Posted by: steveonfilm | February 20, 2009

Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces Method: A Minor In Grand Theft

Joseph Campbell wrote a book titled The Hero with a Thousand Faces in 1949. In it, Campbell examines the many structural similarities that many myths throughout history seem to share. The culmination of this examination is a twelve step process that can be used to adapt most stories.

After it’s publication, the twelve step process outlined in The Hero with a Thousand Faces became a very popular method for screenwriters in Hollywood to follow. For a short time it was the de facto method that many writers and studios operated within.

George Lucas uses this method heavily when creating the overall story for Star Wars.

The Hero with a Thousand Faces is also credited, thanks to a memo written by Christopher Vogler, as a major influence on the films Aladdin, The Lion King, and Beauty and the Beast.

Here is how the The Hero with a Thousand Faces Method works:

1. THE ORDINARY WORLD
A myth begins with the hero in his own element.

2. THE CALL TO ADVENTURE
A problem or challenge is presented that will unsettle the ordinary world of the protagonist.

3. THE RELUCTANT HERO
The hero balks at the edge of adventure. He faces his fears concerning the unknown.

4. THE WISE OLD MAN
The hero acquires a mentor, who helps the hero make the right decision, but the hero must undertake the quest alone.

5. INTO THE SPECIAL WORLD
The hero makes the decision to undertake the adventure and laves his own familiar world behind, to enter a special world of problems and challenges.

6. TEST, ALLIES & ENEMIES
The hero confronts allies of his opponent, as well as his own weaknesses, and takes action while dealing with the consequences of his action.

7. THE INMOST CAVE
The hero enters the place of greatest danger, the world of the antagonist.

8. THE SUPREME ORDEAL
The dark moment occurs. The hero must face a crucial failure, an apparent defeat, out of which he will achieve the wisdom or ability to succeed in the end.

9. SEIZING THE SWORD
The hero gains power. With his new knowledge or greater capability, her can now defeat the hostile forces of the antagonist.

10. THE ROAD BLOCK
The hero returns to the ordinary world. There are still dangers and problems as the antagonist or his allies pursue the hero and try to prevent his escape.

11. RESURRECTION
The hero is spiritually or literally reborn and purified by his ordeal as he approaches the threshold of the ordinary world.

12. RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR
The hero returns to the ordinary world with the treasure that will heal his world and restore the balance which was lost.

You could argue that parts 1-3 could be lumped into Act One, parts 4-9 into Act Two, and parts 10-12 into Act Three, but outside of that, you can see how much this method differs from Syd Fields method. It’s drastically more retrictive, though the pacing is deliberately laid out, and events are structured so you need only fill in the blanks.

Now lets see how A Minor In Grand Theft might look using The Hero with a Thousand Faces method.

1. THE ORDINARY WORLD
The first bank heist goes off without a hitch. We meet Ryan and his crew, see how well they work together, and the simplicity of their arrangements.

2. THE CALL TO ADVENTURE
Ryan’s brother is very sick, and his mother can’t afford the mounting medical debt. Ryan uses the heist money to pay it off. However, it’s not enough. If the hospital doesn’t get another 40 grand in two weeks they’ll stop treating his brother.

3. THE RELUCTANT HERO
Ryan knows the only way to come up with the money is another heist. But its too risky to try another one so soon. His attempts to secure the money another way comes up empty.

4. THE WISE OLD MAN
Ryan visits an old friend of his father’s, Marcus. Marcus helps Ryan get over his fear, and accept that he’s a bank robber, that’s what he does, and he’ll keep doing it until the day he’s caught.

5. INTO THE SPECIAL WORLD
Ryan convinces the gang to take on another job. It goes off without a hitch, but the take is much larger than they expected. What he doesn’t know is that they just robbed a mob bank.

6. TEST, ALLIES & ENEMIES
Captured by the mob, Ryan is told to pay them back he’s going to be forced to rob banks for them. Big banks. Much bigger than he’d been hitting. When the stakes are laid out (they cooperate, or the mob kills them), Ryan’s gang has no choice but to help.

7. THE INMOST CAVE
Ryan’s crew nails the first bank, just as the mob ordered, and delivers the take to their mansion. He’s given the 40 thousand to pay the hospital, and told to come back tomorrow to get their next target.

8. THE SUPREME ORDEAL
Ryan is car jacked and his money is stolen along with the car. He returns to his mother and brother to find that their debt has been paid, by Marcus.

9. SEIZING THE SWORD
Marcus tells Ryan he can’t keep working for the mob, they’re going to kill him, kill his friends, and kill his family when they’re done with him. He says there is only one way to get out of this, go to the Feds.

10. THE ROAD BLOCK
The Feds agree to keep Ryan safe if he helps them with a sting on the mob. A con job is set up to nail the mob. He has to set things up so none of his gang or the mob get wise to the sting.

11. RESURRECTION
The sting goes tits up. The mob goes after Ryan’s family, and he and the Feds race to save them. They do and the mob is captured and/or killed.

12. RETURN WITH THE ELIXIR
The Feds help put Ryan’s brother in a specialty treatment center, and he’s able to begin start a new life void of crime.

You can see how the story shapes up in roughly the same manner as it does using the paradigm, but forces more defined story beats. It’s not as flexible as the paradigm is, but can be beneficial for writers who have trouble filling in the blanks between the main beats and plot points.

Bottom line, this method can be a useful tool to examine a possible foundation that a writer can build a story off of. It doesn’t need to be the formal structure a writer stays with, but as an exercise it can start helping them think in the direction they need to go into structurally.

Enjoy.
-Steve

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Responses

  1. Lol. I have to laugh when I read the first part of this because The Hero’s Journey is still, in most instances, the de facto way to write something for film. Every hero must leave their normal world, venture outside of it and into uncharted waters, and find what compels them, only to come back to their old world, forever changed. It is good you have found this and you are certainly on the write track. I like to see the research you are doing and how it all applies to your writing. Doing a wonderful job. Great growth overall. Keep it up, I wanna see more!

    • Yeah, for a lot of people this isn’t exactly ground breaking stuff here for anyone who’s studied film, or read a few screenwriting books.

      But I write the blog with the assumption the audience doesn’t know anything about screenwriting.

      At any rate, I’m all for an artist talking through his or her creative process for the sake of other artists. I think its the best way for the artists in any given medium to move forward.

      That’s really what I’m trying to show. How I play with a few things as I try to craft my story.

  2. […] start with the frame work that Campbell defined (for more info see this post), but in a more genre agnostic manner. In other words, I don’t frame it with the standard 12 […]

  3. […] the Father,” and “The Crossing of the Return Threshold,” to name a few.  This site lists all the steps in more detail and how they can be applied to screenplays.  The House Theatre […]


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