Character Voice: How to Actually Listen to Your Protagonist

I’m currently taking a writing and blogging sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School.

Here’s the link to this article.

Today’s guest post is by Sarah Bradley. Sarah is a freelance writer, creative writing instructor, and the founder of Pen to Paper Creative Writing Services. You can find her offering instruction for beginning writers on the Pen to Paper blog, posting motivational tips and resources on Facebook, and sharing the inspiration behind her own creative process on Instagram (@pentopaperwriting).

Anyone who has dipped their toes into the world of writing novels knows how crucial character development is to telling strong stories. Plotsetting, and dialogue are necessary building blocks of fiction, but your characters are the foundation that your story is resting on—without dynamic characters, no amount of plot twists, fantastical settings, or authentic dialogue will magically transform into a novel that people want to read.

Character Voice: How to Actually Listen to Your Protagonist

If the success of your novel is in fact riding on the strength of your characters, you need to know who they are, inside and out. More importantly, you need a character with a strong voice, one that can reveal the emotional depths of your story to the reader. That character voice will support your novel—and without it, your story will crumble.

That’s a lot of pressure, for both you and your character. How do you develop a compelling protagonist who can carry your entire story on his or her imaginary back?

The Dizzying World of Character Sketching

When I first started putting my ideas for a novel onto paper, the plot points and setting fell into place somewhat easily. What was more elusive was a sense of familiarity with my protagonist, a young girl who was still grieving a deeply traumatic loss from her childhood. Aside from still being fuzzy on the details of her physical appearance and personality, I felt like I didn’t really know her.

As a creative writing instructor, I knew what my options were. I counsel students all the time on the various writing prompts and exercises that exist to help writers learn more about their characters.

Fill out a character sketch outline! Take your character out to lunch! Put her in an unfamiliar location or time period! Force him to do something normal, like change a tire or go grocery shopping!

The intent behind many of these tactics is meaningful: you can’t really bring a character to life on the page if you have no clear vision of him or her in your head.

But I worried that spending time working out this character’s full rap sheet of qualities wasn’t going to get me any closer to the one thing that was going to help me write this novel: developing her voice.

I was planning on writing a first-person narrative. As a young girl, this character’s perspective on the events of the novel was just as valuable as the events themselves. I didn’t want to assign her a bevy of random character traits. I wanted to hear her.

Let Them Tell You Who They Are

I decided to take a different approach. I tried to imagine myself putting on this character’s persona, the way one might slip into a stranger’s coat or pair of shoes. Then I blocked out all of my preconceived notions about what she looked like, how she behaved, and what she might want.

I forced myself to be quiet and listen to her. Who was she, in her own words? What did she have to say about herself? How did she view the events that had shaped her childhood? Was she funny or serious? Was she self-aware, or innocently naive?

What did she want? Why? How did she plan to get it?

An hour later, I was stunned by what had come out of this simple exercise. This character told me things about herself that I would have never imposed upon her in a traditional character sketching exercise. She was determined. She was strong. But she was also scared, and her fears were constantly threatening to cripple her.

For the first time since the idea for this novel came into existence, I finally knew who this girl really was, because she had told me herself.

Be Quiet and Listen: The Character Monologue Method

Without realizing it, what I had done was write a character monologue. In an effort to simply hear my character speak in her own voice, I had harkened back to the days of Shakespeare and written her a monologue summarizing who she is at the imagined start of my novel.

It was the single best thing I’ve done to kickstart my writing process. Prior to completing the monologue, I was stalling. I had a loose plan for the novel, but where and how did I really get started?

After the monologue, those fears (nearly!) went away. I was reinvigorated—this character was someone I cared deeply about. Her story was worth telling. It was the exact exercise I needed to find my motivation for writing.

Was this a character who could carry my story on her back? Absolutely.

Embrace Your Inner Shakespeare

Maybe you have a story, but no protagonist. Maybe you have a protagonist, but she is as unfamiliar to you as the waitress who served your lunch yesterday. Maybe you think you know who your protagonist is, but you doubt his ability to effectively convey the story you want to tell.

Whatever your scenario is, writing a character monologue could be the answer. It worked well for me as an initiation exercise, but you can create one at any point during your writing process.

Here’s how:

  1. You have to be quiet. This exercise is about giving your character a voice, an opportunity to be heard. Don’t tell him who he is. Let him tell you.
  2. A little bit of play-acting goes a long way. Put yourself in your character’s shoes, but think beyond simply writing in first person. Remember that a monologue is considered dialogue, so this is about more than uncovering your character’s personality. It’s about what she has to say.
  3. Assume that nothing you write will make it into your novel. Just like every other character sketch exercise, this is a chance to write without expectations. Don’t filter or edit or try to write something useful that you can transpose into your novel later. Give your character permission to tell you things he never tells anyone.

When you give your characters the freedom to speak, you might be surprised at what they reveal about themselves. If given the chance, what would your protagonist decide to tell you?

How to Write a Book When You Have No Idea What You’re Doing

I’m currently taking a writing and blogging sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School.

Here’s the link to this article.

How to Write a Book When You Have No Idea What You’re Doing

by Angela Ackerman

I want to write a book.

You remember when this big idea first hit, right? Maybe you were browsing for books, waiting for an author’s autograph, or sitting in stupefied awe after finishing a great novel. The idea took root and then, bam, you’re rushing to a stationary store to gear up, buying all the notebooks, pens, sticky notes, and highlighters you can carry. You browse online for writerly things—a cute laptop sticker or a mug that says, “Writer at Work.” The moment that mug arrives, you’re filling it with something or other, setting it next to your stack of notebooks, and pulling the keyboard closer, because IT’S TIME.

You open a new document. Your hands flutter to the keyboard. This is it—the magic is about to happen.

Onscreen, the cursor blinks. And blinks.

Boy, the page is so white. How did you not notice before? And that infernal flickering cursor… is it just you, or does it seem kind of judge-y?

And that’s when you realize your big idea has a second part to it:

I want to write a book…but I have no idea where to start.

Thankfully, this truth, while inconvenient, doesn’t have to stop any of us from writing. It may seem daunting at first, and doubts might try to sway us (What was I thinking? I can’t do this!), but I’m here to tell you that, yes, you can write a book.

7 Tips for How to Write a Book When You Have No Idea What You’re Doing

Not knowing where to start is a problem countless writers before us have faced and figured out, so if you are feeling a bit lost when it comes to your big dream, these seven things can help you move forward and better yet, jumpstart your writing career.

1. Write

Sure, this seems obvious, but starting can be paralyzing. We worry about committing our ideas to the page because what if they resemble some four-year-old’s Cheerios-and-glue “masterpiece”? Well, guess what? They might, and that’s okay. Great storytelling takes time, and if that didn’t put off Stephen King, Susanne Collins, or Nora Roberts, it shouldn’t stop us, either.

Outlining Your Novel Workbook software logo 228 250

Outlining Your Novel Workbook software

To begin, try dreamzoning. Jot down your ideas, or try outlining the story you envision using one of these methods or this outlining software. Or start with something small, like a short story or scene. At the start, our goal should be getting comfortable with putting words on the page and have fun, not pressuring ourselves into penning the next Game of Thrones.

2. Read and Reread

Reading is so enjoyable we tend to forget how each story is a treasure trove of education on what makes a book good, bad, or off-the-charts great. So read widely, thinking about what makes each story compelling. Look for characters that stand out, story worlds that seem so real you feel part of them, and plots that keep you flipping pages long into the night. Ask yourself questions:

  • What made certain characters larger than life?
  • Did their personalities, complex motives, or a truth they live by pull you to them?
  • What scenes and situations seemed the most real to you?

Studying where you fell under the storyteller’s spell can help you see how you can do the same for your readers.

3. Join a Writing Group

One of the best things you can do at the start of this journey is find others on the writer’s path. A community of writers puts you in touch with those who have the same goal, meaning you can learn from and support one another. Plus, having creatives in your circle helps to keep you accountable, meaning your butt stays in the chair and words get written.

4. Collect a War Chest of Knowledge

We all start with some talent and skill, but to write well we need to train up. Visit Amazon to find writing books with high reviews so you can judge which might be most helpful for your development. Make note of the title or ISBN and order them at your favorite bookstore.

Another way to build your knowledge is by subscribing to helpful writing blogs. Bite-sized learning can be perfect for a time-crunched writer. I recommend exploring Katie’s sidebars because Helping Writers Become Authors is full of storyteller gold. Visit this page on outlining, and this one on story structure because understanding how a story works will help you get your first ideas off the ground so much easier. And the Story Structure Database is a great way to see all this plot and structure information in action.

You should also make learning about characters a priority because they drive the story. Getting to know who the people in our stories are and what makes them tick helps us understand what’s motivating them, and that makes writing their actions and behavior easier. Once you have a better handle on plot and character, turn to other storytelling elements and techniques. There’s so much great stuff to learn!

5. Take a Course or Workshop

Investing in guided or self-guided learning can also kickstart your progress. The community is packed with great teachers. Below are some good options, but first, if you belong to a writing organization, check to see if they offer members classes for free or at a discount.

6. Look For Step-by-Step Help

As any writer will tell you, the road from an idea to a publish-ready novel is a long one, and it’s easy to get lost along the way. It’s no fun when we don’t know what to write next, or we don’t know how to solve a problem in the story. And, if we get too frustrated or our writing stalls for too long, we might end up quitting. Having an expert offer guidance as you write can keep you on track.

Some writers like to partner with a writing coach so they get personal feedback and support as they go. If this is something you might like, here’s a list to start with. A benefit is that you’ll learn a lot about writing as you go, but depending on how long you need coaching for it can get a bit costly. So another option might be the Storyteller’s Roadmap at One Stop for Writers. This roadmap breaks the novel-writing process into three parts: planning, writing, and revising. It has step-by-step instructions on what to do as you go, and points you to tools, resources, and articles that will make the job easier.

The Storyteller’s Roadmap also has built-in solutions for the most common writing problems, so whether you need to overcome Writer’s Block, Impostor’s Syndrome, or stop new ideas from derailing your story, the Code Red section keeps you on track.

7.  Above All Else, Be Fearless

Starting a book can seem like a monumental undertaking, and sometimes with big dreams, we have the tendency to try and talk ourselves out of them. We fear failing, because we think that’s worse than never trying at all. If you feel the passion to write, don’t let fear stop you. The world needs great stories!

Related Posts

About Angela Ackerman

Angela Ackerman is a writing coach, international speaker, and co-author of The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression and its many sequels. Her bestselling writing guides are available in eight languages, and are sourced by U.S. universities, recommended by agents and editors, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, and psychologists around the world. To date, this book collection has sold 750,000 copies. Angela is also the co-founder of the popular site Writers Helping Writers as well as One Stop for Writers, a portal to game-changing tools and resources that enable writers to craft powerful fiction. Come nerd out about writing with her on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

Writing Better Dialogue

I’m currently taking a writing and blogging sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School.

January 12, 2021 by BECCA PUGLISI

Here’s the link to this article.

Have you ever read a book or watched a movie where the dialogue has been so beautifully written that you are in that moment, experiencing the character’s emotions and hanging on to their every word? Or you know exactly what the character is feeling or thinking because of their lack of dialogue? Great dialogue can make stories and characters shine and, in novels, it’s a valuable tool to break away from writing too much internal monologue and a wonderful way to show readers the relationships between your characters and reveal important information. 

Popular culture is full of memorable movie lines that are quoted the world over. See if you can figure out which movies the following lines are from (extra points if you can name the character!):

A/ Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn. 

B/ Here’s looking at you, kid …

C/ Show me the money!

How did you do? A was Gone with the Wind, B Casablanca and C Jerry McGuire. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t know them (as we can’t see every movie ever made!) but chances are you’ve heard at least one. 

Screenwriters are masters of dialogue. They rarely have the opportunity to include a character’s innermost thoughts on the screen so they rely heavily on dialogue to drive the story forward, develop characters and convey a range of emotions. By studying the art of dialogue through reading screenplays and watching movies or TV shows, it will help you develop your own characters and stories.

There’s an array of movie and TV scripts available on the internet for you to read and I recommend you start with the screenplay of one of your favorite movies. I will add that screenplays available on the internet are not pirated, as screenwriters and film production companies often make them available for the public to read after a movie or TV show has been produced. 

When studying dialogue, here are some points for you to consider:

What Isn’t Said

Humans rarely say everything we’re thinking and feeling and neither should your characters. If we’re talking about something that scares us or we’re in danger of being found out or simply too embarrassed to talk about a subject, we change topics or do something that helps us avoid talking about something we don’t want. 

The Coen Brothers are brilliant at holding back dialogue that creates tension so that when a character does speak, we’re mesmerized by their words and really want to know what they have to say. The movie No Country for Old Men is a great example. 

No Two Characters Should Sound the Same

They way in which a character speaks is a culmination of their experience, upbringing and beliefs and no two people should ever sound the same. Listen to the way your friends and family talk. People have favorite words and expressions, some interrupt conversations while others sit quietly and wait until they’re asked a question or think a long time before saying how they feel. Others avoid talking about their emotions all together. Imagine a conversation between a teenager and someone in their mid-forties. They’re likely to use different idioms and expressions the other may not understand.

Look at each of your characters and figure out what kind of person they are. Are they a leader, follower, questioner, peacemaker or a troublemaker? How would this be reflected in the way they speak? Their traits will greatly influence their conversations with others. 

Read the Dialogue Out Loud

The best way to discover if dialogue is working is to read it out loud. You can do it yourself or enlist a friend or family member to be the other character or you can use one of the many available reading programs that will read what’s on the page to you. Does the dialogue sound natural or stilted? Are they using the other character’s name too much in the dialogue (a mistake nearly every writer does!)? Are they too wordy? Remember, most conversations between people are short and simple. Most of us don’t use big words and opt for the simpler version to get our message across. We also don’t speak for great lengths of time without being interrupted and neither should your character. 

Don’t Tell Us Something We Already Know

If an event has happened the reader has been privy to, we don’t need our characters to relate the same event to another character. It could be briefly referenced in a way such as “Like what happened last Thursday” and we’ll instantly know what the character is talking about. If you have information to give the reader or another character, do so in an organic way, just like you would inform a friend in real life. 

Be a Screenwriter for a Day

Try writing an entire scene only with dialogue. Then read through and see how the conversation unfolds. Does it sound realistic? Does it flow like a conversation between real people would? You may find this makes it easier to pinpoint the areas of dialogue that need addressing. Of course, once you’re happy with the dialogue you can add in the inner thoughts and descriptions like you would in the rest of your manuscript. 

Get Creative!

There’s a classic scene in Before Sunrise where the two main characters manage to convey how they feel in dialogue but in a unique way. I won’t elaborate here, as you can watch it unfold in the video below. Are there any ways you can creatively use dialogue in your scenes? 

One of the best screenwriters of our time is Aaron Sorkin. He’s written The West WingSteve JobsThe Social Network and A Few Good Men among other TV shows and movies. He’s a master at dialogue and I highly recommend you read at least one of his screenplays. The website Script Slug gives you access to scripts he has written. You can find it here:

Learning how to write effective dialogue can be one of the most interesting and fun aspects of the craft. What’s your favorite movie or TV show that has great dialogue? 

Alli Sinclair

Resident Writing Coach

Alli is an Australian multi-award winning and bestselling author whose fact-based fiction explores little-known historical events. Alli’s books have been voted into the Top 100 Australian novels of all time and when she’s not writing novels, Alli is working on international film and TV projects as a screenwriter and producer. 
Alli hosts the Writers at Sea cruise retreat for writers, presents writing workshops internationally, and volunteers as a role model for Books in Homes. Alli is an experienced manuscript assessor and loves to work with writers to help their manuscripts shine.
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February 16, 2016

In “Agents”

Writing Backstory Through Dialogue

February 28, 2019

In “Backstory”

Talk Amongst Yourselves: Realistic Dialogue

Saturday was Date Night (woohoo!) and while we were out, I realized a few things. First, I recognized that while going out to eat pre-baby was merely fun, it’s now necessary to my sanity. Secondly, as nice as it was to eat someone else’s cooking, having a real conversation with…September 16, 2008

In “Characters”

Filed Under: CharactersDialogueResident Writing CoachVoiceWriting CraftWriting Lessons


Becca Puglisi is an international speaker, writing coach, and bestselling author of The Emotion Thesaurus and its sequels. Her books are available in five languages, are sourced by US universities, and are used by novelists, screenwriters, editors, and psychologists around the world. She is passionate about learning and sharing her knowledge with others through her Writers Helping Writers blog and via One Stop For Writers—a powerhouse online library created to help writers elevate their storytelling. You can find Becca online at both of these spots, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

Deep Dive: Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey”

I’m currently taking a writing and blogging sabbatical due to family health issues. For now, I’ll repost selected articles from my Fiction Writing School.

Hannah Yang

Speculative Fiction Author

Published Aug 10, 2021

Joseph Campbell's Hero's Journey

What do Star Wars, the legend of Prometheus, and the epic tale Beowulf have in common? They all follow the stages of Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey.

Whether you’re working on a novel or a short story, you can use the hero’s journey to plot and outline your work. If you’re new to the hero’s journey, start with our guide to using the hero’s journey as the backbone for your story.

The hero’s journey is so commonly used that it’s become an important narrative structure for any writer to understand. However, the idea that the hero’s journey is truly a “monomyth” is actually a myth of its own.

Understanding this narrative structure is important if you want to use it in your stories—but it’s also important if you want to subvert it and create something new.

Read on to see an analysis into how Joseph Campbell came up with the concept of the hero’s journey, as well as the common counterarguments to this well-known literary archetype.


  1. What Is Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey?
  2. How Did Joseph Campbell Develop the Concept of the Hero’s Journey?
  3. What Are the Three Stages of the Hero’s Journey?
  4. What Were the Original Seventeen Steps of the Hero’s Journey?
  5. What Are the Counterarguments to Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey?
  6. How Can You Use the Hero’s Journey in Your Writing Without Making Your Story Feel Formulaic?

What Is Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey?

The hero’s journey is an archetypal narrative structure found in stories from cultures all over the world. Because it’s such a universal narrative structure, the hero’s journey is also known as the “monomyth”—the single great story with many variations.

The term was coined by Joseph Campbell, an American writer and editor who was fascinated by myths from various cultures and literary traditions. He noticed that many heroic stories follow the same narrative stages, no matter which culture or time period they come from.

Since 1949, countless stories have used the hero’s journey archetype, from George Lucas’s Star Wars to Disney’s The Lion King.

How Did Joseph Campbell Develop the Concept of the Hero’s Journey?

Joseph Campbell was born in New York City in 1904. As a child, he took frequent trips to Buffalo Bill’s Wild West exhibition and to the American Museum of Natural History, where he became fascinated by the Native American exhibits.

He began noticing parallels between stories from the Christian Bible and stories from Native American religions, which made him wonder whether other mythologies might also share those commonalities.

As an adult, Campbell studied English literature at Columbia University. He read and analyzed classic religious and mythological texts, such as those of the Buddha, Moses, Mohammed, Jesus, and countless others. Over time, he became convinced that mythologies worldwide have many similarities, and that they shared a universal narrative backbone—a “monomyth.”

Well know myths that use the hero's journey

Besides studying classic stories, Campbell also studied the work of early 20th-century analytical psychologists. In particular, he became fascinated with the work of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. This was crucial to the development of the hero’s journey, as the transformative aspect of the structure closely resembles Jung’s theory of death and rebirth.

Campbell first coined the term “hero’s journey” in 1949, in his comparative mythology book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which was later adapted into the TV show The Power of Myth. In this book, Campbell outlined the hero’s journey in three basic stages and seventeen detailed steps.

He wrote and edited many other texts on comparative mythology and storytelling. Aside from The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), his other major works include Myths and Symbols in Indian Art and Civilization (1946), The King and the Corpse (1948), Philosophies of India (1951), The Masks of God (1959–68), and The Power of Myth (1988).

Joseph's Campbell's works

What Are the Three Stages of the Hero’s Journey?

In its simplest form, the hero’s journey can be described in three stages: departure, initiation, and return.

  1. Departure: the hero leaves his home community to go on a quest.
  2. Initiation: the hero faces trials and tribulations until he achieves victory on his quest.
  3. Return: the hero goes home to his community with gifts and boons.

This is how Joseph Campbell summarized the hero’s journey in The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949):

“A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.”

Consider Star Wars, one of the most commonly cited examples of the hero’s journey.

In the departure stage, Luke Skywalker leaves his home planet of Tatooine with the goal of helping the rebellion defeat the Galactic Empire.

In the initiation stage, Luke undergoes various trials and tribulations on his heroic journey. He trains with Obi-Wan Kenobi to learn how to use the Force, rescues Princess Leia from the Death Star, and retrieves the Death Star plans and delivers them to the rebellion base. At last, he finally uses the Force to destroy the Death Star, fulfilling the purpose of his quest.

Finally, in the return stage, Luke returns to the rebellion base and wins a medal to commemorate his victory. He has helped his home world defeat the oppressive empire and gets to live as a hero.

The three stages of the hero's journey

What Were the Original Seventeen Steps of the Hero’s Journey?

In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell outlined seventeen detailed steps of the hero’s journey.

These seventeen steps were later simplified to twelve steps by Christopher Vogler, a successful Hollywood consultant, in his book The Writer’s Journey (1992). These twelve steps are more commonly studied by writers today, since they’re easier to learn and remember than Campbell’s seventeen steps.

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Here is Campbell’s original hero’s journey structure:

Stage 1: Departure

  1. Call to Adventure: The hero receives an invitation to go on a quest.
  2. Refusal of the Call: At first, the hero hesitates to accept the invitation, either because the journey is too dangerous, or because they have other obligations at home.
  3. Supernatural Aid: Someone the hero looks up to inspires them to accept the call to adventure, or gives them tools that will help them on their quest.
  4. Crossing the Threshold: The hero begins their quest and leaves the ordinary world and their everyday life.
  5. Belly of the Whale: The hero encounters the first real danger in their quest, and wonders whether or not to turn back—but ultimately pushes forward.

Stage 2: Initiation

  1. Road of Trials: The hero undergoes several trials and learns from their mistakes.
  2. Meeting With the Goddess: The hero meets a mentor figure or ally, who offers help or advice.
  3. Woman as Temptress: The hero encounters temptations that threaten to steer them away from their heroic journey, which they must nobly avoid.
  4. Atonement with the Father: The hero undergoes a personal metamorphosis by confronting an aspect of their own character that has been preventing them from achieving success, such as their own fear, greed, or self-doubt.
  5. Apotheosis: The hero transforms into a better person, and goes forward with new insight and clarity on what they must do to win.
  6. Ultimate Boon: The hero achieves victory in their quest.

Stage 3: Return

  1. Refusal of Return: At first, the hero is reluctant to go back to the familiar world after their exciting journey and transformation.
  2. Magic Flight: Even though the hero has achieved victory on their quest, they still face dangers as they try to return home.
  3. Rescue from Without: An outside ally or mentor helps guide the hero safely home.
  4. Crossing the Return Threshold: The hero returns to the familiar world, and tries to adjust to their old life.
  5. Master of Two Worlds: The hero finds a balance between their home life and the person they become on their quest.
  6. Freedom to Live: The hero gets used to their normal life and lives peacefully.
The 17 Steps of the Hero's Journey

What Are the Counterarguments to Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey?

In the past seventy years, many writers and editors have criticized Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. After all, Campbell lived in a society that strongly valued heroic individualism, and his theories were a product of his time. Our society has evolved since 1949, but the hero’s journey archetype has failed to evolve with it. 

One of the most common criticisms of the hero’s journey is that it reduces the world to simple binaries: good and evil, victory and failure. If all stories followed the hero’s journey, writers wouldn’t be able to express a nuanced perspective of the world.

Simple binary examples

Another criticism is that the hero’s journey favors male protagonists, a tale about a hero leaving home to seek adventure in the outside world. In contrast, stories about women often involve looking inward, instead of looking outward, because of the domestic roles that women have traditionally been expected to fulfill.

The concept of the “heroine’s journey,” also known as the female hero’s journey, was developed in 1990 by Maureen Murdock, a psychotherapist and a student of Joseph Campbell, in her book The Heroine’s Journey: Woman’s Quest for Wholeness.

Murdock wrote:

“The feminine journey is about going down deep into soul, healing and reclaiming, while the masculine journey is up and out, to spirit.” 

The Hero's journey versus the Heroine's Journey

Similarly, stories about people of color or marginalized groups within our society sometimes follow different story archetypes. Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey focuses on an individual hero, rather than a broader social context.

Stories about marginalized groups might center on communities reacting to oppression and navigating the rules set by the majority, instead of highlighting a single individual who proactively seeks adventure.

How Can You Use the Hero’s Journey in Your Writing Without Making Your Story Feel Formulaic?

There’s nothing wrong with using the hero’s journey in your own work. After all, it’s been spectacularly successful for thousands of years—there’s a timeless appeal to this story of adventure and spiritual transformation.

However, the hero’s journey can be a useful tool even if you don’t use it the way Joseph Campbell originally intended. Readers who recognize these classic tropes can appreciate an unexpected twist. Innovative literary fiction often plays with traditional narrative structures in new ways.

Many writers have subverted the hero’s journey archetype to better reflect the stories they want to tell. For example, you can follow the hero’s journey throughout the first two stages, then withhold the hero’s victory in the third stage.

Maybe the protagonist realizes they needed something else all along, rather than victory in their quest. Or maybe the story comes full circle and returns the protagonist back to where they started.   Ideas for subverting the hero's journey

For more ideas, check out Steve Seager’s article on how to design a narrative more fitting to our contemporary context.

If it fits the needs of your story, consider changing up the hero’s journey in your own writing. You can build on Joseph Campbell’s time-honored literary tradition while also adding new twists of your own.