corrupting elements like dark side powers that could be applied to good ends would also get characters turned into NPCs, which was a system that many people objected to, and disallowed the telling of stories with tragic heroes.
Another thing to consider is that many people are going to want to tell different stories. One player may always be into the romanticism of the tragic hero, another may prefer to tell the story of anti-heroes incapable of meaningfully affecting the world, and yet another may enjoy the moral quandaries of being an epic, but mortal, hero forced to wield their power responsibly.
Some of this burden is removed when you communicate to players what your purpose is, but you need to be able to cater to all types. The World of Darkness product line does this quite well: although geared to tragic heroes, players who find clever ways to work around limitations can play all sorts of heroes, and even nemeses (though that's a story for another day).
But a good understanding of mechanics is also worth having, and there are really two fundamental factors to consider: energy and power.
Energy is the reflection of how characters gain agency in the world, and reach is the reflection of how their agency unfolds. These can both run on different scales, and can be quite interesting in their own right.
If you really want to create a game in which multiple heroic archetypes can co-exist, as the World of Darkness does, then let characters operate in different ways. An epic hero is high-power, but may have reduced energy to keep them from hogging the spotlight (Vampire: the Masquerade does this with their titular Masquerade; vampires do not reveal themselves to the world, and should avoid too many heroic antics). A tragic hero may not be able to recover energy, or may have a death spiral mechanic. Anti-heroes can eek by, barely, but not triumph because they have limited power.
Class-based systems can do this quite well (I am reminded again of Rowan, Rook, and Decard's Spire), but you can do this in any system by allowing characters to be vibrant enough to make these decisions.
The important thing to consider at this point, though, is how you handle balance. I'm personally a fan of keeping everyone's energy at the same level, but allowing reach to vary. People who want more energy can do so only at the cost of power, keeping them from dominating every scene and interaction.
Of course, a good storyteller does not necessarily need to worry about this, and there are great narrative systems that can combine very complex mechanical interactions with other methods of ensuring balance due to a spotlight design. That is beyond the scope of today's topic.
Perhaps the most difficult problem, the "you all start in the inn" problem, is that in a game everyone should be following a Hero's Journey, it may be individual, and it may be attempted by a storyteller who has never given a conscious thought to their practice.
So, what to do?
If you start with mechanics that allocate energy and power, you've got a good start, but to allow your story to tell narratives there are three things you can do when the heroic archetypes inevitably stall out: designate allies and helpers, rebooting the Hero's Journey, or abort the Hero's Journey as the situation sees fit.
You also need to create a nemesis. This does not need to be tied to a lose/win condition, but it does need to be something that serves as the impetus for your game. 7th Sea does this quite well by setting the entire story within the context of continent-wide social change reminiscent of the Renaissance. Your nemesis is something that the players join up against, and it is able to drain energy or reach from the characters, serving as a tool for storytellers to manipulate.
Starting the Journey
Ultimately, starting the journey comes down to the individual storytellers, rather than the designer. However, some of the best games, like Paranoia, the World of Darkness, or Eclipse Phase have pre-built nemeses in the form of cosmic forces that are an integral part of the setting. They can be ignored, sure, but that just means that your players have decided to play something else in spite of your story.
All stories need to start with a crisis. This inciting incident pushes the characters from the ordinary world to the supernatural world. As a designer, you want to have this crisis as the number one focus. Storytellers can create their own backstories for exposition, but characters need to start with a shared nemesis for the sake of permitting easy bonding and immediate transition into the supernatural world, where the fun and memorable moments really happen.
Designate Allies and Helpers
One thing that works well for heroes is having companions. While most characters in a roleplaying game are often conceived as heroes, there is no reason why roleplaying a hero is the only compelling narrative. Each hero has relationships, both with bystanders and people pivotal to their stories.
A Mentor character bears great wisdom and knowledge. They're a great way to have someone who is very familiar with the world and setting teach the universe to the other players. Mentor characters don't have to have any particular level of reach or focus. Spellcasters like wizards (Tolkien's Gandalf being the prime example) are going to be great character types for the Mentor, and you can encourage players to play Mentors by giving them exceptional abilities that give them narrative control in the form of foreknowledge of events. Mentors often explore other elements of the world than the main Hero's Journey, allowing you to introduce new plot hooks and setting elements and keep the game flowing even when you have the absence of a player for a session or a time when the Hero is not yet ready to fight the nemesis but the story seems logically poised to escalate.
An Ally character matches and can even exceed any heroic character in reach and energy, but does not push the story forward on their own. A good gamemaster can be taught how to link these Allies to a Hero, as they are typically played by players who are less comfortable with storytelling and more comfortable with numbers and other game concepts. The upside of intentionally fostering Allies is that eventually their players will blossom into storytellers. Remember that Allies are not subordinates of the Hero: they have abilities the Hero does not have and fill the gaps in the Hero's arsenal. A good designer will craft mechanics where no one character will have enough energy or reach (preferably both) to attempt everything that the setting demands of them. Any character can be an Ally, but it is common to see players who like this role gravitating toward the more martial or social roles, as they like overcoming obstacles. Allies confront the nemesis alongside the Hero(es).
A Helper character is interesting because they can greatly impact the story without playing a major role in the narrative. High-creativity players who don't have time for a large investment or people who are very comfortable with storytelling but not with gaming create great helpers; with a character that excels in both reach and energy for the purposes of helping others, they can help the Hero character(s) overcome challenges by helping them resist the trials and temptations of the world. Support characters like healers and bards fill this role well. Helpers do not confront the nemesis directly, but they bolster others in their efforts.
It's worth noting that you do not have to lock players or characters into a certain archetype forever. It is totally possible to use a spotlight system (either simply as a GM or one enforced by characters' energy) to encourage growth and cooperation.
Rebooting the Hero's Journey
It is possible that the Hero's Journey may come to a crawl or stop. For every great story told, dozens more are so flawed that they never reach audiences, condemned by their authors for their lack of purpose and meaning.
The nemesis may not be satisfying, characters may have their motives or archetypes altered, or the dice may not cooperate. A good way to prevent this outcome is to provide players with "oops" mechanics, like Fate points in the Warhammer 40:000 roleplaying games that allow characters to reroll dice or avoid death.
However, things will stall at some point or another, even in the best game with the best designers and best players.
So what you want to do is create the methods to permit a reset. This means your system has to be versatile enough to support characters at various stages of development. This works best when the Hero(es) are in the supernatural world and they are returning to an earlier point in the supernatural world. Returning to the ordinary world from the supernatural world means that the nemesis that has troubled them still remains and there is no barrier in the form of the Hero to protect it, and is best done with consequences if at all.
Returning to the supernatural world form the ordinary world, on the other hand, feels unsatisfying and like a rip-off, unless you transition through from the ordinary world to the supernatural world by presenting a new nemesis.
This transition method of starting a new Hero's Journey from the very beginning is a good idea for when characters have reached such a power level by progression that they are ready for new adventures; the part that most games ignore is the journey back into the ordinary world between nemeses to transform the universe for the better. Good storytellers add this in via narrative, but you can do this as well by rewarding players heavily with new power and energy for explicitly changing the world.
Terminating the Hero's Journey
The last ditch effort you make as a designer is ending the Hero's Journey. This can be done in three ways: a win condition, a lose condition, or destroying the nemesis without reward. The final option blocks the return to the ordinary world; people often do this inadvertently and create issues by doing so, something that even good storytellers are occasionally guilty of (if I may count myself as a good storyteller).
Why do you terminate the Hero's Journey?
Because the storytellers are looking for another sort of story. This is rare, and this is not usually the best recipe. The Hero's Journey is a reflection of every person's self-advancement process, and it is a compelling archetype. But sometimes players make other decisions.
They may have tragic heroes who are no longer able to continue. They may desire to be nemeses, not heroes. They may be more focused on mechanics for mechanics' sake rather than storytelling.
As a designer, you achieve your best results when you give your players what they want.
A win condition is hard to do for a narrative game. It's simple enough in a competitive game, like chess, but stories are not usually "won" in that sense. You can do this through the destruction of the nemesis, but you can also do this by building some sort of ascension or transcendence into the setting and/or mechanics. This prevents players who have no interest in playing Heroes from having problems, and is especially useful when nobody is a Hero and so the supporting character archetypes are not useful. You can also encourage storytellers to retire characters at a certain point through mechanical or narrative incentives.
You can also use a lose condition. This provides the stick part of the proverbial carrot and stick for the players, compelling them in a way that a nemesis cannot. Having this is a bit dangerous, but is much more feasible than a win condition. Timers and dwindling energy both lead to this. This is often more of a modified, strictly mechanical, nemesis that is universal for the characters than a separate system in and of itself. Paranoia is an example of this, where clones are limited and expensive, and death is almost assured. Certain death is not part of the Hero's Journey, though sacrifice in pursuit of a goal is. Incorporating a certain eventual death means that you cycle through characters, but death spiral mechanics can be frustrating and should be used carefully.
The final option is to destroy the nemesis entirely, giving storytellers entirely free reign, albeit with finite energy and power. The challenge here is that you as a designer need to create mechanics that are independently compelling and game worlds that are expansive enough to merit exploration. Open-world games like Fallout and The Elder Scrolls do a great job of creating an enjoyable experience without functional nemeses. Smaller expansive-world titles like Spiderweb Software's games can also show how a combination of a nemesis, often a very distant one, and an expansive world for exploration can complement each other well.
One of the things about aborting the Hero's Journey by destroying the nemesis is that you can return to a new Hero's Journey later if the players decide to return to heroic archetypes. Win and lose conditions simply cause character turnover so that eventually players return to the archetypes or settle into a form of competition against the game itself that motivates them to tell stories.
Alright, thank you for sticking with us (if you're still around after four-thousand and some words).
The importance of the Hero's Journey in storytelling is that it creates a clear reward for players, and it fills psychological needs. That isn't to say that you're stuck using it: it is a tool, not a mandate. Using the Hero's Journey and the heroic archetypes is just a way to make sure you're keeping people entertained and enriching their lives, so it's a good idea to do so.
I'm not making a summary for this article, because there are already so many different things here, but please feel free to ask questions in the comments.