Archetypes, the Hero’s Journey, and Why They Matter

Many of the world’s most popular and enduring stories owe a good part of their success to archetypes and the hero’s journey. Any writer can learn storytelling techniques from even a passing familiarity with archetypes. A detailed study may produce the next Star Wars or Harry Potter.

I was in love with Archetypes long before I discovered the term. In fact, most of us are in love with the story of a hero who goes on a life-changing journey. This basic storyline is found in all cultures and major religions. Psychologist Carl Jung argued that every living soul is born knowing the hero’s story because it is part of the “collective unconscious”—a shared knowledge base that includes common character types (the hero, mentor, lover, etc.). Jung’s lifelong study of dreams lead him to believe that regardless of gender, culture, age, or anything else, all people instinctually recognize the hero’s story and its elements. In other words: to be human is to understand, at least on some level, the hero’s journey.

Joseph Campbell found Jung’s archetypes in mythologies and religions. It was Campbell who dissected these stories and discovered the common elements of what he called “The Hero’s Journey” and what is more commonly known as “The Monomyth” (“mono” means “one” so this literally means “One-myth”). For a detailed analysis, read Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces. SIDE NOTE: I love this title. After all, as Campbell proves, there is essentially one basic story of the hero, but that hero’s face and name change with each telling of it.

It may be blasphemy to say it, but the following stories/people/characters are all quite similar:

  • Jesus Christ.
  • Shrek.
  • Michael Corleone (The Godfather).
  • Batman.
  • Luke Skywalker (Star Wars)
  • Simba (The Lion King).

“Wait!” you cry, “Jesus Christ and mafia leader Michael Corleone are NOT the same! Come to think of it, Christ wasn’t an ogre either!” And of course, you are correct: they are quite different . . . but the basic story outline is the same despite the fact that Jesus is a hero for all humankind, Michael Corleone is a fallen hero who becomes a villain, and Shrek is . . . Shrek.

These stories share common events, familiar character types, symbols, and motifs that Jung called archetypes (archetypes are the repeated character types, events, and symbols). The world’s heroes and the stages of their quests tend to share characteristics, though there are certainly different types of heroes and missions.

Today, storytellers use the archetypes of the hero and journey to craft their stories.  Often this is intentional, as writers want to capitalize on a story structure they know “works” and will have a ready audience, but it also can happen unintentionally because these stories are so ingrained in our minds and culture that stories end up borrowing archetypes naturally. That is to say, a writer’s story may have archetypal plot points, characters, or symbols simply because these naturally appear in our minds (since they have always existed in our collective unconscious).

Heroes do not have to be warriors and adventurers. A hero can be a bringer of peace, a woman working in man’s world, an underdog fighting for the moral right, or anyone who discovers his place in the world and seeks to improve that world.

By its very nature, the hero’s story is one of self-discovery. *This journey does NOT have to be physical! It can be inward or spiritual! The hero will leave his/her normal world that is comfortable. Once this happens the hero is opened up to new experiences that will test his character, abilities, and determination. He will grow and, in order to be successful, he must change. This transformation is essential. The hero must gain new knowledge or insight.


The common monomyth elements are:

  1. The Call = Hero gets asked to do something, or perhaps just gets thrown into it.
  2. The Shadow or Other = Hero meets his other/shadow.
  3. The Journey & Initiation = Hero grows and matures as he experiences new things.
  4. Helpers and Guides = Hero gets friends, allies, and maybe a lover or mentor.
  5. The Treasure & Return = Hero wins and gets the treasure (hopefully), then heads home.
  6. The Transformation = The Hero MUST change in some way.

*    Atonement with the Father = Hero and parent find peace (*not in every story, but common).

I will have many posts about these stages and archetypal characters in the future. Keep posted.

SPOILER ALERT: When I write about archetypes and the hero’s journey, I will reference popular stories that provide examples. There are thousands from which to choose, but I will try to stick to the following for consistency’s sake:

  • Major League
  • Harry Potter.
  • The Godfather.
  • Stand By Me
  • The Lord of the Rings.
  • Batman Begins/The Dark Knight Trilogy.
  • Star Wars.

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