This post proposes an alternative to the Hero’s Journey: the Heroine’s Journey. And while the Heroine’s Journey outlined below is not yet complete, I hope that these ideas and examples serve as a spark that contributes to and furthers this conversation.
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Finding the Path
I debated how to start this post, but I think it needs to begin with the following declaration: I am not a huge fan of the hero’s journey.
Now, the more important question at this point, dear reader, is how you feel about the hero’s journey. Maybe you’re one of its staunch defenders?
But actually, I’m hoping to find you in a similar place to mine. Itching for something different, with that sore, sour feeling in the back of your jaw on one side. Knowing, in your heart of hearts, that something about the hero’s journey doesn’t quite fit.
Or, at least, doesn’t fit for everyone, like we’re so often told. (Note the clever use of the passive voice there to sweep over said staunch defenders referenced earlier.)
Some of my frustration with the Hero’s Journey stems from my instinctual rejection of established rules and pathways. So, something being labeled a “mono-myth” is going to immediately inspire me to find a path less traveled.
I do want to clarify, before I mislead you into believing that I have discovered an alternative Elixir of Life to valiantly bring to you and your female and gender-queer characters—finding a path less traveled is a very deliberate choice of words.
I think we’re still finding that path.
And I hope we keep finding that path.
As more marginalized voices come into publishing spaces, as more diverse storytellers bring their legends and myths to more diverse audiences, I know that we will move this conversation forward.
For me, so far, finding that path started with identifying the parts of the Hero’s Journey that fail to resonate for my own female characters and those in the films and books that I love.
But, as a discovery writer, (and as a female indie author writing in a traditionally male-dominated genre, epic fantasy) I know that I’m not going to truly find that path until I’ve followed the heroines I write along it.
And then when I write more heroines, they’ll forge their own versions of the path, and the similarities and idiosyncrasies will become even clearer.
If you would like to meet said strong heroines who have a proclivity for nature-based magic, you can find out more about my novels here.
A Spark of Inspiration
A few different sources of inspiration brought these discoveries about. I share them with you first as they provide some of the necessary background understanding we will need to forging the path of the Heroine’s Journey.
Six Life Arcs, Not One!
K.M. Weiland of Helping Writers Become Authors has recently started a series on her blog and podcast about the six life arcs and their corresponding character archetypes!
That’s right – six! Not one!
The hero arc is the second of the six:
- maiden/princess/artist (what Kim Hudson calls the virgin),
- then hero/heroine/adventurer,
- crone/trickster/mystic alchemist,
- and mage/wise woman/benefactor*
*The first term in the list is the one Weiland uses. The second and third come from Kim Hudson’s list of the 12 core archetypes in The Virgin’s Promise, page 19.
However, the vast majority of stories in pop-culture revolve around the first two archetypes from the first third of life: the maiden and the hero.
Discovering the Internalized Maiden Arc
Inspired by how much I enjoyed Weiland’s post on the maiden archetype, I ordered Kim Hudson’s The Virgin’s Promise: Writing Stories of Feminine Creative, Spiritual and Sexual Awakening.
I loved the first two-thirds of The Virgin’s Promise and highly recommend it for writers. In those first 2/3rds, Hudson lays out the maiden arc and its thirteen beats with lots of examples.
As I read, I was moved to tears discovering that many of the beats (significant plot points) of the maiden arc correspond to my protagonist Iellieth’s journey in Buried Heroes, my first novel. I thought it was amazing to see her adventure reflected in the maiden arc even though following aspects of it was not conscious or intentional on my part!
(That is the power of archetypes! And/or of story. A larger conversation for another day.)
But now we come to the less exciting part of The Virgin’s Promise.
Near the 2/3rds point, Hudson wraps her conversation of the virgin arc and moves on to the hero arc.
I assumed, given the subject matter and examples of the first half of the book, that Hudson was going to provide a series of female-focused hero’s journeys.
(If you need a refresher on the hero’s journey, you can find it here.)
Instead, all of her example movies have a male hero in a male-dominated world. I was so disappointed.
That disappointment led to an email to my amazing, insightful editor about the parts of the hero’s journey that don’t work for female and gender-queer heroes.
So we’ll look at those now.
The Non-Universal Parts of the Hero’s Journey
First, a quick, related confession: I’ve always found the hero’s journey kinda boring.
And in part, by that I mean that I’ve always found “heroes” kinda boring. (I generally prefer villains.)
Two prime examples: To me, Luke is the least interesting character in the original Star Wars trilogy. Similarly, Harry is one of the least interesting characters in Harry Potter.
Reading through The Virgin’s Promise, I noticed that many of my favorite movies and books follow the maiden arc, and not the hero arc. But what about the heroines and gender-queer adventurers? There are female-focused hero’s-journey-adjacent stories that I love. What pattern do they follow, and how is it different?
To answer these questions, let’s start with identifying the beats in the Hero’s Journey that we would not find in the Heroine’s or The Gender-Queer Adventurer’s Journey.
The Refusal of the Call
One of the “essential” parts of the Hero’s Journey that bothers me most is the Refusal of the Call.
Running through a list of lady heroines that I read growing up or have seen in movies, they didn’t refuse the call.
As one example, Hudson reads Mulan in Mulan as having a simultaneous maiden-hero arc, which I really like the idea of. Mulan doesn’t hesitate when the opportunity to save her father’s life by risking her own arises. She cuts off her hair, puts on her father’s armor, and off she goes.
Forces and Stakes
In revising my initial drafts of Buried Heroes, my editor and I worked on increased agency for my main character. What I had been trying to express in those earlier drafts was something that I appreciate about Rogue One.
And I didn’t have a way of phrasing what that thing was until I found it in a critique of the movie that hit a false note.
Somewhere online that I have since lost, I read a post from a viewer who was frustrated with the storyline of Rogue One. Specifically, they thought that Jyn Erso simply reacted to her environment instead of being an active actor against it.
But I love that about Rogue One. Jyn being limited to reacting shows the impossible forces the heroes are up against, ones that they can’t necessarily defeat.
For both Jyn and Mulan, the stakes are immediately higher because of their aloneness (not to be confused with independence) and the specter of their past (for Jyn) or their gender (for Mulan).
Outside vs Inside
And so here’s the first, crucial difference in the stories we tell:
White male heroes like Luke Skywalker “get to” act against the thrust of their society while female heroes like Katniss Everdeen “have to” work within the existing societal structures of power to affect change from within.
The Known World
One of the “rules” for the hero’s initial journey is that the known world of which the hero is a part is benevolent, fine as-is, etc., though the hero can still feel like it’s stifling or too small.
No heroine or gender-queer character is going to see a known patriarchial world as being totally fine as-is, however small or nice!
This goes back to the story difference above: female and gender-queer characters “have to” work within a structured system of power
- because there’s no space for them to work outside of it,
- because the system doesn’t inherently benefit them,
- so their power is limited, always, to at least a recognition of that system**
**This does not take into account characters who are doubly-marginalized by systems of power for their race, gender, sexuality, ableness, etc.
And I say “has to” here because those are the stories that we see. Maleficent is a little different—she is extraordinarily powerful… until her wings get cut off by her male love interest. (Her arc is also less hero and more queen.)
As another example, we could look at the orogenes in N.K. Jemisin’s The Broken Earth trilogy. In The Fifth Season, they work within and against existing power structures despite their own power. Their adventure takes place inside their known world, which is certainly not safe, benevolent, good, etc.
Another issue with the beats and assumptions of the Hero’s Journey is that the Story World, oppositely from the Known World, is inherently dangerous. Whether or not it is in need of the hero’s aid, the hero is going to act against it.
At the end of the maiden arc, we end in communal integration. The kingdom welcomes the maiden back, and the kingdom changes, inspired by the maiden’s own transformation.
We need to add some aspect of this communal integration to the hero’s journey so we can move beyond colonial stories of exploration, discovery, and conquering “evil.”
The Heroine’s Journey
So what would the beginning of the Heroine’s or Gender-Queer Protagonist’s Journey look like?
- Hostile World
- Call to Adventure
- Rising to the Call
The Hero’s Journey is not about going out into the world to face the villain. The point is returning with the elixir. (Like Balto in Balto, a hero I like and find interesting!)
But if the Ordinary World of the heroine/protagonist’s story is not a benevolent one, what does that mean for her/them and her/their story? Does she still return with the elixir? Do they return to the communal integration aspect of the maiden arc instead of a new objective for the hero arc?
Part One: The Hostile World
Rather than the “safe, good” ordinary world/village of the Hero’s Journey, the heroine begins in a hostile world. The forces arrayed against her are far larger than any influence she can or might wield.
She does not have to leave her home (or point of origin) to encounter hostile forces. They are already there. Likely, she has faced them before.
Part Two: The Call to Adventure
But something changes to make the threat of the hostile world more immediate. Very often, this involves injury or endangerment to the heroine’s loved ones.
Example: During the choosing ceremony, Primrose Everdeen’s name emerges as the female tribute for District 12.
Other Example: K-2SO and Cassian arrive and bust Jyn Urso out of her prison transport vehicle. “Congratulations. You are being rescued. Please do not resist.”
My concern with this conclusion is that it greatly resembles the maiden arc, especially arcs where the crone or outside forces act as a story-catalyst. There must be a space for self-actualized heroines and adventurers to undertake the heroine’s journey or adventurer’s journey.
Part Three: Rising to the Call
Instead of refusing the call, the heroine immediately steps into the self-sacrificial position of answering the call of adventure. Perhaps she has been waiting for the call, perhaps she feels like she has no choice.
Example: Katniss Everdeen shouting “I volunteer! I volunteer as tribute!”
Second Example: Mulan disguises herself as a male, cuts her hair, puts on her father’s armor, and takes up his sword.
But part of the point, and problem, is that the heroine immediately, intuitively understands and acts upon the selfless, self-sacrificial aspect of the hero’s journey. This realization should be a key part in the hero’s internal quest. Why does the heroine know this already? And if/since she does, what is she supposed to learn on her journey instead?
The Final Battle in the Heroine’s Journey
In beat 11 of the 12, the hero faces the Final Battle.
There is one example of a heroine’s final battle in The Virgin’s Promise. Hudson cites Thelma and Louise asserting their will against evil by driving off the cliff as opposed to going to prison.
Of course there are many examples of heroes, heroines, and protagonists dying in the final battle. Resurrection and return are a key part of the archetypal journey.
But it is my sense that for many heroines on the heroine’s journey, their final battle, the exertion of their will over the Hostile World, ends in their death and/or suicide.
Black Widow and Jyn Urso are two other immediate examples. Edna Pontellier strikes me as another. Same for one of the faeries in Maleficent.
We have to have other models, other paths, for our heroines to pursue. I don’t know yet how we can manage that when the heroine also faces a Hostile World, likely one that she cannot possibly overcome. But I believe there are other options and possibilities.
There’s one thing we need to do to find them. We will need to step out of the shadow of the Hero’s Journey and onto a new, unmarked path.
The Problem with Endings on the Heroine’s Journey
The Hero’s Journey is one of coming into one’s individual power. Many of the Heroine’s Journey examples I can think of involve heroines learning to work with others in order to achieve their goals.
Cassian comes to save Jyn from killing Krennic and leads her out onto the beach.
Mulan works with her friends in the army to rescue the emperor. After she is successful, she completes her maiden arc – she changes the kingdom and creates more equal spaces for women. She returns home to the love and acceptance of her family.
Alternatively, we have heroines who return home but remain outside or adjacent to their communities with no elixir. Or they achieve the ending of the maiden arc, inspiring their community with what they found or discovered.
Katniss returns to District 12 and lives in one of the tribute houses.
Moana inspires her community to return to the sea, to wayfinding.
Alternative Ending Possibilities: Naomi Novik’s Uprooted
I love Uprooted and Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik. Uprooted, especially, holds at least some keys to what the Heroine’s Journey could look like.
I will look at that in more details across her arc in a future post since this one is already quite long, but I don’t want to skip over this problem of how the heroine’s journey ends.
That, to me, remains the biggest question for us to answer. With it, we’ll find a way through the rest.
Mild spoiler alert for those who haven’t read Uprooted. (Also, you should! It’s wonderful! You can check out my review of it here.)
At the end of Uprooted, Nieshka begins restoring the Wood and putting the captured souls to rest. The Dragon (her love interest) has returned to the capital city, and she sets about picking up the legacy of Baba Yaga as a lone witch in the forest.
She creates an in-between existence, similar to Miryem in Spinning Silver, finding a way to spend some of her time in her village and some of her time in the forest where her magic can be best put to use.
I don’t think this is the same as being brought back into the community as in the maiden arc. And for a while, she is working on her own.
The Dragon returns, and they reunite at a festival. He has completed his king/lover arc and made space for the feminine (and the natural). The force they must both bow to is the power of the valley and its natural magic—I’m certain there’s something more there!
But the question remains – What is the reward/objective/result of the heroine arc? Finding a separate, liminal space, of use to the community but no longer integrated to it? Is this where the female or gender-queer character’s quest leads?
Different Endings Continued
One key difference between Hudson’s discussion of the end of the hero arc and Weiland’s is that Hudson has the hero moving next into the king/lover arc rather than the queen/goddess arc. (A significant [and gendered] difference, no?)
Here is an excerpt of Hudson’s description of the Hero’s return. The passage below highlights the gap between the return of the celebrated hero and that of the heroine:
The Hero has thwarted the impending threat to the village. The village is now safe, the wrong has been righted, order has been restored, or the source of evil has been removed. The Hero Returns with the Elixir, which secures the future safety of the village. … When the Hero returns to his village, there is often a celebration and recognition of the transformation which has occurred in the Hero. … The Hero returns to the village with a new role, one of providing ongoing protection and stability.”The Virgin’s Promise by Kim Hudson, 128-129
- I’m wondering if the propensity for a certain type of spunky heroine who doesn’t always think things through but leads with her heart prevalent in a lot of popular fiction and stories is due in part to the shadow of the hero’s journey. Is it only a certain type of non-male person who can believably undertake the hero’s journey?
- I think there are more possibilities hiding in structure and archetypal storytelling that hold answers to some of these questions. What might non-linear approaches like écriture féminine add to this conversation? (Term coined by Hélène Cixous in “Laugh of the Medusa”)
Comments, Questions, and Examples
I would love to hear your thoughts on what I’ve shared above. Do you have other examples of the heroine’s journey? Other beats you think would be necessarily included?
I’m really curious to see what a Heroine’s Journey unyoked from the maiden archetype would be and look like. You can find the comments field at the bottom of this post.
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