Jung, Plots, and Journeys

This is about Jung and Campbell, and Peterson perhaps. Please keep the discussion based on Jung and Campbell and narrative patterns. I think we all are painfully aware that the modern media don’t use Jung’s definition of “hero,” which is what I want to focus on today. Thanks.

Kiltie Dave’s post on Tuesday June 30th about Jung (and Campbell) and the pattern of the Hero’s Journey in mythology and story got me thinking a little. Most of us as readers, and later as writers, absorbed the pattern of the myths as kids.* We grew up on fairy tales – Disney-fied or otherwise – movies that used the pattern, and books that also drew on the pattern. Some of us saw Joseph Campbell’s series on PBS, or read the books, or encountered it in college in Comparative Religion class or the like. A number of books have been published about how to use the Hero’s Journey in fiction and film. In fact, one of the better titles I read was aimed at movie writers and used lots of movies and a few books as examples, both good and bad. (Christpher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey)

One question that I had, when I tried to use the pattern exactly (all 10, 17, 21 or so steps), is “how closely do we have to stick with the list?”

The book where I deliberately tried to follow every step Campbell pulled out of Jung’s ideas was Merchant and Magic. Yeah, talk about me making it hard for myself. Middle-aged man with a family goes on the road, trying to make money and hide the fact that he doesn’t have any magical abilities. And he collects coins as a hobby. I can see Campbell’s ghost face-palming and shaking his head. “No, no, that’s the wise mentor, not the hero/protagonist. Didn’t you read my books?”

Um, yes, I did, and I had a checklist sitting beside the computer as I sketched out what I needed to add in order to fit the pattern as closely as possible. It worked, because Tycho Gaalnar Rhonarida’s age isn’t important in the pattern. We’re dealing with archetypes, not requirements, remember. And the Hero’s Journey is a tool in our toolbox. It is a way to push buttons in reader expectations, to have character development, and to keep things moving.

We’ve all read stories where the protagonist doesn’t change and grow. In a short story that can work, likewise in a milieu-based book if we do it carefully. In a novel? Ah, well, not always. Or we wall the book by the end of the second chapter, because the “Hero” is already perfect, and omni-competent, and knows everything she needs to know, and all the other characters defer to her already. They ONLY way you can get away with that is to somehow strip all that away and force character re-development and a Journey. And you’d better foreshadow the living daylights out of it in chapter one, or the readers will flee.

I can see one or two hands or paws waving in the back of the room saying, “Hey, what about Jack Sparrow in the first three Pirates movies?” Ah, but is he the Hero on the Journey, or is he something else? He’s the trickster mentor, not the Hero. [I think the movies would have been more fun and satisfying if he had been the Hero, but that’s because of my dislike of the protagonist.]

So, back to the question: do you have to follow the archetype exactly? Certainly not for a short story or novella. For a novel, at least glancing at the list of steps can make things easier, especially if you hit a wall on characterization of the protagonist. Are things coming too easily to him? Does his final victory feel “cheap,” like he didn’t earn it? Do your alpha readers wonder how he gets from A to C? One possible difficulty is that you skipped an important step. Readers are waiting for something. They might not be able to pin down exactly what’s missing, but the story feels off-kilter. That’s what I ended up doing with Merchant and Magic, which required going back and adding material. Something similar happened in the third Powers book as well.

There has been a lot of criticism of the pattern, especially for modern society. Some of the criticism seems a little strained – that the Hero’s Journey excludes women, for example. Other complaints are more genre specific, or cultural. How does the Hero’s Journey fit into American culture, or does it?

Using the Hero’s Journey as a sort of outline may or may not work for you. It’s a tool in our toolboxes, like Dwight Swain’s “W-shaped pattern” for scenes. A lot of us* have internalized it because of what we read and watched growing up. Don’t force a story into the pattern if it won’t fit exactly. If you look at Campbell’s original, it includes a meeting with a deity (or Fairy [not Tinkerbelle type, either]), Refusal of Return, and other things that don’t fit so well and that might not work for you. However, think about all the metaphorical “come to Jesus” moments in stories. A lot of us also tend to shorten the last half of Campbell’s list, because we look at the story in a slightly different way. Archetypes are not requirements.

Below are some variations on the pattern, the full outline of Campbell’s ideal, and two “applied Journey” discussions.


Versions of the pattern: https://www.wisegeek.com/what-are-the-stages-of-the-heros-journey.htm



How to Write a Hero: The 12 Stages of the Hero’s Character Arc


*If you are a Reader of a Certain Age.

28 thoughts on “Jung, Plots, and Journeys

  1. I don’t write to the Hero’s Journey . . . consciously. But when the story goes flat, I haul it out and use it to see where I’ve wandered off into irrelevancies, or let my Hero coast along without obstacles or learning anything.

  2. Arthur Koestler has written about ‘the Tragic and the Trivial planes’ of life. As explained by his friend, the writer and fighter pilot Richard Hillary:

    “K has a theory for this. He believes there are two planes of existence which he calls vie tragique and vie triviale. Usually we move on the trivial plane, but occasionally in moments of elation or danger, we find ourselves transferred to the plane of the vie tragique, with its non-commonsense, cosmic perspective. When we are on the trivial plane, the realities of the other appear as nonsense–as overstrung nerves and so on. When we live on the tragic plane, the realities of the other are shallow, frivolous, frivolous, trifling. But in exceptional circumstances, for instance if someone has to live through a long stretch of time in physical danger, one is placed, as it were, on the intersection line of the two planes; a curious situation which is a kind of tightrope-walking on one’s nerves…I think he is right.”

    Koestler talks about the Night Journey, which is a passage from Trivial to Tragic planes, normally undertaken reluctantly. I believe he used the story Jonah and the Whale as an example–I have the book in which his essay appears, and plan to write about this when I can fish it out.

    Rather similar to the Ordinary World and the Special World in the ‘How to Write a Hero’ link.

  3. I remember reading Campbell’s work and thinking he’s really stretched. Also that his selection of examples was clearly cherry-picking.

    1. Oh yes. And he and Jung were both looking for certain things and came to Story from a specific direction. James Frazier likewise with “The Golden Bough,” although Frazier certainly kicked a lot of people into looking at mythology in a lot of new ways. ( I still think that Bruno Bettelheim gets the prize for “how to ruin stories.”)

  4. “There has been a lot of criticism of the pattern, especially for modern society.”

    Yes. Most of which criticism is not constructive or even honest in nature, designed as it is to push Collectivist theory. Courage, resourcefulness, personal growth and individual accomplishment, these things are very inconvenient to Marxists and other, similar creatures.

    The Hero’s Journey is embedded deep in our culture, right next to the drive to be a good parent. That’s why the Marvel comic book movies and the original Star Wars trilogy were so hugely popular. Proper heroes, proper journeys.

    Its not the only way to tell a story, but its one of the best ways IMHO. I internalized the model a long time ago when I was reading things like Keith Laumer, Heinlein, Poul Anderson and James H. Schmitz.

    I also read Stanislaw Lem at that time. But while I remember the specs for the Bolo Mark XXV “Stupendous” Continental Siege Unit, and the balky Nova guns from Pausert’s space ship, I remember -nothing- of Stanislaw Lem.

    This is not to say that those were “bad” stories, just that I don’t remember them. Like, at all. They made no lasting impression other than a faint miasma of depression.

    Who got all the scholarly critical acclaim back in the day and still in 2020? Lem. Just sayin’.

  5. I’m pretty deeply confused about plotting, and what exactly I am trying to do for a given story project.

    Last night, I figured out a new tool for my attempts to sort out the current project.

    Now, I am wondering if I want to try this Heroic Journey thing out for a character’s subplot.

    1. I am currently using an outline based on it to wrangle some plots that had some mushy middles.

  6. I read a ton of D. E. Stevenson this spring and she doesn’t have hero’s journeys very often. However I have also had a hard time at moments understanding the arc of her stories. That said, I really enjoyed reading them.

    I tried to think about detective stories and this analysis but didn’t get too far. Archie Goodwin? Or here’s a book to think about… The Great Impersonation by E. Phillips Oppenheim. I’m not seeing the Hero’s Journey …. And I think Jonah is not a good example because though his mission is a success he rejects that success and is himself unchanged.

    However Dorothy Grant’s latest book, Going Ballistic, works very well in this analysis.

    I think there are other forms but I don’t know what they are.

    1. It is a pattern, but not all stories follow it, for various reasons. In some cases the entire arc of a series is the hero’s journey. In other cases, especially I suspect romance and mystery, the point is less the development of the hero and more “solve this problem.” The core personality of the protagonist doesn’t have to change for the problem to be solved.

  7. Interesting points. I’ll have to go dig that out and take another look at my story lines…

  8. I never read Joseph Campbell so i am unqualified to speak to his theories in an intelligent manner. I have followed Peterson -mostly on Viewtube. I think the Hero’s Journey is integral to being human. Whether the Hero is male or female, child or adult is irrelevant and people who throw that at you are just trying to make trouble. In my opinion, the Hero’s Journey relates to us because WE are the hero’s of our own personal journey. Every day. Form the moment we open our eyes, to the last glimpse at night we travel through the journey of life: Today I might merely weave a new rug for the entrance to the teepee, or I might face down a buffalo at risk of being gored to death. I might succor my sick mother and cure her disease. I might leave a stranger to die on the cold prairie. Each moment, each day is a step on our Hero’s Journey. At night, as we sit around the council fire, with our faces warmed by the flames and our backs chilled by the fearful darkness we tell tales of the Hero’s of old whose exploits, made grander by the passage of time, give us hope that we may someday rise to the challenges of our lives.
    Achilles knew this. Odysseus as well.
    Following the archetype is as natural as the course of a stream.

    1. This is responding to your first post in case the nesting gets weird….

      See I agree that everyone’s life is a hero’s journey. We have to conquer all sorts of inner and outer demons. But this is where women’s lives do get a bit shortchanged. Without babies there will be no future, but stories about the journey of bringing up children don’t often follow the hero sequence. At least I don’t know any.

      And to the extent that storytelling is supposed to help us through life … Not seeing it. Maybe I’m totally wrong and the stories exist. I know that my mother made a big difference in a bunch of women’s lives just by telling them point blank that child-rearing took intelligence and would they please turn it on. But I don’t know a story that does that…

      1. Well you are right that women’s stories never got the public notoriety that Men’s have. I think they are out there though, but passed down through the generations. My mother had three boys so she had no female to impart that type of story to. She did however tell me stories of how she and her mothers, grandmothers and more struggled and overcame. One time she showed me a snapshot, taken in the early 1920’s. It was of a man dressed in cowboy attire, spurs and boots, leather wrist guards and hat. She then told me that was her grandfather who left the family one day when her mother was a small child and never returned. She went on to tell me a lot of other stories about that struggle. Mom would have never dreamed of telling that story to the public. The greeks had heroines; Penelope, Cassandra, Persephone. While you can make the case that they didn’t complete hero’s journeys, They were at least known.

      2. The external details of most men’s lives do not fit the hero’s journey, either. Trudging to work every day for forty years to raise those babies. . . .

        1. Odysseus didn’t have a Campbellian hero’s journey.

          1. Mom and Dad still alive, neither one divine, live in their own kingdom which isn’t Ithaka.

          2. Odysseus built his own house and built up Ithaka into a city-state.

          3. The Trojan War wasn’t his problem. He just went along because some of his friends were going, and because Troy was kind of a panhellenic problem. He was already an adult man, a hero, and a king.

          4. He just wanted to win the freaking war (which he did) and go home (which he did). But he lost his men and a lot of his family time because he had heroic hubris and taunted Polyphemus.

          5. But he didn’t die of heroic hubris, because he was freaking Captain Kirk and clever, and because some fairies helped him out with their telepathic ultrafast ship. (And also because his adventures symbolically atoned for his hubris and his actions against the gods, and taught him better.)

          6. And then he whipped everybody’s butt, because he really was All That, and also because his wife and son and servants were all pretty awesome.

          1. 5. It helped that Athene wasn’t one of the gods whom he offended, even though you would think that he would have. Nope, Athene was always cool with him.

          2. 6a. Oh, and the end of the Odyssey is all about Odysseus reaching not just home, but returning at last to his wife’s arms in his own bed.

            (Which he made himself out of a giant tree, and which is also one of the literal supporting pillars of his house. Not big on moving the bed around was our Odysseus.)

            Of course, The Hobbit is another middle-aged hero saga that ends back at home.

            Frodo doesn’t get to stay back at home, but Sam does, and that’s the end of LOTR.

            Campbell cheats a lot. There’s a big difference between the happy ending of “he gets home” or “he becomes king,” and the tragic ending of “He dies because he messed up.” They don’t both count as apotheosis.

  9. On perhaps a less florrid note, I checked out Campbell’s wiki page, and among the plaudits i saw this gem: “He gained recognition in Hollywood when George Lucas credited Campbell’s work as influencing his Star Wars saga” Now under most circumstances, that alone should demand that he be denied Bread, Fire or Salt in the Kingdom of Ar. But I suppose he can’t be held responsible for what others make of his ideas. I think it would be difficult to write a long form piece deliberately excluding The Journey. Audience expectation would be a tough thing to overcome. Sort of like the customer asking for blue paint, and all you’re selling is red, so you call it “An Ombre association of Azure”

    1. Well, the HolyTrilogy (all one word, original three movies) stick with the Hero’s Journey pretty closely, and were successful. The subsequent high-budget fan-fiction didn’t, or tried to “subvert the archetype” with all the success that usually comes from that, meaning not much at most.

      1. I have to say you are correct as to the Trilogy, though it’s to me sort of replacing a prostitute with a blow up doll (Crass, i know) NOT that I am speaking from experience! As a life long SCFI fan I looked forward to the first movie with very high expectations. As I watched it first-run, and saw the youthful protagonist do little more than whine about his situation throughout the movie It was, disappointing. If I had returned to my hovel and found my parents cooked down to their bones i wouldn’t have anything on my mind but “Where do i find these bastards.”

        1. Luke was in the middle of whining and having arguments with his aunt and uncle about his chosen course of conventional action; and he was torn about following his dreams and actually depriving them of income when he suddenly got the chance to go, instead of whining about wanting to go.

          So he had trouble processing that they’d been killed. There really wasn’t any believable way to put that across in dialogue, because Luke is a guy of deep feelings but not very eloquent words.

          It’s very similar to Westerns. Sometimes the young guy breathes fire, but more often, the young guy is just shocked. He keeps moving because the obvious course is obvious, but you can’t really expect more emotional energy than that. Anything else would be easier to talk about and plan about.

    2. The evidence is that that’s a ret-con, that he hadn’t heard of it when he started the movies.

  10. I LOVE the Merchant series. It has something difficult to describe. Vibrancy? Depth? It reads as if you’re channeling an alternate reality, not telling a story. Something like that. It didn’t seem very Hero’s Journey to me – probably because the hero doesn’t start as a callow youth.

    I have come to dislike the Hero’s Journey. It is often too cookie-cutter. A brilliant exception is Pam’s Fancy Free. I really enjoyed the Share series (Quarter Share, Half Share, Captain’s Share etc… “in the Golden Age of the Solar Clipper”) but I found I couldn’t re-read them because they were just too much Hero’s Journey.

    The April series is also a Hero’s Journey and I keep getting sucked into that. Sixth time through and I’m _finally_ able to read it with some sort of “what’s the author doing to hold my attention?” distance. I _think_ the reason I like that one is that it is many entwined Hero’s Journeys, not just one – and one of the “heroes” is a society, not a person.

    The only static characters I’ve enjoyed reading more than once are Garion’s companions in The Belgariad. Other than Garion (and his wife-to-be whose name I don’t recall), no one changes at all through the whole thing. On the other hand, they’re not “real” people, but tools of prophecy.

    1. Thank you! It’s one of the hardest to write, because of the concentration needed to get things right: the setting, the mental worlds, the very tight point-of-view. I suspect getting to walk the streets of the real-world analogues of the cities also helps.

  11. Okay, who here would pay to see Jack Sparrow as Dumbledore? Or as Gandalf? (Just in a skit….) I mean, he’s already played Drunken Master.

    Btw, as sad as the court reports are about Johnny Depp and his battering bride, it seems that Johnny Depp also testified to his dislike of Disney’s ideas for his character, as Jack Sparrow doesn’t need all this angst and such. He also testified that the Disney executives totally didn’t get his Keith Richardesque take on his own character, and that the writers kept asking him why he waves his hands and whether his character had an illness.

    Maybe Hollywood has been taken over by aliens.

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