12 Stages of your Character Arc: The Hero’s Journey

Without characters there is no premise for a story. So, we keep bringing you these posts about fortifying your characters so as to make them believable and real for your readers.

We first gave you a lowdown on everything you need to know before you create your paper people. We told you about the A to Z of characterization and then we told you what to do when you have created too many characters in your novel.

Our guest writer, Sreedhevi Iyer writes an exclusive 3-part series for Booksoarus on the Character Arc – the journey your character will go on.

Sreedhevi Iyer was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2011 for her fiction work. She is currently a Fiction Reader for Drunken Boat, one of the oldest electronic journals of the arts. She has an MFA in Asian Writing in English from City University of Hong Kong and will be pursuing her PhD in World Englishes shortly.

Where is the Real Story?

You’ve created this character. He or she is the main person, the protagonist, of your ripping yarn. There’s so much for your protagonist to do, so much to think of, to feel, to execute. There’s the plot in which things happen – but is that where the real story is? Or is it with what happens to your protagonist, what kind of journey he/she goes through, and how the reader is taken along that journey with them, so that they come away feeling more fulfilled, more satisfied with the story?

This is where we hit the all-important character arc. Sure, your main guy will go through some kind of change in the story – because without that, there IS no story – but how do you make it convincing? You already know that a sudden change from a single event does not cut it – that’s not how it really happens in life. It happens far more gradually, in gentle, private ways – but how do you bring that to your writing, and how do you know what your character will go through?

The 12 Stages of your Character Arc

Firstly, we need to start thinking of Joseph Campbell. This guy studied comparative mythology from all around the world, and discovered that all narratives in all cultures contain similar kinds of patterns. There was always this single, storytelling arc, that had existed from very ancient times to today. He put together what he learnt in his highly influential book, The Hero with A Thousand Faces, which was first published in 1949. It speaks of the monomyth, or the journey of the single hero, a universal figure who inhabits a thousand tales, and therefore his thousand faces.

The monomyth contains 12 stages, in which the hero, from his present state, starts on a journey, and ultimately returns to where he originally was, but having changed in some fundamental way, physically or emotionally. These stages are used very prolifically in screenwriting, especially in all the film scripts that Hollywood churns out.

The monomyth also exists in literature, as it exists in all forms of storytelling. It imbues your protagonist’s character arc, although perhaps it might have different labels to the stages – essentially it marks the same milestone in the arc. Christopher Vogler in The Writers Journey talks about the character arc in slightly different terminology, in a way more specific for writers thinking of their character arcs, but the stages are still similar.

For the purposes of this paper, I’ve also used terminology by Allen Palmer, another incredible writing teacher, who discusses Campbell’s Hero’s Journey here.

Enough suspense – the 12 stages we speak of are as follows:

1. Ordinary World – Incomplete
2. Call to Adventure – Unsettled
3. Refusal of the Call
4. Meeting with the Mentor – Encouragement
5. Crossing the first threshold – Commitment
6. Tests, Allies & Enemies – Disorientation
7. The Approach – Inauthenticity
8. The Ordeal – Confrontation
9. Reward – Rebirth
10. Road Back – In Conflict
11. Resurrection- Decisiveness
12. Return with the Elixir – Complete

There’s a reason why it’s called an arc – because these changes don’t happen in a straight line, without resolution – they actually cause the protagonist to return to their initial state, where they first started out from. So the Hero’s Journey, if you were to map it out, actually looks a little like this:

Essentially, the hero inhabits his usual world, or life, and is called on to do something – something that requires him to change in some way. He at first resists this goal, but is encouraged to go on the journey by a mentor, or protective figure. He then makes his first move into the new environment, stepping towards his goal, making a commitment that he cannot back away from.

Once the commitment is made, he undergoes a little test to see if he is capable of the task – he also finds allies and enemies along the way, who both aid and hinder him on his journey. Once he is more confident in his new environment, he approaches the point where he has to confront the flaw that is preventing him from fulfilling the goal.

This ordeal results in the biggest change in the character, resulting in an awareness of the choice the character has to make. The making of the choice is the character’s resurrection – he has risen above his flaw, and has the elixir, or new knowledge, that will help him in his world. Equipped with that, the hero returns to his initial environment, all himself again, but with the added advantage of the knowledge gained from his journey.

***
In Part 2 series Sreedhevi uses examples from two very different cultures and traditions – Shakespeare’s famous play Hamlet and an old Hindi film favourite – Shree 420 to illustrate how the character arc of the protagonist works.

Sreedhevi says, “I pick a centuries-old play and a black and white movie because they easily illustrate the monomyth, however you will also find that many of your favourite books contain the same, if you follow the protagonist’s journey.

Exciting times ahead! Watch this space for Part 2 of the series!

About Lavanya

Lavanya Shanbhogue-Arvind | MBA | Winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Special Prize (2011) | MFA in Creative Writing programme (City University of Hong Kong) | Her literary fiction novel will be published soon by Roli Books.

One thought on “12 Stages of your Character Arc: The Hero’s Journey”

  1. Jeremy

    Thanks for the post. I first came across Joseph Campbell reading Jonah Sachs’ Story Wars. He’s someone anyone working in communications and marketing should be aware of.

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