The Hero’s Archetypal Journey

People are always suggesting books for me to read, for which I am grateful, because I can’t think of everything.

51473OvY5zL._SS500_Recently, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers, insisted on being read, and it’s a good thing it did, because Christopher Vogler‘s how-to, inspired by his years as a story editor for Disney and Fox Studios, helped me reframe my ideas about my characters. I now see my characters very differently. Instead of thinking “This character must now do something, but what?” Vogler has helped me see my characters as archetypes with special functions and roles that they must do if the story is to fulfill its purpose.

Borrowing from Joseph Campbell, whose groundbreaking research on the psychological import of archetypes in the story tradition appears in his 1949 book on the universality of myths across cultures, The Hero With A Thousand FacesVogler adds to Campbell’s findings by incorporating research on the underlying themes of fairytales conducted by Vladimir Propp, scholar of Russian folktales. Vogler then weaves what is known about archetypal characters with his experience overseeing scripts for major movie studios Fox and Disney.


The book is unlike the movie in many ways, yet both contain archetypal characters.

Although the book seems more germane for screenwriters, Vogler’s ideas are what matters. If you’ve seen The Wizard of Oz, you know the movie is very different than the book, but Vogler relies on this movie (and many others) to make his points about the function and role of archetypes.

Dorothy is “the Hero,” of course. The Wizard of Oz is a “Mentor,” as is Glinda, The Good Witch, but the Wizard also functions as a “Shapeshifter” and a “Threshold Guardian.” Tin Man, Scarecrow, and The Cowardly Lion are all “Allies.”

The Hero’s Journey is a pattern that seems to extend in many dimensions, describing more than one reality. It accurately describes, among other things, the process of making a journey, the necessary working parts of a story, the joys and despairs being a writer, and the passage of a soul through life.

How do these archetypes work? According to Vogler, there are only so many types of characters who show up in the hero’s story. Each character might fulfill more than one archetypal function, as with The Wizard, who not only helps, but also challenges Dorothy, and actively tries to block her progress.

There are only so many actions one needs, or should expect, from one’s characters, though; each character exists to, in some fundamental way, facilitate the Hero’s experience, if not by helping with goodwill, then by hindering and testing the Hero’s resolve (a remarkably useful factor most Heros only appreciate in hindsight). The journey can be either inner or outer, but must involve leaving the comfortable world of the known for the scary world of that which is unknown, untried, untested. Along the way, the Hero must encounter obstacles. In response, the Hero changes, becoming more than s/he would have done if ‘the call to change’ had never come.

The cast of characters in each story, therefore, is made up of the following, in one guise or other:

The Hero: In psychological terms, the archetype of the Hero represents what Freud called the Ego. Ultimately, a Hero is one who is able to transcend the bounds and illusions of the ego, but at first, Heroes are all ego. The journey of many Heroes is the story of their separation from the family or tribe. The Hero archetype represents the ego’s search for identity and wholeness.

Mentor (Wise Old Man or Woman): Mentors represent the Self, the god part within us. They are our conscience, and function to guide us on the correct path. They stand for the Hero’s highest aspirations. They represent what the Hero might become if he persists on the Heroic path.

Typically, the Mentor gives the Hero an important “gift” of some kind s/he will need to succeed on the journey (think of Dorothy’s red slippers; Glinda functions as a Mentor to Dorothy on her journey, keeping her, literally and figuratively ‘on the correct path’). In Star Wars, Obi Wan gives Luke his light-saber. The gift might also be one of advice, or of planting a seed of wisdom the Hero will one day need.

Threshold Guardian: This can be any testing situation, and it can also be a character. Vogler says that this psychological state represents ‘neurosis,’ but is not necessarily represented by a person. The Threshold Guardian might be a bad storm, or a test of any kind that blocks or creates an obstacle the Hero can stand up to and learn from. The Threshold Guardian might even transform into an Ally, if the Hero turns the energy of the obstacle around. In The Wizard of Oz, the Wizard functions as a Threshold Guardian at one point, an Ally later on, after Dorothy has successfully navigated obstacles.

Herald: The Herald—no surprise—is someone or something who/that brings news of some kind, in order to move the plot along. Vogler says the Herald’s deeper purpose is to allow the Hero to hear the ‘call for change,’ so The Herald pushes the story along, by forcing new, and necessary, information upon the Hero.

[This is the point at which I became unblocked, for I realised that what the story needed at that precise moment where I’d left off months before was someone to come in and motivate my reluctant Hero/protagonist. My protagonist was not moving the plot along because he was doing something Vogler calls “Refusing the call” to take up the Hero’s challenge. Vogler says that even though this, on its own, is fine, it must be a temporary condition.

The Hero can and should, initially, refuse the call, otherwise you don’t get to see him struggle with the seriousness of what’s about to happen to him. He has to eventually take up the call, though, otherwise you don’t have much of a story. I was probably letting my protagonist’s reluctance take over at that point, but also, I just lacked direction. I knew I had to get him to go do something, but what?

In fact, thinking of my ‘hero’ as a protagonist was, and is, part of what’s blocking me, because I don’t know specifically what protagonists “do,” other than acting in response to the antagonist. So the model I learned has limited my ability to write this particular story, I discovered.]

Shapeshifter: The Shapeshifter, unsurprisingly, is the most complex in some ways of all the archetypes Vogler discusses. First, the Shapeshifter represents the anima or animus, and is always a nebulous, changing character that the Hero cannot quite pin down or understand. Vogler says the Shapeshifter is quite often the love interest of the Hero, and personifies doubt or uncertainty, bringing suspense and tension to the plot. Will the Shapeshifter emerge as an Ally, for example, or is the Shapeshifter the Hero’s hidden enemy? Shapeshifters therefore show up most often in film noir and thriller genres.


Who is this woman? Jimmy Stewart almost loses his mind trying to find out.

A great Shapeshifter example comes from the Hitchcock movie Vertigo. Jimmy Stewart’s character projects his own inner turmoil onto Kim Novak’s character, as she morphs from one woman into another. She functions to keep him off balance, while her erstwhile “boyfriend” gets away with murder, literally.

Another Shapeshifter is Michael Douglas’ character in Romancing The Stone; will he or won’t he rescue the damsel in distress? Is he or isn’t he faithful? Shapeshifters might turn into Allies; you never know.

Shadow: The Shadow exists to perform complicated functions for the Hero. For one thing, the Shadow might be his own inner demons, suppressed subconscious urges. The Shadow might also represent the traditional Antagonist, or Villain, upon whom Vogler, focusing on the psychology of the Hero, might project his angst onto another character.

The Wicked Witch of the West makes such a great Shadow, not only for Dorothy, but also for the Munchkins. But she shows her humanity by caring what happens to her sister, and we feel a little bit of consternation when she dissolves into a melted puddle.

The Wicked Witch of the West makes such a great Shadow, not only for Dorothy, but also for the Munchkins. But she shows her humanity by caring what happens to her sister, and we feel a little bit of consternation when she dissolves into a melted puddle.

The Shadow exists to provide conflict and ‘bring out the best’ in the Hero, giving him a ‘worthy opponent in the struggle.’ The Shadow might also be the self-destructive element of the Hero’s personality, although the story is “only as good as its villain,” so the Shadow, whether it’s written as a character or a character flaw in the Hero, plays a crucial role in driving the story.

The Shadow is made more interesting if s/he has a redeeming quality, shows empathy, or in some way is humanized. Here, I’m thinking of Snape, in Harry Potter, who is built up over the course of the story as Harry’s nemesis, and yet, in fact, harbors secret love for Lily Potter, Harry’s mother. 

Ally: Allies are often the Hero’s companion, providing comic relief, a sparring partner, or even a conscience. Allies function in useful ways; they’re there when the Hero wants to unburden himself, or needs someone to talk to. Allies move the plot along by suggesting things for the Hero to do. Allies can be sent on fact-finding expeditions of their own. Allies often perform a task the Hero, for some reason, cannot perform on his or her own (like Toto, who escapes the Wicked Witch’s lair, and runs off to get help).

According to Vogler, Allies function psychologically as the otherwise unused parts of our personalities, but they can also be parts of the personality that come to the fore when they’re most needed (an internal strength the Hero doesn’t know she possesses, as happens for Dorothy at the end of the movie, when her Mentor, Glinda, tells her she always had the power to return home. Similarly, Harry Potter fights off Dementors in the guise of his ‘father,’ never knowing it’s he himself repelling the Dementors in Book Three, The Prisoner of Azkaban).

Allies Hermione and Ron are there to suggest alternate ways of doing something, and prop Harry up when he becomes dispirited or angry; in this way, they function to allow the Hero to be more than he would have been without them tagging along. They are allowed to express things the Hero might be feeling, but cannot say, and ’round out’ the Hero’s character.

Trickster: This archetype represents the spirit of mischief and introduces into a story that’s become emotionally difficult or grim the potent desire for change. The Trickets draws  attention to any imbalance in the plot or characters, and the absurdity of a stagnant psychological situation. The Trickster is the natural enemy of the status quo. In stories, Tricksters are embodied most often in the form of clowns and sidekicks, but can also be the Hero of their own journey.

In The Hobbit, the story threatens to bog down because chief dwarf Thorin is determined not to let anyone share the dwarves’ recaptured stronghold of wealth once guarded by Smaug. Smaug is now dead, but if Thorin doesn’t allow his merry band to leave their Lonely Mountain fortress, they will starve.

“It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to.”

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” Tolkien excelled at creating the hero’s journey, even though his heros were only 4 feet tall. Illustration by David T. Wenzel (click the picture to see his website with its other glorious images)


Bilbo, having already worn the mask of the Trickster/Hero, dons the One Ring, and slips off to the camp of the Elven King, with whom he parleys, offering the Elves a way to negotiate with intractable Thorin: the fabulous Arkenstone, which, by rights, belongs to the Dwarves. This Trickster action restarts the plot, and the action-adventure, which had threatened to bog down irretrievably due to Thorin’s stubbornness, can now move once again. Bilbo frequently upsets the status quo throughout the course of The Hobbit, by questioning the dwarves’ beliefs, making mistakes, stealing,  and creating riddles that so befuddle Gollum, the creature realises too late that his Precious has been stolen.

Join me in the next section, “Challenging Your Hero on the stages of his journey.”

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6 thoughts on “The Hero’s Archetypal Journey

  1. Pingback: Culture Hero «

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  3. Thank you for an enlightening article. I recognise some characters I’ve been writing as the archetypes that you describe. I had wondered why they seemed so different and yet each so useful, even those that aren’t particularly likeable.

    • Thank you for reading! Reading this book about archetypes has made me analyze virtually everything I read and all movies I watch through this perspective, of whether or not the characters function the way Christopher Vogler says they do.

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