by Laurie Schnebly Campbell
Ever since Joseph Campbell observed that the world’s great legends all contain 12 steps a hero must take to grow and triumph, writers have enjoyed using that structure as a storytelling tool.
It’s a perfectly good structure for tales of adventure, and Christopher Vogler made it even more useful with The Hero’s Journey. But what happens when a character ISN’T going out to fight dragons, discover lost continents, or battle evil warlords?
That’s the question raised by a lot of authors writing about characters whose story doesn’t require daredevil action as a way of showing tremendous courage.
There’s something lacking in the 12-step structure if, for example, declining Aunt Martha’s offer to host a baby shower, or wearing the red-brimmed hat, or deciding to read that forbidden book DOESN’T equal heroic strength.
That’s why screenwriter Kim Hudson created a 13-step version which even Vogler said is a great parallel to the hero’s journey. It could be called the heroine’s journey, but since it works equally well for young men who haven’t yet experienced a great deal of what life has to offer, she called it The Virgin’s Promise.
Nope. What matters is that, if you’re writing about ANY character who’s going to follow a major internal journey (with possibly some external hurdles along the way), your story can be every bit as compelling as those full of swashbuckling adventure even though it stars a less swashbuckling type of person.
Often the greatest challenges faced by these characters -- let’s call ‘em heroines -- are the kind that real-life people (yes, like us!) face every day.
“My sister keeps joking that I married the wrong man.”
“My boss always says I need to widen my focus.”
“The kids don’t think my writing is important.”
“I’d love to branch out, but where would I ever find the time?”
We’ve all hidden our light, now and then. We’ve gotten used to putting others before ourselves. We’ve given in when we really wanted a different outcome. We’ve let somebody else determine how we behave.
So we understand what such characters might need to overcome, and we’d love to see them do it.
A heroine embarking on the 13-step journey is going to emerge as a better, wiser, stronger, happier, and (due to the struggle) also a slightly more dented version of her original self.
She’s going to take risks that yield joyous rewards, and some that result in painful failures. She’s not always going to believe in herself.
Sometimes she’ll falter. Sometimes she’ll crumple. And sometimes she’ll shine.
She’ll inevitably run into barriers -- problems that come not so much from dragons or pirates or brigands as from her friends. Her neighbors. Her family.
They might care for her deeply and wish her all the best, but they’re not seeing her as the complete person she COULD be. All they see is what they want her to be, and if she isn’t living up to those expectations?
What makes such a heroine all the more impressive is how she copes in the face of these setbacks. It’s hard to move past the dreams and desires of people she cares about, especially when that isn’t something she’s been taught to do throughout her life. Becoming her own best self is often a pretty solitary journey, and not one she undertakes with giddy optimism.
Even if she feels good about whatever journey she’s embarking on, of course she won’t triumph immediately -- otherwise we wouldn’t have much to read about. No, she has to go through trials different from the Hero’s Journey, with her 13 steps including:
We see women brightening their kingdom all the time, whether or not they’re starring in a novel. Heck, you’ve probably done it yourself...
Having a wonderful meeting with a publisher and taking mental notes to share with your friend who wanted to be there. Or volunteering for a project that expands in scope but persevering all the way through completion. Or making sure to share credit with those who played a part in some triumph you’ve just achieved.
Women are great at such things.
Men can be wonderfully generous as well, as we’ve seen from many a hero, but women seem to have a more instinctive knack for noticing how other people feel about things and then seeing how they can make things better.
Which is why, all too often, real-life and fictional heroines do such a good job of caring for others that they neglect their own best interests, staying confined within the limits that society or family or friends have set for them. Until they recognize the down-side of such a situation...which is where their story begins.
We'll explore that in more detail next month at my WriterUniv.com class on “The Hero's Journey, For Heroines,” but meanwhile I'd love to hear some real-life examples.
If you’ve ever managed to go beyond the limits that other people set for you, could you say what you did? Regardless of the courage involved, whether it involved a quick adjustment or a life-changing event, somebody who comments will win free registration to the September class!
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After winning Romantic Times’ “Best Special Edition of the Year” over Nora Roberts, Laurie Schnebly Campbell discovered she loved teaching every bit as much as writing...if not more. Since then she’s taught online and live workshops for writers from London and Los Angeles to New Zealand and New York, and keeps a special section of her bookshelves for people who’ve developed that particular novel in her classes. With 48 titles there so far, she’s always hoping for more.
Top Image by Foundry Co from Pixabay.
Copyright © 2023 Writers In The Storm - All Rights Reserved
Great post! My beyond the limits story: I didn't learn to read until quite late. A teacher told my parents that I would be lucky to graduate high school and this became a belief in my family. I overcame this prediction by earning a Master's degree and, in addition, read in several foreign languages including ones with different alphabets such as Russian and Persian.
ltrovi - I LOVE this story!!
Wow, talk about a triumph! Not only surpassing low expectations, not just meeting the traditional expectations, but going well beyond THOSE is a very heroic journey. And it's odd that in almost every book I've seen where a character overcomes reading difficulties, they're a man rather than a woman...which makes it all the more noteworthy.
Loved this, Laurie. Heroines have come out on top of their inner journeys are my favorite kind of stories. As for me, you might say I shine when it comes to taking on a you-can't limits challenges.LOL There have been many. First I swallowed was my parents belief I'd never get a college degree if I married in my teens. I managed a bachelor's and a master's.
Judythe, what a perfect illustration of limits set by people who (presumably) have the heroine's best interests in mind...it can be a lot tougher to consciously surpass parental beliefs than those of some faceless bureaucracy, And whether or not you got support from your husband through the process, your own individual desire to succeed is what got you started on that fabulous journey!
The first time I made a speech was quite a challenge. It got easier after that.
I love Irtrovi's story. What an accomplishment!
Paula, there you go -- the story of a heroine's journey can easily be about something like giving her first speech. (Or maybe her 14th, depending on how many obstacles she needs to hurdle in order to finally surmount that challenge.) And, boy, if you ever DID use that challenge in a book, can't you imagine how many people would be resonating with this heroine?
My parents offered advice, but never set limits.
Terry, that might explain why your books focus so well on external "bad guys" -- you've always gotten the belief that you can succeed in whatever you set your mind to. And that's an especially handy thing for a heroine who's facing enormous challenges in a world where the danger comes more from the outside than from self-doubt...although if BOTH are present, look out! 🙂
I've been fairly fortunate, in that I generally had guidance and encouragement rather than arbitrary limits; I think most of my challenges involve going beyond the limits I've set for myself. Probably the big one for me -- and I'm not describing it very well, because it involved a number of things including a divorce -- was a point where I moved back home, picked up a couple of IT certifications, and started a career in technology. That was... not the direction any of us expected, but it turned out for the better.
Michael, you described that VERY well. The feeling of being jarred loose from previously solid moorings, no matter how unpleasant they might've been, is often enough to keep a character from taking on a new challenge. So the fact that you DID is absolutely the kind of journey we're talking about here -- working up the courage to decide "I don't have to stay stuck. I can change things." Yes!
My big moment was leaving the marital nest, and a narcissistic husband, after twenty five years in order to fulfil my dream of writing.
Glenda, way to go on managing a change like that after twenty-five years! It's one thing to do it after a year or two, but when the confining situation has gone on for such a long time, it's all the more of a struggle to actually upset the balance and switch to a whole different path. And the fact that your journey includes writing naturally makes the new path that much more wonderful! 🙂
I love the idea that going beyond the limits can be a quick adjustment, and not just a life-changing event. One for me was taking my last semester of college off to take care of a family member. I'd had everything planned out, but when the situation came, I didn't hesitate to change it. I ended up going back the next semester to finish and it didn't affect my life negatively at all, so it shows that unexpected change isn't always bad.
Amanda, you're SO right about either duration working well for a triumph. While in real life you knew immediately what you wanted to do, in fiction your character would be troubled by doubts -- what if I can't make it back? What if I'm not really needed here? What if this lasts until I'm 52? -- all of which count as obstacles in that heroine's journey. Either way, I'm glad yours turned out so well!
My parents not only never encouraged beyond-basic education, they scoffed when I went back to high school to get my diploma. They said I'd never do it. So of course, I did it with honors. Then I took night classes at college while working and raising two boys as a single parent.
Tell me I can't do something and I'll bend over backwards to prove you wrong.
That class you mentioned sounds interesting. Thanks for the great post!
Carolyn, that's the kind of gumption which can make a heroine's INTERNAL journey a whole lot easier! It sounds like you knew, right from the start, that you weren't going to let anyone set limits for you and opposition only made you stronger...which works beautifully in real life, and can make it harder to create challenges for a fictional heroine. 🙂 But your real-life success is a fabulous triumph!
Shaking off imposed limits and expectations is quite often a quiet journey that goes unnoticed by most. It's the internal struggle that is epic and unseen, much like some illnesses are scoffed at because they're invisible. If limits are placed with care in childhood they become a box. I started opening my box when I returned to school in my 30s. Strange thing about fighting your way out of a box. What you discover when you emerge might be unexpected. I went to school for a business degree (yes, the one they tried to push on me when I was younger). I graduated in '96 with that degree, but also with an awakening.
Awakenings can bring consequences. In 2006 that was a divorce from the partner who couldn't abide changes. In 2009 that was a misdiagnosed ailment that put me in the ICU in 2010 with Chronic Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis, an autoimmune lung disease (yes, I'm still in lockdown). I lost part of my lungs and all my savings. During my seven years fighting my way back I discovered my writer self. Hooked to an oxygen tank in 2011, I began dabbling in the writing I'd so long ignored because it didn't fit in that box created so long ago. It was the writing my instructors told me at the university I should be pursuing. In 2014 I published a book of poetry and started a blog. The next year I began overhauling my writing, learning more about, well, everything, especially writing in Deep 3rd. I also learned to finish novels and find a way to mesh women's fiction with a fantasy world. A world where I write about heroines fighting their way out of boxes.
Christina, what a satisfying heroine's journey you've had! I like your description of the boxes; you're absolutely right about childhood limits, awakenings, and fighting your way out. And each of those corresponds to one of the 13 steps, which makes me think it'd be fascinating to see your life story plotted against those...I bet you'd wind up with a powerful novel, inspired by a true story. 🙂
Fascinating post! My next manuscript is a heroines journey, so the timing for your class looks perfect.
I left home during my freshman year of college to get away from parental abuse and keep myself in school.
Following the typical pattern I found myself an abusing spouse.
I packed up my two children and left. My hope to keep my girls from falling into the same quagmire.
Thankfully they have wonderful, caring partners. The chain of abuse broken. I broke the chain for myself and married a wonderful man and best friend.
Ellen, way to GO on breaking the chain! That's a tough thing to do, because a chain with its endless series of links is the perfect metaphor for a family that's known nothing but the same cycle repeated generation after generation...and the fact that you raised your daughters to choose great partners, while also finding one for yourself, is a wonderful testimony to your success. <3
Bravo! Breaking the generational chain of abuse is a huge gift to not only your children but all their descendants.
I received my civil engineering and construction degrees not fully realizing how unusual I was. I grew up in an engineering family and engineering community. I grew up in the shadow of the Boeing Company, Seattle, WA, with an aeronautical engineer, rocket scientist, father. I resisted being an engineer because I didn't want to be like everyone else. I am an engineer and proud to be so and yes fought many battles to be recognized. I am now writing mysteries with a female forensic engineer. I since discovered I am much more unique than I ever imagined.
Laurie, what a kick to resist engineering as a way of being unique! I'll bet there aren't more than half a dozen women worldwide who've been through that kind of decision-making, and it's great that your books are showing readers what life CAN be like (in both the satisfying / rewarding ways and the frustrating / challenging ways) for women who choose that same career path today.
Have I ever managed to go beyond the limits that other people set for you? I'll always remember my dad saying in front of some friends and family that I wasted my college degrees by becoming "just a mom". Not only did I work at a university for many years but then went on to work in the private sector and also had a child and then went through everything it took to adopt a brand-new baby. I don't think he believed in the female capacity for accomplishment.
Patti, wow, it sounds like your dad sure had a narrow vision of what "accomplishment" involves -- if the only valid type were rising to the top in whatever field is shown on your college diploma, that's incredibly limiting. Good for you on reaching for (and achieving) what you knew mattered more to YOU, rather than what mattered to him!
Hey, Laurie -wonderful post (and great photos, too)! I think when I moved out of state to go to school, got an engineering degree (not math,music or pre-law), and published my first novel - those things surprised pretty much everyone in my family. And I would like to say that I believe most heroines, while having to get up the courage form within to make big changes, also benefit from friendly and loving support, and I know you have changed the lives of many!
Charlotte, aren't those photos amazing? I always look forward to seeing what the WITS team will come up with. 🙂 And thanks for your observation about me being a source of support...you're right that mentors can sure be a factor in anyone's journey, and I think it's interesting that while the Hero's includes "meeting with a guide," the Heroine's doesn't. Hmm, now you've got me curious why!
Laurie, I think one of my turning points was when I decided to give up my job and travel out west to fulfill a dream of working in a national park. I drove out with friends, spent the summer as an auditor for three of the concessions in YNP, and met my significant other of 26 years. Certainly another turning point and risk-taking decision. Taking one of your courses has always been a no-brainer for me and I couldn't ask for a better teacher to have beside me in my writing journey.
Marcia, that'd make a fabulous story for a book character -- what a wonderful way of breaking free from the old way of being, and discovering a whole new one, And I'm delighted that taking my courses is a no-brainer (decision, rather than effort, because you've put some really good work into those homework assignments!)
I guess the easiest period to define would be the one that included ending my marriage, starting graduate study on another continent, and not coming back afterward. I hitchhiked on my own for a couple of years, and ended up back in my original country, temporarily pulled back into expectations. Janis Joplin said it well - "Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose."
Meg, you raised a VERY good point about the difference between fictional and real-life heroines' journeys...in fiction, they pretty much go through their 13 steps and never change again because the book's over. Although if they're starring in a series, they can & do change repeatedly but it's usually not a MAJOR change; it's more like overcoming some pesky aspect of the same problem every time while also solving a crime. 🙂
Another great post, Laurie. My mom didn't really set limits, but she did share her fears about some of my ideas. In my early twenties when my whole family thought I was crazy for following a man to the woods of Alaska, I went anyway. We hiked 6 miles from the end of the road where we built a log cabin. We had no way to communicate with our families unless we hiked back to the truck and drove for an hour to the nearest tiny town. No wonder my family was concerned! As an aside, I married the man I followed to Alaska. I got my HEA!
Jackie, what fun backstory to your current happy marriage in Hawaii...you've done so many cool things over the years, I love that the whole adventure began with a trip your family wasn't certain was the best idea. And how nice that it WAS the best idea -- I hope your mom wound up convinced "this turned out well after all!" <3
After being declared infertile, my husband and I were lucky enough to conceive a baby. Our chances of conceiving and delivering a healthy baby were 6% and we'd already given up and moved on. The hardest thing I ever did was to ignore the 94%-likely scenario where the baby died and the 18% scenario where I died with her. To create a little bubble of Zen and live inside it for 42 weeks, giving myself shots in the stomach twice a day, working a day job, battling carpal tunnel and a broken rib, and keeping a positive outlook...it was brutal and special and amazing.
We were beyond lucky and nobody died. She's a healthy, happy ten year-old and we are blessed to have her.
(Yes, I'm writing the memoir. And yes, it's wicked hard to go back to that time.)
Jenny, going through all that to achieve a happy, healthy child is an amazing success story -- sure, every child is special but it seems like one which took THAT kind of work to accomplish counts as even more special than one with whom everything went smoothly all along. Congratulations to all three of you, and I'm so glad you're writing the story!
My struggle with math began in 4th grade (at my third school in three states that year). I missed huge chunks of material and rather than help me learn, my male teacher patted me on the head and said, "Don't worry your pretty little head, your husband can do the math." His disrespectful comment haunted and held me back for years, but now, I'm a securities licensed financial planner.
Vanessa, what a wonderful set of bookends for your story! You've got the perfect opening and closing incidents right there, and a villain who probably never knew what a villain he WAS -- heck, he might've genuinely believed girls were happier letting boys do the math -- but coming from a situation like that and winding up where you did is a FABULOUS testament to your strength. (Not to mention your math skills. 🙂 )
One of my biggest life challenges was paying for college. My parents couldn't/wouldn't help me and discouraged me from attending my college of choice. They wanted me to live at home after high school graduation and got to community college. I was a shy, docile seventeen-year-old. Some of the bold moves I took (and at such a young age) astound me. It took 4 1/2 years but I got my degree and paid for it. I felt like I was walking on air the day I graduated from college.
Maybe this is why we're drawn to the heroine's journey? It's freeing and empowering.
Gina, you're SO right about the heroine's journey giving us writers -- as well as millions of readers, including ourselves -- a sense of freedom and empowerment. What's not to love about that? And your boldness is beautifully reflected in the heroines you write; even if they start out shy and docile on their journey (which isn't often) they wind up enormously strong...and that's such a gift to EVERY reader!
My parents insisted I go to college, but they wouldn't pay for it. They wouldn't even fill out their portion for scholarships, so I missed out on opportunities. I paid my way and graduated on time and debt-free. It wasn't easy, especially since I lived at home in order to do it. I graduated with the degree I wanted--not the degree they tried to impose on me.
On my mom's side, I was the first college graduate, and of all the cousins, I'm the only one with a 4-year degree. On my dad's side, my older cousin and I are the only 4-year graduates (and the only females).
Denise, what a major undertaking that was -- especially coming from a family where college graduation wasn't the norm at all. (It's intriguing that your parents insisted you go but wouldn't pay; that's sure a mixed message!) But the way you persevered, living at home and sticking with the degree path you wanted, was sure a great coming-of-age experience...which, in fact, the heroine's journey often IS whether she's 17 or 34 or 55 or 72.
As a 15-year old foster child fresh off a disastrous family breakdown, I told a school guidance counselor I wanted to aim for a Rhodes Scholarship. He told me I'd be better off in Home Ec to prepare for my inevitable future as a single parent. I didn't make the Rhodes Scholar level but I was on the school's Honours Roll 2 out of every 3 semesters straight through, and graduated university cum laude (just half a % short of a 'magna').
Jayne, I'm thinking your cum laude graduation is just the frosting on the cake of making it through an enormously challenging journey. As a 15-year-old foster child from a disastrous family breakdown who's raised two viewing-success-as-the-norm daughters, you've overcome a whole lot more than that shortsighted counselor's advice...good for you!
I am struck by how many stories involve getting an education against significant odds. I defied a father who said college is wasted on women and went on to be the first in my family to have an advanced degree. A wonderful career came from that degree and I am thankful for it every day. Without college, my fate was to be married to domesticity. I worked three jobs to get my college degrees, and would encourage any woman to do whatever she needs to do to give herself the future she wants.
I so agree. I was the first woman in my family to finish university, with very little help from my estranged family. Both my daughters took it for granted their futures would include university and careers, and already one is a homeowner in her own right, a feat beyond what I managed.
Jane, it IS amazing how many triumphs involve higher education...and I've asked this question in other settings over the years where not one person mentioned that! Maybe in our current situation where career security & stability are less certain, the value of a life-sustaining degree is more readily apparent? Way to go on achieving yours!
My senior year of high school was the fourth year I'd been in the Air Force Junior ROTC program. That year I was only one step down from the highest ranking a student could get (Group Commander) as I was one of two Squadron Commanders. About a month after school started, the other Squadron Commander moved to Michigan to establish residency for college, leaving her position vacant. Rather than move someone else into the position, they asked me to take on the Squadron Commander duties for both Squadrons. It was extra work of course, but in the end I think I would've felt stunted only doing half the work.
Heather, I love that your Squadron characters benefit from your own real-life experience...that's so cool! Stepping up to fill two jobs rather than staying with only half the work was a great "this is who I am" realization, and reaching that as a high school senior got you started on journey triumphs early in life. 🙂
The college stories really get to me. It's hard. The journey is hard. Writers love it, of course. To us, it is manna from Heaven.
Nita, you're right about manna from heaven -- it seems like many a writer (or not-yet-a-writer young person with that interested/introverted personalty) spent the last few years of high school hearing "you'll come into your own in college because you'll meet more people like you." And isn't that a joy? Similar, in fact, to meeting other writers as an adult!
It absolutely is, Nita! We love challenges. 🙂
Thank you for another amazing post. I think that for me like most women are taught not to be too prideful, so we tend to undervalue when when go above and beyond. “Oh anyone would have done it” or “it was the least I could do” until we truly stop seeing the value of our actions.
Margie, you're absolutely right about the tendency to undervalue our own gifts! Both those comments are so reflexive, so instinctive, because we really DO think the things we're naturally gifted at are easy -- and what's to be proud of about doing something easy? But even so, we deserve to take pride in USING those gifts rather than hiding our light, which is something too many of us tend to forget. (Show of hands, here? 🙂 )
I’m actually going through something like this right now. I haven’t written in a few years because of some of the stresses of family life took it out of me. I won’t go into details but my husband and I recently separated and now I’m having to learn to be so much more, IT setting up a new printer, chef (yes, I was spoiled and he did most of the cooking), possible plumber but I think I’m going to call someone on the RO system and save my sanity and a big chunk of my weekend. I am definitely on a heroine’s journey of personal development as I’m starting to connect with the old me who found joy in being artistic whether it be writing, singing along in the car, painting. I never realized how much I had given up until recently. I’m welcoming my old, creative self back and although what I’m going through is painful, I can see the gift in it.
Oh, Julie, you're an inspiration to me -- learning to do unfamiliar tasks on your own resonates, because my husband just went on hospice a few days ago and it's daunting to think of all the things I've never bothered to learn. But how encouraging that you're already seeing the gift of welcoming back your creative self...and I'm wishing you great joy in that as your journey continues!
Thanks to everybody who posted such fascinating material -- I love reading about how people triumph in everyday life!
After counting up virtual prize-drawing slips for Natalie, Judith, Paula, Terry, Michael, Glenda, Amanda, Carolyn, Christina, Ellen, Laurel, Patti, Charlotte, Marcia, Meg, Jackie, Jenny, Vanessa, Gina, Denise, Jayne, Jane, Heather, Nita, Margie and Julie, I fed random-dot-org #1-26 and they drew #10.
Congratulations to Ellen, and just email me (Book Laurie at gmail) so I'll know where to send your class invitation. 🙂
Laurie, I loved this blog. After wiping away my tears, I saw your beautiful smile with *lipstick*! I learned something simple that I will be able to incorporate into my video clips, coaching sessions and my new children's reading book with Deco the Dog. Thank you for being in my life.
Connie, you know what a rare thing lipstick is for me! That photo was for a magazine who hired a pro, and he even brought a makeup artist -- as soon as I went to work afterwards everyone said "Wow, you look great." So much for fantasizing nobody'd ever NOTICE if I didn't bother with makeup. 🙂
My hat's off to Irtrovi. I think I've been doing this all my life. The boys in my family were expected to go to college, but my maternal grandmother set aside a few hundred dollars for my tuition to community college (a long time ago!). I used the secretarial degree from that to find work at a university and earn my bachelors and masters degrees nights (working two full-time jobs in the last six months of that). I later returned to the university to teach in the same college from which I'd earned my night degree, while running my own consulting business. I returned to the 9-5 world when my parents and partner were ailing and needed more of me. This May, I packed up my car and drove across country (pandemic be damned) and am now living in Arizona, a part of the country where I'd always wanted to live, where I write fiction full time. It's been an incredible journey that is so different from the "world" my mother envisioned for me and tried to make me live.
Claire, what fun to come back a week later and find your comment -- and congratulations on your cross-country move to full-time writing! I'll bet your grandmother who wanted you to have an education and your parents who didn't view that as necessary for girls are ALL equally amazed by (and proud of) what you've achieved.