A different kind of plot: the Heroine’s Journey


The other night I was reading meta analysis on season seven of Supernatural (because that’s what good little grad students do instead of their homework), when I learned something entirely new. The analyzer kept referencing the Heroine’s Journey– and honestly, my eyes glazed right past it. After all, this was on Tumblr, which has a stronger feminist slant than much of the internet. I wrongly assumed that this was just a personal way of evening the linguistic playing field, much the same way many writers will alternate ‘he’ and ‘she’ as universal, gender-neutral pronouns.

Finally I gave up and clicked one of the links to a different analysis, What I learned shocked me: the blogger FlutieBear wasn’t referring to the Hero’s Journey with which I was familiar, but to something else entirely.

If you aren’t familiar with the Heroine’s Journey, I recommend reading FlutieBear’s analysis. She’s far more familiar with it than I am.  I’ll be going in a slightly different direction with this post. You’ll find a similar (but shorter) analysis here.

(Note: there are a lot of maps and Journeys referred to as the Heroine’s Journey, dealing with everything from separating and unifying the masculine and feminine to a woman’s coming to terms with her sexuality, etc. I have yet to research them all, and therefore I’m referring to the ones I specifically linked to, not others. As I said, I learned about this less than a week ago.)

English: This image outlines the basic path of...
This image outlines the basic path of the monomyth, or “Hero’s Journey”.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My History with my Hero

For background, the Hero’s Journey is what’s known as the “Monomyth”– it’s a nearly universal story structure identified and codified by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, an analysis on mythology and, in turn, fiction, written in 1949. The argument is that nearly every story maps almost perfectly to this narrative pattern (a call to action, heeding the call, meeting the mentor, etc).

I first learned of this structure in the sixth grade, and it was repeated to me at least once per year ever since. Not a single literature or creative writing class skipped on the Hero’s Journey, to the point where I could recite it in my sleep. In fact, almost every single one of my teachers and professors (I majored in English during my Undergrad) claimed that this was the only correct narrative structure– some even went as far as to say that a story was lacking or wrong if it didn’t adhere to The Hero’s Journey perfectly (or else that the analyzer was simply misinterpreting the text). That last bit has a nasty way of getting under your skin if you’re a writer whose story doesn’t perfectly map to Campbell’s Monomyth.

Now I’m twenty-four, I’ve taken an honest decade’s worth of writing classes, and only just now discovered that the Monomyth isn’t quite as universal as advertised.

Side by Side

Enter The Heroine’s Journey, by Maureen Murdock (written in 1990, by the way– newer than Campbell, but still nearly as old as I am). It’s very similar to the Hero’s Journey, but not quite the same– meaning it’s easy to see a Heroine story and try to hammer it into the Hero archetype. While explaining this new discovery to my husband, he asked me to explain how it differentiated from the structure he was used to. So here’s my (admittedly rudimentary) understanding of some of the big differences:

From the get-go, the Hero’s Journey starts with The Call To Action… and then Refuses The Call. After all, Luke Skywalker can totally keep going as a moisture farmer. Frodo Baggins can totally keep chilling in the Shire. Then something happens to push our Hero out of his nest and forces him to Cross the Threshold.

The Heroine doesn’t quite get that option. Though she was probably decently happy before then, she relied on a crutch or a coping mechanism to keep her happy. For whatever reason, that crutch fails. The coping mechanism isn’t going to cut it anymore. She departs from her life because staying the same is no longer an option.

Therefore, while the Hero is often thrown into the wild with nothing but a Mentor to cover his ass, the Heroine usually has a time to stock her proverbial utility belt with tools and supplies to get her through.

The Hero then progressively picks up things over the course of his trials– a magic sword, some superpowers, what have you– with every little victory he wins along the way. Meanwhile, the Heroine’s tools fail her, or are lost. Her mental and emotional crutches are knocked out from under her.  While the Hero is built up through repeated victory, the Heroine is stripped bare by repeated defeat. It’s painful as hell, but it isn’t a bad thing. Every one of those near-failings, those moments where she scrapes past by the skin of her teeth, burns away her weaknesses and shortcomings until only strength remains.

While the Hero’s Journey tends to make other characters into sidekicks (like The Mentor, doomed to die when he stops being useful), the Heroine’s friends are considered among her new strengths, and are essential to overcoming Death (her equivalent to the Hero’s Blackest Hour or Crisis). When the Hero finishes his Journey, he’s often the Very Best– the King, the Jedi Master, etc. Honestly, there’s often not much room for improvement on what he’s already accomplished. Meanwhile the Heroine still has room to grow when her Journey ends. Her strengths may be honed for one Journey, but she may still have weaknesses or flaws that will still need refining in the future. Hers is a character who doesn’t have to stop growing and changing just because the villain is defeated.

Not Quite Exclusive

Still in the car with Boxy, we tried to sort his favorite movies into Heroes and Heroines. Surprisingly, most of his favorite female protagonists (like Alice in the Resident Evil movies and Honor Harrington of her self-titled series) wound up mapping closer to Heroes, while Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and Supernatural had more Heroine plots. I’ve spoken before on “Masculine” and “Feminine” plots— which refers to a style of advancing the story, rather than its appeal to a particular gender or a need to feature men or women as protagonists. However, there is a tendency to build upon traditional “feminine” virtues– teamwork, introspection, emotional intelligence, etc, as opposed to raw power and shows of strength.