This Christmas I wished for and received a copy of The Heroine’s Journey by Gail Carriger, and having read it, I have been bending the ear of anyone I know remotely interested in story structure, literary or pop culture analysis, or who has been simply willing to let me enthuse in their general direction for 5-10 minutes.
Like a lot of people, I ran across (and I think I wrote a paper on?) Joseph Campbell and “the hero’s journey” in late high school or early college, and have run across it with reasonable frequency ever since. Granted, I took a fairly high number of mythology and folklore classes in college, and have been going to sci-fi and fantasy readers’ and writers’ conventions in the years since, so my exposure has been higher than your average duck, but still. The Hero’s Journey saturates a lot of narratives in the popular imagination, with perfectly good reasons. Individuals triumphing through adversity, going on journeys, learning self-reliance, rescuing and losing people and causes along the way, all very exciting.
However, I first heard mention of an alternate narrative, the Heroine’s Journey, at a writing panel a few years ago, and was instantly fascinated, so when I found out there was a book, by a hilarious and clever writer to boot, I had to read it.
To hear the author describe the differences herself, I recommend this excellent podcast (transcript also provided for those who’d rather read). The short list of differences, however, boils down to motivation, strength, and resolution. Heroes (whatever their gender) often need a push to get going, are seeking an external reward, see seeking help as a weakness and civilization as a hindrance, “must do this alone,” and often end up, even when victorious, still alone. Heroines are prompted by a loss or separation within their family, often start out alone because their pleas for help go unanswered, and then collect knowledge, friends, found family, and other assistance along the way, seeking reunion, compromise, and connection as ultimate goals. Heroes go on inspiring, exciting, but often bittersweet or downright depressing journeys. Heroines go on journeys that have more room for humor, connection, and comfort, and are most often found in genres and story forms that have been traditionally undervalued in modern Western/European cultures.
Where things get really interesting, from the point of view of writing or story structure analysis, is what happens when you get mashups of the two story structures. In Marvel’s recent movie, The Eternals, for instance, Ikaris is on a hero’s journey and Sersi is on a heroine’s journey. Ikaris can’t adapt to be part of the victory of the heroine’s journey and accept reconciliation, and so literally flies himself into the sun. (Waste of a good actor, but oh well.) In Carriger’s book, she posits that Harry Potter is on a heroine’s journey, and that much of the conflict many readers have with Dumbledore’s actions towards Harry stems from the fact that Dumbledore is trying to play the role of mentor to a hero, not a heroine. He seems to be positioning Harry for the road of lonely sacrifice, when Harry’s inclinations and strengths all come from relying on his friends and extended network.
Like so many people, I’ve found my creative work stymied by the stresses of the pandemic, but reading this book has helped me think through some of my stories in progress, and given me new energy to get back to them. Whether you’re a writer or just like to think about the themes, tropes and structures of the media you consume, I highly recommend this book!