The Hero’s Character Arc (Brenda Hiatt)

 Every good yarn needs at least one good character arc. In my experience, the most satisfying stories are the ones where the main character evolves throughout their journey, coming out on the other side as a better, stronger version of themselves. That evolution is the character’s “arc.” It sounds simple in theory, though in practice it can be anything but. Still, there are a few near-constants that crop up over and over in stories with enduring popularity, probably because we humans are hard-wired to respond to those elements. 

For that reason, many writers, and possibly most screenwriters, follow some version of “The Hero’s Journey,” famously introduced by Joseph Campbell in his Hero of a Thousand Faces and then made more accessible by Christopher Vogler in The Writer’s Journey. Why? Because it works! Many, many successful films and books employ that same “formula,” including The Wizard of Oz, The Lord of the Rings (and The Hobbit), and Star Wars. 

Since I’d much rather take the “easy” path than attempt to reinvent the wheel, I’ve tried to incorporate at least some of the steps from The Hero’s Journey into my own work, as well. (Because, why not?) 

Boiled down to its basics, The Hero’s Journey consists of twelve steps or phases that may (or may not) roughly correspond to a three-act story structure. I’ve seen this illustrated various ways. Here are two:

There’s an excellent breakdown of The Hero’s Journey (using the movie Rocky as an example, along with The Hobbit) in this Reedsy blog post:

Quickly, the 12 steps are:

Ordinary World
Call to Adventure
Refusal of the Call
Meeting the Mentor
Crossing the First Threshold
Tests, Allies, Enemies
Approach the Innermost Cave
The Ordeal
The Road Back
Return with the Elixir

At a bare minimum, I think the protagonists needs a call to adventure, acceptance of the call (after some initial resistance), tests/obstacles along the way leading to a serious struggle (this is where a lot of character growth happens), then some kind of reward. The elixir is what the character has learned and how he/she has grown as a result of the journey. 

In my Starstruck series, my main character Marsha progresses through most, if not all, of those stages. She starts off as the most ordinary of ordinary teens, but is soon called to step out of her boring world to take part in a destiny greater than she could have imagined. Sure, she’s reluctant at first, but a Mentor or three convince her to take up the challenge, not only for her own sake, but for the sake of thousands of people she never knew existed. Needless to say, there are Enemies lurking who don’t want her to succeed, who repeatedly Test her resolve until she is finally able to vanquish them, with the help of her Allies. Finally, she gets to return to her Ordinary World, though with what she’s learned and achieved (plus the Reward of a swoon-worthy soulmate), it doesn’t feel nearly so ordinary anymore. 

And that’s just the first book! Some version of that journey is repeated in each subsequent book, with a (relatively) complete character arc achieved by the end of book 4, where Marsha has evolved much, much further from her original self than she could ever have dreamed. 

Think about a few of your favorite books or movies. Can you spot the elements of The Hero’s Journey in them? Let’s discuss in the comments!

Brenda Hiatt is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of twenty-five novels (so far). The most recent, Convergent, released October 27, 2020 and she hopes to release her next before the end of the year. She’ll do her best to make the character arcs worth waiting for! 


  1. This is too cool. I'm a total junkie for writing shapes, plot theory, etc.

  2. Thanks! I'm also a geek about the nuts and bolts behind story, though when I'm actually writing, I try not to think about it. Great stuff for revising, though!


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