First Draft: Break Tired Screenwriting Conventions By Embracing the Heroine’s – Not Hero’s – Journey

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In partnership with Creative Screenwriting and ScreenCraft, “First Draft” is a series on everything to do with screenwriting.


Katniss. Moana. Rey. Jyn. Wonder Woman. The age of the heroine is now flourishing.

Many of us grew up in a time where a strong female character leading a big cinematic story was nothing more than an anomaly. Back in the day, we had Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley—that was all.

Hollywood was stuck in the constant regurgitation of The Hero’s Journey—the mythic structure of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. For decades, screenwriters have obsessively bowed down to his writings, as well as The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers, Christopher Vogler’s celebrated companion piece that took Campbell’s monomyth declarations and applied them specifically to cinematic storytelling.

Such structure, concepts and breakdowns can apply successfully to some outstanding films, but “the times they are a changin’.”

What most people overlook is that Campbell’s monomyth best emphasizes characteristics and values found strictly in male characters. In fact, in Campbell’s framework for The Hero’s Journey, he details only two roles for women. The first—“The Meeting with the Goddess”—references the woman as the love interest or as some sort of maternal divinity role. The second—“Woman as Temptress”—references the woman as a character that temps the hero, usually in lusty fashion.

This doesn’t jive well with these contemporary times, does it?

Top to bottom, L-R: The Hunger Games‘ Katniss Everdeen, Moana, Star Wars: The Force Awakens‘ Rey, Rogue One‘s Jyn, Wonder Woman and Imperator Furiosa in Mad Max: Fury Road

For years Hollywood has struggled with developing strong female roles that are at the forefront of tentpole features. Even the seemingly critically bulletproof Marvel Cinematic Universe has still yet to feature a stand alone film for one of the its most beloved and ever-present characters—the Black Widow.

Thankfully, female lead roles are becoming more and more prevalent outside of the romantic comedy genre. The reason behind this is the ever-progressing nature of our society.

You see, Campbell based his mythic stages primarily on history. The times he looked back to were some of the most sexist eras of mankind’s past where women were either the subjects of man—mothers, daughters, lovers—or were the temptresses of them. Women weren’t allowed to fight. They weren’t allowed to go on dangerous journeys. Even as recent as the twentieth century—the 1950s in particular—women had the expectation of being a subservient to their male counterparts.

Thus, Joseph Campbell’s vision was always emulating the past. That time has come and gone as The Heroine’s Journey has proven to always look to the future in terms of progress in society—specifically towards the role that women play.

The Differences Between The Hero’s Journey and The Heroine’s Journey

“Women don’t need to make the journey. In the whole mythological journey, the woman is there. All she has to do is realize that she’s the place that people are trying to get to.”

Joseph Campbell himself told this to Maureen Murdock, the woman who would later create the stages we now know as the (somewhat official) Heroine’s Journey. It’s clear that Campbell was ignorant to the times that were possible—and soon on the horizon.

Murdock later described her own model in The Heroine’s Journey: Woman’s Quest for Wholeness, which is divided into 10 stages. We’ll use the recent acclaimed film Wonder Woman as an example for each.

  1. Separation from the Feminine—Often a mother or prescribed feminine role. Diana (Wonder Woman), the princess, wishes to become a warrior. However, her mother, the Queen, initially forbids her to.
  2. Identification with the Masculine and Gathering of Allies—Often entails choosing a path that is different than the role prescribed for her, deciding to gear to”fight” an organization, role, or group that is limiting or entering some male/masculine-defined sphere. Diana finds a World War I pilot after he crash lands near her island. This is the first time she has seen a man and she quickly gathers an ally in him after she learns that a great war is raging, killing millions of innocents.
  3. Road or Trials and Meeting the Ogres and Dragons—Heroine encounters trials and meets people who try to dissuade her from pursuing her chosen path and/or destroy her (ogres and dragons or their metaphorical counterparts). Diana ventures on the strange “road” through the civilized world of mankind. She wishes to go to the front of the war, but man after man opposes her doing so.
  4. Experiencing the Boon of Success—The Heroine overcomes obstacles. In The Hero’s Journey, this is normally where the hero’s tale ends. Diana proves herself in battle, showcasing her skills and powers that are above and beyond any man present.
  5. Heroine Awakens to Feelings of Spiritual Aridity/DeathSuccess in this new way of life is either temporary, illusory, shallow, or requires a betrayal of self over time. Diana can not understand the reluctance on mankind’s part to saving the innocent and ending the war. Steve, the World War I pilot and her ally, is focused on completing the mission at hand of getting the secret gas plans to his superiors. Diana wants to stop the mythical Ares from waging war.
  6.  Initiation and Descent to the GoddessThe heroine faces a crisis of some sort in which the new way is insufficient and falls into despair. All of her “masculine” strategies have failed her. Despite her efforts and powers, many are killed by deadly German gases. Diana is heartbroken.
  7.  Heroine Urgently Yearns to Reconnect with the Feminine—The heroine cannot go back to her initial limited state or position. Diana kills Ludendorff, but the war does not stop. She loses faith in the goodness of man and is perhaps ready to give up and fall back to her Amazon women beliefs that she was brought up with.
  8.  Heroine Heals the Mother/Daughter Split—The heroine reclaims some of her initial values, skills or attributes but views them from a new perspective. Diana reclaims her vision as Ares reveals himself finally. Her true powers are then unleashed, showcasing what her mother always knew. 
  9.  Heroine Heals the Wounded Masculine Within—Heroine makes peace with the “masculine” approach to the world as it applies to herself. Diana says goodbye to Steve and realizes that while mankind is flawed, it is worth fighting for.
  10.  Heroine Integrates the Masculine and Feminine—She faces the world or future with a new understanding of herself and the world/life. Heroine sees through binaries and can interact with a complex world that includes her but is larger than her personal lifetime or geographical/cultural milieu. Diana accepts her role. She will fight for justice and for mankind. This leads to the time leading up to and through the events of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and beyond.

And then we go back to The Hero’s Journey and Vogler’s own breakdowns…

  1.  The Ordinary World—The hero, uneasy, uncomfortable or unaware, is introduced sympathetically so the audience can identify with the situation or dilemma. The hero is shown against a background of environment, heredity, and personal history. Some kind of polarity in the hero’s life is pulling in different directions and causing stress.
  2. The Call to Adventure—Something shakes up the situation, either from external pressures or from something rising up from deep within, so the hero must face the beginnings of change.
  3. Refusal of the Call—The hero feels the fear of the unknown and tries to turn away from the adventure, however briefly. Alternately, another character may express the uncertainty and danger ahead.
  4. Meeting with the Mentor—The hero comes across a seasoned traveler of the worlds who gives him or her training, equipment, or advice that will help on the journey. Or the hero reaches within to a source of courage and wisdom.
  5. Crossing the Threshold—At the end of Act One, the hero commits to leaving the Ordinary World and entering a new region or condition with unfamiliar rules and values.
  6. Tests, Allies and Enemies—The hero is tested and sorts out allegiances in the Special World.
  7. Approach—The hero and newfound allies prepare for the major challenge in the Special World.
  8. The Ordeal—Near the middle of the story, the hero enters a central space in the Special World and confronts death or faces his or her greatest fear. Out of the moment of death comes a new life.
  9. The Reward—The hero takes possession of the treasure won by facing death. There may be celebration, but there is also danger of losing the treasure again.
  10. The Road Back—About three-fourths of the way through the story, the hero is driven to complete the adventure, leaving the Special World to be sure the treasure is brought home. Often a chase scene signals the urgency and danger of the mission.
  11. The Resurrection—At the climax, the hero is severely tested once more on the threshold of home. He or she is purified by a last sacrifice, another moment of death and rebirth, but on a higher and more complete level. By the hero’s action, the polarities that were in conflict at the beginning are finally resolved.
  12. Return with the Elixir—The hero returns home or continues the journey, bearing some element of the treasure that has the power to transform the world as the hero has been transformed.

You’ll see many similarities between the two, but as mentioned before, The Heroine’s Journey is centered on moving forward, with the female trying to bridge the gap between male and female roles while The Hero’s Journey is often much more about personal glory and achieving victory in the end. The Hero already has power as a man. The Heroine battles not only the conflicts at hand within the story, but is also dealing with the prejudice of being a woman.

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1 Comment

  1. Mark Davitian

    June 22, 2017 at 11:49 am

    I can understand why Hollywood has such a difficult time bringing heroines to the big screen. As a movie lover, I enjoy watching the female take charge and save the day but it’s so hard to create that perfect female role. When it comes to the characters listed above, they each bring something different to the table: Moana represents a woman’s sense of adventure, Katniss represents a woman’s will to fight for what she believes in, and Wonder Woman represents a woman’s true strength (both inner and outer) as well as her never-ending courage. Creating meaningful female characters like them is extremely difficult, that’s why flooding the movie screen with so many female heroes would lessen their value as strong role models.

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