Why do writers need to show their protagonist in their Ordinary World, according to Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey and Christopher Vogler’s interpreted twelve stages of that journey within his book, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers?
Welcome to the inaugural installment of our 12-part series ScreenCraft’s Exploration of the 12 Stages of the Hero’s Journey, where we go into depth about each of the twelve stages and how your screenplays could benefit from them.
Joseph Campbell’s 17-stage Monomyth was conceptualized over the course of Campbell’s own text, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, and then later in the 1980s through two documentaries, one of which introduced the term The Hero’s Journey.
The first documentary, 1987’s The Hero’s Journey: The World of Joseph Campbell, was released with an accompanying book entitled The Hero’s Journey: Joseph Campbell on His Life and Work.
The second documentary was released in 1988 and consisted of Bill Moyers’ series of interviews with Campbell, accompanied by the companion book The Power of Myth.
Christopher Vogler was a Hollywood development executive and screenwriter working for Disney when he took his passion for Joseph Campbell’s story monolith and developed it into a seven-page company memo for the company’s development department and incoming screenwriters.
The memo, entitled A Practical Guide to The Hero with a Thousand Faces, was later developed by Vogler into The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters in 1992. He then elaborated on those concepts for the book The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers.
Learn the best way to structure your screenplay with this free guide.
Christopher Vogler’s approach to Campbell’s structure broke the mythical story structure into twelve stages. We define the stages in our own simplified interpretations:
- The Ordinary World: We see the hero’s normal life at the start of the story before the adventure begins.
- Call to Adventure: The hero is faced with an event, conflict, problem, or challenge that makes them begin their adventure.
- Refusal of the Call: The hero initially refuses the adventure because of hesitation, fears, insecurity, or any other number of issues.
- Meeting the Mentor: The hero encounters a mentor that can give them advice, wisdom, information, or items that ready them for the journey ahead.
- Crossing the Threshold: The hero leaves their ordinary world for the first time and crosses the threshold into adventure.
- Tests, Allies, and Enemies: The hero learns the rules of the new world and endures tests, meets friends, and comes face-to-face with enemies.
- The Approach: The initial plan to take on the central conflict begins, but setbacks occur that cause the hero to try a new approach or adopt new ideas.
- The Ordeal: Things go wrong and added conflict is introduced. The hero experiences more difficult hurdles and obstacles, some of which may lead to a life crisis.
- The Reward: After surviving The Ordeal, the hero seizes the sword — a reward that they’ve earned that allows them to take on the biggest conflict. It may be a physical item or piece of knowledge or wisdom that will help them persevere.
- The Road Back: The hero sees the light at the end of the tunnel, but they are about to face even more tests and challenges.
- The Resurrection: The climax. The hero faces a final test, using everything they have learned to take on the conflict once and for all.
- The Return: The hero brings their knowledge or the “elixir” back to the ordinary world.
The first stage — The Ordinary World — happens to be one of the most essential elements of any story, even ones that don’t follow the twelve-stage structure to a tee.
Here we offer three reasons why writers need to show protagonists in their Ordinary World.
1. To Set Up How the Conflict Disrupts the Character’s Ordinary Life
When you open the story within the character’s Ordinary World, you’re establishing their comfort zome — a world that they’re complacent with or used to living.
This doesn’t mean that they’re happy and comfortable in that world — sometimes they are far from that — but we’re seeing them in their element at the time the story opens.
When the conflict occurs — whether it’s a problem to deal with or Campbell’s own Call to Adventure — the protagonist’s world is shattered or disrupted at the very least.
And the only way we truly notice this is by witnessing them in their Ordinary World first, even if it’s for just a brief window of time within the story.
Luke Skywalker living on a moisture farm.
Sarah Connor working as a waitress.
Neo living life as Thomas Anderson — a computer programmer and hacker — within the Matrix.
The Ghostbusters doing paranormal research at Columbia University.
Frodo living a quiet life in The Shire.
These are all examples of the Ordinary World. When these protagonists are forced to face conflict within — or outside of — that Ordinary World, they enter the Special World that the rest of the film takes place within. A world that is new or challenging to the protagonist.
And it even works with drama as well.
A film like The Big Chill offers a glimpse of the Ordinary World of each of its main characters in the form of the death of their college friend and where they are in life when they are informed — and later asked to attend his funeral.
2. To Foreshadow the Story to Come
The Ordinary World at the beginning of a story offers the writer a chance to foreshadow events to come, plant plot and character devices that pay off later within the story, and even allows for the opportunity to present themes and metaphors that will be explored within the narrative.
It’s the perfect setup place for writers to prepare the reader or audience for the ride to come.
Luke Skywalker is always looking to the stars, to the distant suns, and to the adventure that lies beyond his Ordinary World.
Sarah Connor is a far cry from the savior that she is later told she’ll be.
Neo, as Thomas Anderson, has always felt that there’s something off about the world — and he’s heard online rumblings about the concept of something called The Matrix.
The Ghostbusters are living a dull and uncelebrated career life. Peter is the screwup who has no real interest in what they are studying, beyond using university funds for projects that allow him to meet cute college girls. Ray is obsessed with the paranormal. He believes in it all. And he quickly proves that he’s an authority on the subject. Egon takes a purely scientific approach to everything. To him, all of life is an experiment — especially the paranormal. This all plays within the context of the story to come.
Frodo has heard his Uncle Biblo’s stories. He’s interested in the book his uncle is writing. Little does he know that he’s the one who will finish that book for him in the end.
You use the Ordinary World portion of the opening of your story to introduce themes, metaphors, plants, and foreshadowing to engage the reader or audience once the conflict hits the protagonist hard.
3. To Create Catharsis and Empathy
Today’s cinematic interpretation of catharsis can be translated as the feeling we feel after the resolution of the story and the protagonist’s overall journey.
If a story opens up in the middle of a conflict, and we’re introduced to the protagonist in the midst of dealing with that conflict, we have no context of who they are or where they came from. So when the conflict is resolved, the reader or audience doesn’t leave the story feeling that there’s been a cathartic resolution. We’ve only witnessed a character dealing with a conflict. It may be entertaining to watch them do that in some genres, but the best stories are those that offer a truly cathartic experience.
And part of that is feeling empathy for the protagonist.
Showing them in their Ordinary World allows the reader or audience to do one of the following:
- Sympathize with the protagonist
- Empathize with the protagonist
You can make people sympathize with your characters. People see their situation, and they feel compassion, sorrow, or pity for the protagonist without necessarily identifying with the situation they are in.
Writers can also use the Ordinary World to offer ways that the average reader or audience member can identify with their character. Maybe they hate their job. Maybe they like their job, but feel that something is missing in life. People identify with those things.
Whether it’s outright sympathy for the protagonist or the preferred deeper level of empathy, those elements set up the catharsis that you want readers and audiences to feel when the story is concluded.
Read ScreenCraft’s The Single Most Important Element of a Successful Screenplay!
Showing your protagonist within their Ordinary World at the beginning of your story offers you the ability to showcase how much the core conflict they face rocks their world. And it allows you to foreshadow and create the necessary elements of empathy and catharsis that your story needs.
“The Hero’s Journey is a skeleton framework that should be fleshed out with the details of and surprises of the individual story. The structure should not call attention to itself, nor should it be followed too precisely. The order of the stages is only one of many possible variations. The stages can be deleted, added to, and drastically shuffled without losing any of their power.” — Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies