There and back again: How to return your Hero home in one piece

John W. Waterhouse's interpretation of Odysseus before the mast, sirens taunting him. Odysseus was in a constant state of returning home.

John W. Waterhouse’s interpretation of Odysseus before the mast, sirens taunting him. Odysseus was in a constant state of returning home.

Stage Ten:  The Road Back

Heroes “gather up what they have learned, gained, stolen, or been granted in the Special World” (193) and set themselves a new goal: to escape, find further adventure, or return home.

Most Heroes, of course, return home. Dorothy is asked by her friends to remain in Oz, but as everyone knows, there’s no place like home. Robinson Crusoe finds a way, against all odds, to return home. In the movie Apollo 13, the crew, changed by their near-death experience while orbiting in space, are determined to return home. The Special World might have, at one time, seemed a desirable place to be, but now it’s time to return with new clarity to one’s previous existence.

Vogler says the road back is the time when Heros “rededicate” themselves to the adventure, but now the motivation is different. Sometimes, this is the point at which a Villain or Shadow character wreaks his revenge, and fear of retaliation or pursuit might be what motivates your Hero’s retreat. In many cases, the Hero leaves the Special World only because he’s being chased out, or is running for his life.

In The Odyssey, Odysseus’ entire ten-year story is about returning home, and he is continuously distracted during these years. He’s constantly dealing with Threshold Guardians, Villains, Shapeshifters, as well as his own, internalised shadows (his fears) and even an ally or two (Athena is on his side, and also the witch Circe shape-shifts and eventually becomes Odysseus’ ally). Even Mentor (where we get the word ‘mentor’) makes an appearance, as the wise tutor left in charge of Odysseus’ son, Telemachus.

Useful questions to ask yourself at this point:

  • How do your heroes rededicate themselves to the quest?
  • What is the Road Back in your story? Is it returning to your starting place? Setting a new destination? Adjusting to a new life in the Special World? 
  • What have you learned from confronting death, defeat, or danger in your own life? How will you apply what you’ve learned to your characters?

Stage Eleven: The Resurrection

Necessary to the Hero’s learning process is that he must now experience one final “purging and purification” before re-entering the Ordinary World. This is typically the story’s climax, where the Hero is cleansed one last time of all his or her previous erroneous beliefs and behaviors. Whatever it is s/he was tested on during his or her Ordeal, s/he will now face one final “last exam.”

To learn something in the Special World is one thing; to bring the knowledge home as “applied wisdom” is another. Similar to the initiation ceremonies of the Greeks, the transformed Hero must now be seen to have been truly changed by the experiences s/he’s endured.

The Villain might be defeated, finally and at last, during the Resurrection. In some way, it will be seen that the Hero, challenged one last time by previous forces that would have bested him, are no longer strong enough to defeat him. The Hero rises, a phoenix from the ashes of his own frailties, and takes charge of his life. For some tragic heroes, of course, this is truly the end, but even so, we’re left with the knowledge that his spirit, transformed by his actions at the end, lives on after his death.

If they don't kiss, Marty McFly ceases to exist, so this kiss is crucial to the plot of "Back to the Future."

If they don’t kiss, Marty McFly ceases to exist, so this moment is a life-or-death crisis in “Back to the Future.”

In the movie Back to the Future, for one horrible moment at the crucial “Enchantment Under the Sea” high school dance, it looks as though all is lost: Marty McFly’s father, George, pulls away from Lorraine, wimping out, losing courage right before the big kiss the audience knows has to come if he’s going to save Marty’s future. Even though George has just come from punching out the Villain, Biff Tannen, has he learned to be strong and trust his instincts, or will he let everyone, including himself, down again?

Then, in a moment of Resurrection, George, (although not the Hero, nonetheless playing a major role of Mentor and Ally to Marty) pushes away the guy who has cut in on his dance with Lorraine. George plants a solid kiss on his wife-to-be, assuring Marty’s existence! Never again will George be a spineless wimp! His self-esteem at its height, George shows he’s learned how to take charge (and saved Marty’s life in the bargain).

Marty learns that he can trust his father not to let him down, so their relationship is resurrected, as well. This forges a new bond between the two that influences Marty’s future, at the same time that it irrevocably changes the psychological dynamic for Marty, who has further lessons to learn about himself.


The key for the writer is to make these character-changes overt. Real change must be seen in the character’s attitudes, clothes, actions, and words.

Since the goal of your story is to show the entire character arc, (all the incremental ways in which you, the writer, force change upon your characters) when tested this one last time, the Hero must show, through each word and deed, that she understands everything she’s had to sacrifice to become a new person. Then she has to behave differently than she did at the beginning of your story by taking on a challenge she previously would have baulked at.

Useful questions to ask yourself at this point:

  • Has your Hero picked up any negative characteristics along the way? What flaws were there from the beginning that need to be corrected? What flaws do you want to preserve, uncorrected? Which are necessary parts of your hero’s nature?
  • What final ordeal of death and rebirth does your hero go through? What aspect of your hero is Resurrected? 
  • Examine the character arc of your hero. Is it a realistic growth involving gradual change? Is the final change in your character visible in her actions and appearance? 
  • Who learns anything in a tragedy when the hero dies, if the hero doesn’t learn his lessons? 

Stage Twelve: Return With The Elixir

The Villa of the Mysteries: After her initiation, the young woman becomes knowledgeable in the ways of the world. Her new status, knowledge, and self-awareness, is the 'elixir' she returns home with.

The Villa of the Mysteries: After her initiation, the young woman becomes knowledgeable in the ways of the world. Her new status and self-awareness represents the ‘elixir’ with which she returns home.

In the Dionysian rituals depicted in murals at the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii, according to scholars, the different women portrayed in the murals all represent the same woman, undergoing significant, but incremental changes.

In the final scene, we see her, fully mature, wearing the accoutrements of a married woman—a veil and a ring on her left hand, with a bangle on her wrist, to show her increased wealth and social status.

The implication is that she has attained status, position, and ease in her married state. Her social role, and indeed, her demeanor and calm facial expression, all point to the ways in which she’s changed after the ordeals of her initiation into this new way of life.

The ‘elixir’ she returns with from her initiation is not insignificant; she’s a new person, and has attained a new social status, and can offer her newfound wisdom (a form of ‘elixir’) to the community and her family.

As the Heroine of her own story, she now has the power to bestow boons (a ‘boon’ is a favor or request; from the Old Norse word bón). The object, knowledge, or blessing that the Hero acquired during the adventure is now put to use in the everyday world. Often, this ‘elixir’ has a restorative or healing function, but it also serves to define the Hero’s role in society.

This point of the journey represents the dénouement, the end, the closing scenes. Not all, but most, stories aim for a sense of completion, which is implied by the word dénouement. Translated from the French, dénouement means ‘to unknot’ or untie the strands of the plot devices you’ve woven tightly for the characters (which is ironic, since we refer to the end of the story as the time when we ‘tie up loose ends’).

The writer’s responsibility at this point is to bring each major plot and subplot to conclusion. Some writers choose an open ending, in which some strands are left deliberately loose, but most writers prefer the circular ending, which feels more emotionally complete, and brings their protagonist full-circle, back to where s/he started. However, the Hero(ine), freshly returned from the challenges the writer set for her, has a new life and a new purpose to fulfill, after suffering and learning from the reversals of fortune.

Jane Austen's "Emma" is an overly headstrong, confident girl with much to learn before she can claim her 'elixir.'

Jane Austen’s “Emma” is an overly headstrong, excessively confident girl with much to learn about humility before she can claim her ‘elixir.’

Nowhere is this sense of fulfillment and completion, the urge toward unification, more obvious than in Jane Austen’s writing. The theme of unity, completion, and attainment of the Heroine’s most cherished dreams (if she has earned this fulfillment) shapes the ending of each story.

Austen’s characters have endured many reversals of fortune during the course of each novel. These reversals of fortune are necessary for the character to become the person the author envisions, and will make homecoming all the sweeter, when the character attains her hard-won goals.

It’s “easy to blow the Return” (The Writer’s Journey 224). Many stories fall apart in the final moments: the Return is “too abrupt, prolonged, unfocused, unsurprising, or unsatisfying.”

It’s common for writers to leave subplots dangling; loose ends might end up seeming too loose if you end your book or story so abruptly you leave your reader wondering crucial bits and pieces about the main characters (this was certainly the case with the final book of the Harry Potter series, and J. K. Rowling’s epilogue did not help answer most of the questions she left for her readers to figure out on their own).

Things to keep in mind as you write your ending:

  • It can be useful, especially if you’re planning a sequel or a series of stories about the same characters, not to tie up all loose ends. However, an abrupt ending feels like “someone hanging up the phone without saying goodbye” (225). Further, if you, as the writer, have lost focus while writing the story, your ending will show it unless you return to the original themes and close the circle. 
  • The needs of the story dictate its structure, just as the needs of the characters dictate the plot. Your ending is a good time to review if you have maintained these two basic writing truths.
  • The ending can fall flat if everything is resolved too neatly. If all the problems are solved easily and quickly, and the reader is not challenged to change her assumptions, the ending might rightly be considered too facile.
  • Consider the challenge of a ‘twist’ ending; you misdirect your readers into thinking something will inevitably occur, only to pull the rug out from underneath them one last time before you reveal your intentions.
  • Subplots should have at least three scenes distributed throughout the story, one in each act. All the subplots should be acknowledged or resolved in the Return. Each character should come away with some form of learning, or Elixir of his or her own. 
  • Finally, “A good story, like a good journey, leaves us with an Elixir that changes us, makes us more aware, more alive, more human, more whole, more a part of everything that is” (227). 

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The Intrinsic Writer

Deep River Dream, Robin Urton

Intrinsic writing

is about writing for your own, self-motivated reasons, such as the satisfaction of accomplishing a goal you’ve set for yourself, or discovering something about yourself.

Intrinsic meaning occurs during an autotelic activity, one we direct and have a sense of control over. You become an intrinsic writer when you write because you feel like it; or more importantly, because you feel happier and more engaged with life when you’re writing.

Alternatively, extrinsic writing is about writing for an externally-motivated reason (a deadline, a publisher, need for approval, to win against an opponent as part of a competition). This creates an exotelic situation, which comes with a potential problem: since we are all raised within an agonistic worldview, one’s exotelic reason for writing too often involves some form of competition.

This might never be a literal competition. Instead, this could be the sense that anonymous others are achieving when you’re not. To the extent that you are motivated and feel good about yourself, responding to an externally-motivated stimulus has little or no negative connotation.

Blooming Meditation, Robin Urton

Ideally, of course, competitive situations are supposed to be pleasurable and bring out our best.  However, when it comes to writing, an activity complicated by individual psychology, emotional states, and perceptions of reality, there can be a negative component to being raised in a strongly competitive culture.

Because competition is not necessarily a positive energy, there’s a potential chasm lying between autotelic and exotelic writing. There are specific times when writing goes badly or feels forced. I believe at least some of these moments are caused by external, socially-reinforced stressors on the writer.

There are certain expectations imposed on those who come to the writing situation. For the writer to succeed, she must overcome hurdles that do not necessarily exist for those who fulfill the ‘social contract‘ of what a writer is expected to be, based on what we’ve been told to believe—our legacy of writing myths.

A Dreamer’s Odyssey, Robin Urton

‘Successful’ writers, I think we can agree, have all, to a great extent, accepted the unspoken social contract that says that writing is, like any other commercially-viable activity, competitive in nature. In addition to money, fame and glory, there is something for the successful writer to “win,” and it’s called cultural capital—not an insignificant possession, since it grants you access to power in ways that should be discussed more often than they are.

Cultural capital is a form of social cachet or status granted to the person who attains intellectually significant achievements. That these achievements are defined by a group in power with cultural values that shift and change over time is a detail that goes largely undiscussed, since instead we focus on the writer’s attainment, rather than the elitism of the cultural milieu in which she attains whatever status is granted to her.

Meditation Dream, Robin Urton

But what happens for the writer whose self-motivation is provisional, who depends largely upon someone else’s approval if she is to continue writing without feeling discouraged? To continue being interested in the challenge of writing, she’s going to have to add to the complexity of her own writing experience by adding new skills. Ideally, complexity should be balanced by a difficulty factor that includes attainable goals.

By using the word ‘attainable,’ of course, I have complicated the situation, since many goals you might want to achieve seem utterly unrealistic if you believe the myths about writing and writers we have inherited through the centuries, so let’s look at some of those myths.

Writing is an activity unlike any other for one specific reason: writers are imbued with magical ability because society puts high value on the ability to communicate in ways that affect our emotions. This is true, I believe, because we don’t understand ourselves very well, and we’d like to think that writers and other artists have a mystical understanding of humanity’s inner dimensions, combined with an ability to explain ourselves to ourselves.

Then society decides that ‘good’ writers (usually writers who can explain the human condition via poetry or lyrical prose) are so special, so magical, so inspirational, that the writer is placed on a pedestal of heroic proportion. During this process of ‘deification’, the writer becomes A Great Author, and society loses any sense of proportion in terms of valuing the person as an average human being.

Brave New World, Robin Urton

The danger of being externally-motivated in an environment where writers are pitted against one another, and are encouraged to live up to a mythic status available only to an anointed few, seems clear. Only the intrinsic writer will succeed in having a meaningful reason to write when up against such strong beliefs about what makes writing and the writer important and valued.

As long as we continue to perpetuate the elitism that surrounds the act of writing, we risk alienating potential writers who lose faith in themselves when they come up against hurdles that have nothing to do with ability, talent, or skill, and everything to do with perception, belief, and mythology about writing and writers.