Why Screenwriters Should Embrace The Heroine's Journey

by Ken Miyamoto on June 18, 2017

Katniss. Moana. Rey. Jinn. Wonder Woman. The Age of the Heroine is now flourishing.

Many of us grew up in a time where a strong female character leading a big cinematic story was nothing more than an anomaly. Back in the day, we had Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley — that was all.

Hollywood was stuck in the constant regurgitation of The Hero's Journey — the mythic structure of Joseph Campbell's monomyth. For decades, screenwriters have obsessively bowed down to his writings, as well as The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers, Christopher Vogler's celebrated companion piece that took Campbell's monomyth declarations and applied them specifically to cinematic storytelling.

Such structure, concepts, and breakdowns have, can, and will apply successfully to some outstanding films, but "the times they are a changing."

What most people overlook is that Campbell's monomyth best emphasizes characteristics and values found strictly in male characters. In fact, in Campbell's framework for The Hero's Journey, he details only two roles for women. The first — “The Meeting with the Goddess" — references the woman as the love interest or as some sort of maternal divinity role. The second —  “Woman as Temptress" — references the woman as a character that temps the hero, usually in lusty fashion.

This doesn't jive well with these contemporary times, does it?

For years Hollywood has struggled with developing strong female roles that are at the forefront of tentpole features. Even the seemingly critical bullet proof Marvel Cinematic Universe has still yet to feature a stand alone film for one of the its most beloved and ever present characters — the Black Widow.

Thankfully, female lead roles are becoming more and more prevalent outside of the romantic comedy genre. The reason behind this is the ever-progressing nature of our society.

You see, Campbell based his mythic stages primarily on history. The times he looked back to were some of the most sexist eras of mankind's past where women were either the subjects of man — mothers, daughters, lovers — or were the temptresses of them. Women weren't allowed to fight. They weren't allowed to go on dangerous journeys. Even as recent as the twentieth century — the 1950s in particular — women had the expectation of being a subservient to their male counterparts.

Thus, Joseph Campbell's vision was always emulating the past. That time has come and gone as The Heroine's Journey has proven to always look to the future in terms of progress in society — specifically towards the role that women play.

The Differences Between The Hero's Journey and The Heroine's Journey

“Women don’t need to make the journey. In the whole mythological journey, the woman is there. All she has to do is realize that she’s the place that people are trying to get to.”

Joseph Campbell himself told this to Maureen Murdock, the woman who would later create the stages we now know as the somewhat official Heroine's Journey. It's clear that Campbell was ignorant to the times that were possible — and soon on the horizon.

Murdock later described her own model in The Heroine’s Journey: Woman’s Quest for Wholeness, which is divided into ten stages. We'll use the recent acclaimed film Wonder Woman as an example for each.

  1. Separation from the Feminine  — Often a mother or prescribed feminine role. Diana (Wonder Woman), the princess, wishes to become a warrior. However, her mother, the Queen, initially forbids her to.
  2. Identification with the Masculine and Gathering of Allies — Often entails choosing a path that is different than the role prescribed for her, deciding to gear to”fight” an organization, role, or group that is limiting or entering some male/masculine-defined sphere. Diana finds a World War I pilot after he crash lands near her island. This is the first time she has seen a man and she quickly gathers an ally in him after she learns that a great war is raging, killing millions of innocents.
  3. Road or Trials and Meeting the Ogres and Dragons — Heroine encounters trials and meets people who try to dissuade her from pursuing her chosen path and/or destroy her (ogres and dragons or their metaphorical counterparts). Diana ventures on the strange "road" through the civilized world of mankind. She wishes to go to the front of the war, but man after man opposes her doing so.
  4. Experiencing the Boon of Success — The Heroine overcomes obstacles. In The Hero's Journey, this is normally where the hero's tale ends.  Diana proves herself in battle, showcasing her skills and powers that are above and beyond any man present.
  5. Heroine Awakens to Feelings of Spiritual Aridity/Death  Success in this new way of life is either temporary, illusory, shallow, or requires a betrayal of self over time. Diana can not understand the reluctance on mankind's part to saving the innocent and ending the war. Steve, the World War I pilot and her ally, is focused on completing the mission at hand of getting the secret gas plans to his superiors. Diana wants to stop the mythical Ares from waging war.
  6.  Initiation and Descent to the Goddess  —  The heroine faces a crisis of some sort in which the new way is insufficient and falls into despair. All of her “masculine” strategies have failed her. Despite her efforts and powers, many are killed by deadly German gases. Diana is heart broken.
  7.  Heroine Urgently Yearns to Reconnect with the Feminine — The heroine cannot go back to her initial limited state or position. Diana kills Ludendorff, but the war does not stop. She loses faith in the goodness of man and is perhaps ready to give up and fall back to her Amazon women beliefs that she was brought up with.
  8.  Heroine Heals the Mother/Daughter Split —  The heroine reclaims some of her initial values, skills or attributes but views them from a new perspective. Diana reclaims her vision as Ares reveals himself finally. Her true powers are then unleashed, showcasing what her mother always knew. 
  9.  Heroine Heals the Wounded Masculine Within —  Heroine makes peace with the “masculine” approach to the world as it applies to herself. Diana says goodbye to Steve and realizes that while mankind is flawed, it is worth fighting for.
  10.  Heroine Integrates the Masculine and Feminine — She faces the world or future with a new understanding of herself and the world/life. Heroine sees through binaries and can interact with a complex world that includes her but is larger than her personal lifetime or geographical/cultural milieu. Diana accepts her role. She will fight for justice and for mankind. This leads to the time leading up to and through the events of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and beyond.

And then we go back to The Hero's Journey and Vogler's own breakdowns...

  1.  The Ordinary World — The hero, uneasy, uncomfortable or unaware, is introduced sympathetically so the audience can identify with the situation or dilemma.  The hero is shown against a background of environment, heredity, and personal history.  Some kind of polarity in the hero’s life is pulling in different directions and causing stress.
  2. The Call to Adventure —  Something shakes up the situation, either from external pressures or from something rising up from deep within, so the hero must face the beginnings of change.
  3. Refusal of the Call —  The hero feels the fear of the unknown and tries to turn away from the adventure, however briefly.  Alternately, another character may express the uncertainty and danger ahead.
  4. Meeting with the Mentor — The hero comes across a seasoned traveler of the worlds who gives him or her training, equipment, or advice that will help on the journey.  Or the hero reaches within to a source of courage and wisdom.
  5. Crossing the Threshold —  At the end of Act One, the hero commits to leaving the Ordinary World and entering a new region or condition with unfamiliar rules and values.
  6. Tests, Allies, and Enemies — The hero is tested and sorts out allegiances in the Special World.
  7. Approach —  The hero and newfound allies prepare for the major challenge in the Special World.
  8. The Ordeal —  Near the middle of the story, the hero enters a central space in the Special World and confronts death or faces his or her greatest fear.  Out of the moment of death comes a new life.
  9. The Reward — The hero takes possession of the treasure won by facing death.  There may be celebration, but there is also danger of losing the treasure again.
  10. The Road Back — About three-fourths of the way through the story, the hero is driven to complete the adventure, leaving the Special World to be sure the treasure is brought home.  Often a chase scene signals the urgency and danger of the mission.
  11. The Resurrection — At the climax, the hero is severely tested once more on the threshold of home.  He or she is purified by a last sacrifice, another moment of death and rebirth, but on a higher and more complete level.  By the hero’s action, the polarities that were in conflict at the beginning are finally resolved.
  12. Return with the Elixir — The hero returns home or continues the journey, bearing some element of the treasure that has the power to transform the world as the hero has been transformed.

You'll see many similarities between the two, but as mentioned before, The Heroine's Journey is centered on moving forward, with the female trying to bridge the gap between male and female roles while The Hero's Journey is often much more about personal glory and achieving victory in the end. The Hero already has power as a man. The Heroine battles not only the conflicts at hand within the story, but is also dealing with the prejudice of being a woman.

Can Heroes Be Written Using The Heroine's Journey — and Vice Versa?

The mistake that Hollywood can and will make while attempting to write female-driven features is simply writing a hero with boobs story where the screenwriter uses the applications of The Hero's Journey and simply gender flips the character — essentially just writing she instead of he, and so forth, while retaining the overall stages of The Hero's Journey. In essence, the screenwriter would be missing the point of writing a female driven story if they choose to ignore the female elements of conflict that women are faced with.

Elements of The Hero's Journey can certainly be utilized — and are ever present — in The Heroine's Journey, but what needs to always be included within the latter are forward-thinking answers to questions and conflicts that women face. Such things need to be addressed because that is where the conflict of such stories are set apart from a hero's tale. Men and women deal with very different types of conflict and that has to be showcased within the confines of each of their types of journeys. Female characters can certainly have characteristics found within The Hero's Journey, but it would be difficult to apply characteristics found within The Heroine's Journey to a male character because they generally can't and don't relate.

Is The Heroine's Journey the New Hero's Journey?

The initial answer? It should be.

This is not to say that The Hero's Journey should be pushed aside. There are many such stories to tell. However, as Hollywood is slowly getting the signal that audiences are responding to variations of The Heroine's Journey, it would be wise — and righteous — for any and all screenwriters to seek out stories that feature strong female characters within that context.

Hollywood is looking for such stories. They are actively seeking out voices that can bring such stories to the forefront. And it doesn't always have to be a female screenwriter that does so. In fact, since women account for just 15 percent of sector screenwriting employment and are outnumbered by more than three-to-one among screenwriters, according to an early summary of the 2014 Hollywood Writers Report, male screenwriters — the vast majority — should be the ones to lead the continued charge, then forcing Hollywood to adapt and accept female voices to drive that percentage up.

The wonderful aspect of The Heroine's Journey over the more conventional Hero's Journey is that it makes way for more supporting characters as well. Jinn had her Rogue One war mates in Star Wars: Rogue One. Katniss had her support team in The Hunger Games. Wonder Woman had Steve and their collected posse of supporting characters.

If a screenwriter is going to have a character undergo a journey, The Heroine's Journey allows for more great characters ready and able to get into the mix, as opposed to The Hero's Journey that often focuses solely on the hero himself.

The Key Is to Create the Ultimate Journey Hybrid

The truth is, whether you're using The Hero's Journey or The Heroine's Journey as a launching pad for the structures and themes of your screenplay, there's no set formula to follow. There is no right or wrong way to write any story as long as there is a great story to tell and a great character to follow through the journey of that story.

Adapt. Plain and simple.

I'm currently in the process of gender switching a screenplay that Lionsgate previously picked up. That decision was made not to chase a trend, but to add depth to the concept and character. Women face more conflict than men, thus the screenplay benefits because as most should know, conflict is everything. Without conflict, there is no compelling and intriguing story to tell.

So as a screenwriter, if you're looking for ways to shake things up and take what may be a more routine concept, story, or character, look no further than the gender of your lead or strong supporting character(s). What would happen if you flipped that gender?

We saw that happen with Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The Luke-type character from the original trilogy was replace by Rey, a young woman. And that changed the character-type for the better in many ways. Rey rejected Finn's continued attempts to "protect" her while she was the one that was actually holding her own. More conflict. More depth. All because of the gender flip.

She still shared some elements of the classic The Hero's Journey, all while handling the forward-thinking aspects of The Heroine's Journey.

Whatever your situation may be, just know that we are at the dawn of an exciting time where a new array of characters and concepts centered around female characters is coming to light. Audiences have shown up for such films in droves. And when the audience comes, the powers that be in Hollywood and beyond take notice.

Guest blogger 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 

Get Our Newsletter!

Get weekly writing inspiration delivered to your inbox - including industry news, popular articles, and more!

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Developing Your Own Script?

We'll send you a list of our free eCourses when you subscribe to our newsletter. No strings attached.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

You Might Also Like

Your success is our #1 priority. We provide aspiring writers industry access, free resources and inspiration, and a community to support you through every step of your creative journey.

Writing Competitions

Success Stories