I’ll take you through a tour of The Heroine’s Journey by Maureen Murdock. She created this journey to help real women through life’s hardships, but it has a lot to offer as a story structure. In honor of its feminist roots, I will refer to the central character as the heroine, with female pronouns. However, it applies to male characters just as well.
To show you how it might work in a story, I’m going to develop an ongoing example. I’ll name my heroine Mara. As we go through the steps of the structure, she’ll ride beside us.
Why Use the Heroine’s Journey?
Like other mythic structures, you should use the Heroine’s Journey if it fits the story you want to tell. The structure of the Heroine’s Journey is particularly well suited for:
- Character arcs: The stages of the original framework correlate with how the heroine feels, not what she is doing. I’ve externalized this framework, but it’s still a strong choice for a story about an internal struggle.
- Quests for identity: The heroine may battle dragons and claim treasure, but the real core of the story is her struggle to find herself.
- Themes of privilege and oppression: The heroine taking the journey must triumph despite living in a society that undervalues who she is. You don’t have to include privilege and oppression in your story, but if you want it, this framework will help you bring it out.
Most of all, the Heroine’s Journey is about a heroine who must find balance as she struggles between the sides of a duality.
Finding Your Duality
First, identify the duality that lives within your heroine. It might be obvious. If you have a half elf, half human caught between those races, that’s clearly your duality. It can also be abstract concepts – perhaps your heroine’s caught between membership in a group and following her individual path. Or between the excitement of travel and the comforts of home. Whatever it is, both sides must be essential to her wellbeing. If you use the light side and the dark side of the Force, you’ll need to portray the dark side as constructive when used in moderation.
The structure refers to one side of the duality as the feminine, and the other as the masculine. Your next step is to pick which side of your duality is which. Use your discretion, but in general:
The feminine is the side of the duality that your heroine identified with as a small child. However, society undervalues the feminine. The story begins as the heroine chooses to reject it.
The masculine is the side of the duality that your heroine adopts as she comes of age. Society prizes the masculine, but in many tales it has been poisoned, misinterpreted, or taken to such extremes that it has become harmful. The heroine sets out on her journey by embracing it.
ExampleMara is a war orphan who was raised by the Sali people. They’re a peaceful farming culture that meditates every day and values quiet and contemplation. However, they’re a minority in the nation they live in. Their culture and society will be Mara’s feminine. Though they raised her, Mara is actually descended from a warrior culture, called the Barock. Once nomads, they’re now the ruling class. They will be her masculine.
The Eight Stages of the Heroine’s Journey
Here’s an overview of the stages of the journey. I lightly modified the stages from Murdock’s original structure to create a version that was easier for writers to follow.
1. Shift from Feminine to Masculine
During stage one, the heroine rejects the feminine in favor of the masculine. She may still be tied to the feminine, but she increasingly resents that attachment.
She could have any number of reasons for rejecting the feminine, but a unhappy relationship with a feminine role model, known as the mother, is chief among them. To the heroine, the mother represents the worst of the feminine end of her duality. She might be powerless, unhappy, flawed, or just interpreted that way. The mother is threatening to the heroine because she’s afraid of becoming her, just as Luke Skywalker fears becoming Darth Vader.
Alternatively, the mother may be intimidating in her strength and perfection, particularly if you decide to make the feminine more privileged than the masculine in your story. The heroine may reject her to avoid feeling inadequate next to her.
As she rejects the mother, the heroine will embrace a metaphorical father. The father represents whatever the heroine admires in the masculine. He may have a dark side, or be a despicable person altogether, but she isn’t aware of that yet. He opens to the door to a path that leads away from the mother, and makes the heroine feel like she could succeed on that path. In turn, she does her best to gain his attention and approval.
He offers an escape from the mother, but at the same time he might rub in that the heroine is tied to the lowly feminine. He could praise her strength and brilliance as he tells her the feminine makes her weak and stupid. This will only spur her harder to prove herself in his eyes.
As a result of this dynamic, the heroine discards the feminine, and any part of herself tied to it.
ExampleMara has no memory of before she came to live with the Sali. She is content to live with them until she turns twelve, and is allowed to go into town to trade at the market. There she learns that everyone thinks of the Sali as cowards, because they hide behind their walls when the swarm comes, instead of helping to protect everyone. She also meets the Barock. They look like her, and they appear powerful and confident. She’s curious about them; the older warriors humor her by showing her how to handle their weapons.
But her Sali guardian doesn’t approve of the way Mara has begun to prize possessions she gained in the marketplace, or how she runs off to the market when she has nothing to trade. He forbids her from going to the market for a month, instead mandating regular meditation. This only makes her more determined to leave the Sali and join the Barock.
2. The Road of Trials
In stage two, the heroine sets off on a journey, departing the ordinary of the feminine and fully embracing the masculine. This might mean she actually leaves home, sword in hand, or it could just mean that she abandons sewing classes and goes fishing instead.
Regardless, she has something to prove to herself and others. In her new journey, she is surrounded by masculine allies. They still think she is less, or at least not one of them. In her heart, she believes they’re right. But that doesn’t mean she’ll give up. She’s fixated on showing everyone that they’re wrong.
For that, she needs big victories. She wants something to show others, like a trophy or treasure. In pursuit of her prize she will face threshold guardians who try to deter her, and battle real or metaphorical monsters.
In her enthusiastic pursuit of the masculine, she forgets to stay in touch with her inner self. All her actions are designed to make her look better to her masculine allies; she never does anything because she simply wants to do it. She’s always compensating for the feminine lurking within her.
ExampleAt sixteen Mara finally comes of age. She forgoes the Sali coming of age ceremony, and abruptly leaves to join a band of Barock warriors. She wants to help them protect others against the swarm. The group agreed to take her, but not all of them think it was wise. They’ve been training with weapons their entire lives, and their skill is superior to hers.
So she trains day and night. Whenever there is a fight, she is out in front; no one can call her a coward. The mark of a great Barock warrior is the stinger of a swarm queen. She’s determined to capture one of her own.
3. The Illusion of Success
By stage three, the heroine has faced great trials and emerged victorious. She feels the thrill of success, and her confidence is bolstered by the applause of others. She has built an impressive, masculine reputation.
But that does not dull her appetite for adventure and victory in masculine pursuits. On the contrary, as soon as she finds success on one quest, she immediately sets out on another. Her victories are never enough, so she tries to do more and more to distract herself. She must maintain the outside validation and applause that makes her feel justified as a person.
Somewhere inside, she begins to realize that something is missing from her life. She feels stretched thin. She looks in the mirror, and isn’t sure she knows the person looking back. Even her victories seem empty. She counsels the great and powerful, but does not feel great and powerful herself.
ExampleMara collects her first queen stinger, and then another, and yet more. In her twentieth year, she destroys an entire swarm with a fire trap, and is hailed as the savior of the town. The Barock remark that she is remarkable despite her Sali upbringing, and she’s given a pass to watch as the High Council deliberates.
But the stingers and praise feel small and trivial to her. They were too long in coming and too hard won. Mara spends her spare time pouring over her battle maps, devising new strategies to try against the swarm. She never stops to rest, because she doesn’t know what she would do with herself if she did. She is nothing without her endless hunt of the swarm.
4. The Descent
In stage four, tragedy strikes. It could be a cataclysm that shakes the world, or a private matter that no one else knows of. Regardless, she is suddenly made aware of what’s really important to her. When her allies come to usher her along on the next adventure, she turns them down.
They tell her she is a coward. Or perhaps that she is selfish, impulsive, or whatever despised quality the masculine attributes to the feminine. But she doesn’t hear them. She is already far away, undergoing her own inner turmoil.
She begins a period of voluntary isolation, descending into a metaphorical cave. There time passes slowly. It’s dark; there are no sights or sounds to distract her. There she searches for herself.
She may have to sift through a maelstrom of emotions. Anger, remorse, and grief may all set upon her. She might be afraid to follow her thoughts and feelings to their conclusion, but she knows she must.
ExampleMara and her warriors are battling against a large swarm that is precariously close to a village. A lookout catches sight of the queen in the distance. There is just the barest of openings to pursue her. Mara takes it, leading a group after the queen.
She succeeds, but on her return, Mara finds her departure opened a breach in the defense. As a result, a nearby Sali settlement was overrun, killing everyone inside. The old memories of being in the Sali come back to her and she weeps over the fallen. She tells her warriors to move on, but she stays to bury every one of them. The Barock think she’s lost her nerve, but they eventually leave. She continues her work alone.
5. Meeting With the Goddess
The heroine begins stage five in her darkest hour. But she is rewarded for her struggle when she encounters the goddess.
The goddess symbolizes the true nature of the feminine, and the best of what the heroine left behind. The goddess imparts a great truth to the heroine about herself and the feminine.
When the heroine parts with the goddess, she feels reborn.
ExampleMara spends weeks burying the fallen. She leaves the destroyed settlement, but does not return to the Barock. Instead she wanders aimlessly.
Then Mara sees an old Sali city, abandoned since the invasion of the Barock long ago. She goes there and walks through what’s left of the ancient Sali temples and streets. Everything is familiar from her childhood, yet greater than it. She is filled with nostalgia and wonder. She remembers the happy days in her Sali settlement, and begins to miss it.
She is perplexed by how open the city is. It has no walls to block out the swarm. The only thing marking the city borders are enormous braziers. She can only conclude that before the Barock came, the Sali did not struggle against the swarm like they do now.
6. Reconciliation With the Feminine
In stage 6, the heroine heads back to the familiar surroundings she left behind. She finds and nurtures her inner child, the part of her left from before she rejected the feminine. She may seek to bond with the mother, and to gain new understanding about her.
She spends her time on simple tasks of a feminine nature. She receives no glory for her toil. Former allies find her and try to convince her to return to the way she was before her descent. Even the mother or others of the feminine may not welcome her back, remembering her rejection of them with bitterness.
But she continues her humble work. She maintains hope that if she continues down the path that feels right to her, she will be redeemed. She waits patiently for improvement.
ExampleMara returns to the settlement she was raised in. They tell her she is not a member of the Sali, because she did not undergo the coming of age rite of their people. But she refuses to go. She sits on their steps and fasts until they allow her to work the land beside them. She speaks with childhood friends, but they hesitate to socialize with her.
Her Barock warriors find her there. They tell her to get herself together and come back with them. She refuses. They warn her there is a swarm that is coming soon. She says she has other, more important work. Slowly, the Sali begin to trust her again. She undergoes the coming of age ceremony she missed.
7. Reincorporation of the Masculine
In stage seven, a crisis erupts in the realm of the feminine. In dealing with this crisis, the heroine once again faces the masculine side of herself, ready to emerge and dominate. She now understands the inner need that the masculine fulfills, and why she lost herself in it before. She recognizes that while the masculine was not her true goal, it was an important part of her journey.
And she refuses to let it take control. Instead, she channels her masculine impulses to positive ends. She solves the crisis with serenity and grace. When it is over, she asks for no rewards.
ExampleThere is a weakness in the wall around the Sali settlement. When the swarm comes it breaks and they leak through. Mara does not have her sword, so she grabs a staff and runs out to fight them. She blocks the opening in the wall, allowing the Sali to fall back and reach safety. She is tempted to continuing fighting, to see if she can outlast the swarm. But the Sali call her to retreat behind the next wall. They will survive without the crops the swarm will destroy. She listens, and retreats.
8. The Union
By stage 8, the heroine has found balance between the feminine and the masculine. But she is not finished until she helps others find that balance as well. She uses her synergy of the feminine and masculine to bring everyone, on either side, together. If they are embattled by a great enemy, her leadership guides them to victory.
If it fits your story, this is also the time to discard your duality altogether. The heroine could reveal that it is false, arbitrary, or destructive.
ExampleWith permission from the Sali leaders, Mara acquires a new set of weapons. They are not flashy, but functional. However, she does not think that simply cutting down the swarm is the answer. The Sali traditionally burn a special incense when the swarm comes, but only inside because it’s not allowed elsewhere. She thinks this incense repels the swarm, and that is how the Sali used to survive before the Barock came. Mara convinces the Barock leaders of the town to try it.
The Sali gather the ingredients for the incense in large quantities, and prepare bonfires. Because there are no large and protected braziers to burn it in, Barock warriors must protect the fires from the swarm when it comes, or the creatures might put them out too quickly to have an effect. The swarm comes, grouping together and rushing at the fires. The warriors stay firm. Soon, the whole area is filled with the fumes from the incense. The swarm weakens and retreats. The town is completely undamaged.
The town leaders mandate the construction of large braziers immediately afterwards. The Sali and Barock design and build them together.
The Union With the Hero’s Journey
If you’re a structure-phile who’s been wondering this whole time whether your story could be both a hero’s and a heroine’s journey, your answer is “yes!” Mara just did it.
Here’s how the stages of these two structures match up:
|Heroine’s Journey||Hero’s Journey|
|Shift From Feminine to Masculine||Ordinary World; Call to Adventure|
|The Road of Trials||Crossing the Threshold; Tests, Allies & Enemies|
|The Illusion of Success||The Approach|
|The Descent||The Ordeal|
|Meeting With the Goddess||The Reward|
|Reconciliation With the Feminine||The Road Back|
|Reincorporation of the Masculine||The Resurrection|
|The Union||The Return with the Elixir|
Because the hero’s journey focuses on external struggle, and the heroine’s journey focuses on internal struggle, they have a lot to offer each other.
Applying the Structure to Your Story
It’s important to remember that the Heroine’s and Hero’s Journeys aren’t recipes that should be followed precisely. Don’t add a literal goddess to your scifi story just because the Heroine’s Journey has a goddess stage. Instead, find a world-appropriate story element that symbolizes truth, and use that. It’s these larger, more general concepts that make the structures strong. Use them to find meaning and inspiration for your story, and bring them out. If breaking the rules of the journey makes your story feel stronger to you, do it.
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