Genesis of the Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler
Subtitled “Mythic Structure for Writers“, Christopher Vogler’s Writer’s Journey presents itself as a sort of universal recipe for generating storylines.
Screenwriter for Hollywood, Christopher Vogler says he was strongly inspired by reading Joseph Campbell’s book, The Hero With a Thousand Faces.
Christopher Vogler made a sort of summary of it for his colleagues, which he entitled “The Practical Guide to the Hero With a Thousand Faces“, and this text, appreciated in the world of screenwriters, was fleshed out, developed, and became The Writer’s Journey.
Content of the Writer’s Journey
The Writer’s Journey consists of two main parts.
Book 1, “The Travel Map”, begins by taking up “The Practical Guide to the Hero with a Thousand Faces” where he briefly describes what he calls the Hero’s Journey: a standardized route made up of 12 stages.
Then, in the “Archetypes” part, he exposes the 7 types of characters supposed to intervene during the various stages of the Hero’s Journey:
- The Hero
- The Mentor
- The Guardian of the Threshold
- The Messenger
- The Protean character
- The Shadow
- The Trickster
Book 2, “The Stages of the Journey”, details the 12 stages of the Hero’s Journey:
- The Ordinary World and the Extraordinary World
- The Call of Adventure
- Refusal of the Appeal
- Meeting with the Mentor
- The Passage of the First Threshold
- Tests, Allies, Enemies
- The Heart of the Cave
- The Supreme Trial
- The Reward (Taking the Sword)
- The Way back
- The Resurrection
- The Elixir
A theory as false as it is dogmatic?
The Writer’s Journey has, like other works of the genre, a frankly inspiring side: by giving a ready-made recipe, with a standardized plot, presented as universally valid, and a range of “archetypal” characters, it spares many mistakes. and promises to guarantee success.
A promise, however, very difficult to keep, because… put the theory to the test: take some narrative works, and try to recognize the 12 stages of the Hero’s Journey, or the 7 types of characters: does it work?
My answer is straightforward: absolutely not. It is even totally false, inappropriate, inconsistent. We can absolutely not summarize all the narrative works, to a single diagram of the plot and the characters. (McKee’s Story would do no better.)
Basically, we have the impression that Christopher Vogler, although an esteemed Hollywood professional, does not really understand what a story is: it is quite easy to show that a story is most of the time made of MANY plots, that we therefore cannot reduce to one unique Hero’s Journey.
My analyzes thus showed that Pulp Fiction tells 10 plots, and that the videoclip of Thriller of Michael Jackson tells 7. If one tries to apply the theory of Christopher Vogler to these two examples, does that mean that Pulp Fiction tells the same Hero’s Journey 10 times, and Thriller 7 times? Or, should we ignore the plurality of plots, to analyze the entire work as being a Journey? Try: it doesn’t work either, it’s totally inapplicable.
In this Scriptwriter’s Guide, moreover, there will absolutely never be any question of mixing plots…
In fact Christopher Vogler seems to ignore the fact that storytelling is a kind of physics that relies on atoms. A narrative atom is a character who performs an action. The famous joke “Bang the dog” tells an atomic plot, reduced to a simple action: “It is the story of a dog called Bang, he crosses the street and Bang, the dog“. How could we translate this into the 12 obligatory steps of Vogler’s dogmatic Journey? Bang the dog will never have to refuse the adventure, nor to meet the Mentor, nor to cross the first threshold, etc., he will be dead long before.
The same goes for the characters: these “archetypes” presented by Vogler are in fact a mixture, or even a confusion, between two aspects of the character that I distinguished in my storytelling courses: the actantial role (that is, is to say the function that a given character takes in a system of characters linked to the goal and the central conflict of a given plot), and the thematic role (i.e. what makes the identity of this character, independently of its actantial role: its aspect, its profession, its psychology etc).
Such a confusion sounds frankly amateur… we should not put the Hero (actantial role) and the Trickster (a type of cunning, facetious, playful character) on the same level, because these two notions are in reality not at all of the same nature.
By this confusion, Vogler seems to claim that a character would have one and only one type, which again is easy to refute.
Thus, I showed that in the film The Godfather that the same character can have very different actantial roles. Take the example of Michael Corleone: in a plot he is the Hero (for example, when he is going to kill a mafioso and a corrupt cop who tried to kill his father), in other plots he may be a Mentor, or Antagonist, or have no role. It is therefore impossible to reduce the character of Michael to one of Vogler’s 7 archetypes – so this concept also turns out to be inapplicable or just plain wrong. A shame for the author of the Writer’s Journey, which we could ironically rename “Manual to mislead you by abusive generalizations and a fundamental misunderstanding of the basic concepts of storytelling“; but this title would be too long and less selling.
A theory nevertheless stimulating?
So let’s admit that Christopher Vogler’s Writer’s Journey is not the universal royal road to the screenplay it claims to be.
Should we take no account of it?
It seems that this theory is nonetheless usable for generating stories – as long as it is not taken too literally.
First, there are certain genres for which the typical plot of the Journey may prove to be an interesting candidate for making a main plot: the fantastic, the heroic fantasy, the adventure novel, the marvelous tale… To make a comedy, a tragedy, a thriller, you’ve probably knocked on the wrong door.
Because in reality, the stages of the Journey as the list of the archetypes of characters come from an old folklore collection (and not mythical as the subtitle wrongly claims), mainly European – which is betrayed by the terms used: adventure, call, cave, sword, elixir, protean character, trickster.
The relationship between these concepts, and even the general approach, and those of the Morphology of the Tale by Vladimir Propp, is obvious – the Writer’s Journey is a sort of Hollywood remake, a Disney version, less scientific, less educated, more commercial and more practical.
Then, the stages of the Journey as well as the archetypes of the characters, can be used to generate works that would no longer have anything in common with their source of folk inspiration.
Thus, nothing prevents applying the grid of Vogler and Campbell, to genres, themes, worlds that are neither wonderful nor folkloric.
For example, imagine using it with the ingredients of The Wire series: drug dealers, the misery of African Americans, the ghetto, the police, street violence, a hyper-realistic world. This could give an interesting result.
Christopher Vogler’s Writer’s Journey is aptly named: it is by no means a textbook of narratology intended for any screenwriter in any genre, medium or format.
Vogler’s theory, rigid and most of the time inapplicable, can nevertheless be used to conceive the rare types of stories conforming to its model.
However, for inexperienced authors, Christopher Vogler’s model can be interesting to follow, at least to get used to the idea that one almost always writes better when one has a plan in mind, with a cohesive plot and a cohesive range of characters.