The Hero Cycle #3 – The Return

I’ve reached the last stage of the hero cycle in this series.  It is known as “The Return.” This is where all the people who watched the potential hero answer his call and embark on his journey welcome him home with open arms and shower him with gifts.  Really. That’s what this stage is all about.

I wrote about the initial stages here and here. The whole idea of the hero cycle is a helpful pattern to know if you are writing any kind of story with a journey or transformation of the main character in that it can help you figure out what comes next.

The final stage, the Return, is made up of three steps: the atonement, the return, and gifts.  The atonement is the most difficult to understand, but it helps if you break the word up into its parts, as in at-one-ment.  Often, the hero goes through the tranformation and becomes a hero, but they are a reluctant hero. They don’t really like this new role and are not comfortable in it. The atonement is where they literally become “at one” with the idea of being a hero. They accept their new role and are finally ready to return to their known world. It completes their transformation into a hero.

Throughout the entire quest, the hero has accepted the call, overcome all obstacles, and now, they are finally ready to live the life that awaits them as a hero.  This doesn’t have to be a life of fame or as a world leader. It could be that the hero has just overcome a significant challenge which changes their status in some way within their family or community, and they’re finally accepting of that change.

Harry Potter provides a great example of this.  He goes through the initial stages of the hero cycle repeatedly, but he doesn’t really reach the atonement stage until the later books of the series when he accepts who and what he is.  This actually allows him to accept the ultimate call to overcome Voldemort for the last time. His final return is after the giant battle and Voldemort’s defeat.  It is at this point that he receives his gift which is, of course, the girl!

While many writers employ all the stages of the cycle in their longer works, it is possible to focus on just one stage of the cycle.  Examples of this would be stories like Kate Chopin’s classic “The Story of an Hour” which focuses on “The Call” or Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat” which focuses on the obstacles and challenges.  Both of these are well known examples, but you can probably think of many works which employ either the entire cycle or focus on specific stages of it.

This series has been a very simplified version of the hero cycle, but it hopefully serves as an introduction.  Joseph Campbell wrote extensively about it, and any internet search will turn up numerous resources.   I’d love to hear how this applies to your own works in progress or if it helps you at all in your writing journey.

The Hero Cycle #2 – The Initiation

When we think of “initiations,” we often think of drinking rituals or hazing type situations which somehow solidify a group. In terms of the Hero Cycle, or Hero’s Journey, the “Initiation” is the second major stage. I wrote about the first stage, “The Departure,” here, if you’re interested. This archetypal pattern appears in contemporary fiction, mythology, and film, and as a writer, its useful to understand in terms of plot and character development.

“The Initiation” is also made up of three stages: Challenges and Temptations, The Abyss, and The Transformation. The first two of these stages are pretty self-explanatory. This is the part of the hero’s journey where he is tested to see if he’s really truly a hero.  The first, challenges and temptations, include all of the smaller disasters and problems the hero must overcome. They test him.

In contemporary fiction, we think of these as all the disasters that just make the hero’s situation worse. If you look at a story like The Hunger Games, Katniss follows the hero cycle. She hears the call when her sister’s name is drawn and steps through the threshold when she accepts the challenge in her sister’s place.  Her “helper” would be Haymitch, whom she doubts.  Her journey to the Capital, her struggle to deal with this new world, proving herself in front of the judges, and trying to figure out how to deal with Peeta make up her challenges and temptations.  Because she successfully navigates these, she enters the second stage of “The Initiation,” the abyss.

The abyss is the ultimate challenge. It is where the hero goes through a metaphorical death and re-birth. For Katniss, this is the arena where she must both survive and keep Peeta alive. Her worst moment is when Rue dies, and it is here where she decides that Peeta will not die either. She becomes a hero and begins to engage in the action instead of just trying to hide from it.

The final step of “The Initiation” is the transformation. This is when the hero and the world see the hero as just that, a hero. For Katniss, this begins to happen when she recieves the salve from her sponsors. People start to view her as a hero which helps her to view herself as such. Like Harry Potter or Luke Skywalker, she’s a bit of a reluctant hero, and she doesn’t like the whole idea of being a hero despite the fact that she has transformed into one.

Through this stage, she has undergone her Initiation and become a full-fledged hero. The hero’s final stage is the Return which I will write about next week.