What Will Replace the Hero’s Journey?

Only by sharing stories of complex protagonists, messy work, and muddled results will the social sector foster understanding and gain support.

Throughout the world, people tend to reflect upon their lives as a journey, with goals and obstacles that get in the way of obtaining those goals. Most of us want to rise above challenges, emerging not only victorious, but also heroic. By viewing and talking about life in this way, we make sense of the chaos all around us. The great mythologist Joseph Campbell dubbed this ubiquitous narrative “the hero’s journey.”

Documentarian Hanson Hosein explains that the hero’s journey is a monomyth:

[It is] a universal pattern that transcends both culture and history … [It is] the story of when a seemingly ordinary person reluctantly accepts a call to action, leaves behind the status quo, and embarks on a journey that entails trials and tribulations from which this hero learns valuable lessons. Ultimately he undergoes a transformation for better or for worse and returns home a changed person. Jesus, Moses, Mohammed, Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Frodo—these are all legendary personalities who have undertaken the hero’s journey.

Take this year’s Audi Super Bowl “Prom Night” advertisement. In just one minute, we recognize the protagonist, and can immediately understand and summarize the plot: Boy gets an opportunity, he seizes it, and both he and a community are forever changed because of his actions. The ending, in fact, was crowdsourced, winning the most votes of three different alternatives.

Philanthropy and advocacy are very familiar with the hero’s journey and use it to persuasive affect: “Person X was in dire straits, she received the services of Organization Y, and her life was transformed. Support Organization Y.” Or: “Person X was suffering, and Public Program Z helped him stop suffering. Authorize more funding for Public Program Z.”

Familiarity can be extremely comforting. In a hero’s journey, there are definitive winners, villains, benefactors, and plot twists. It certainly accelerates message comprehension: You too—if you act similarly—can be a hero.

But familiarity can also, ultimately, breed skepticism. And if audiences are becoming skeptical of such pat storylines, what, if anything, might replace the common hero’s journey?

I can think of several organizations that are bravely embracing and sharing the chaotic reality of life—organizations that are inviting conversation and engagement, as opposed to sharing stock messages and regurgitated storylines.

Exhale, which I have mentioned before (here and here), is committed to sharing stories that reflect the great and muddled mess that is reality, particularly around people’s experiences with abortion. New York Presbyterian Hospital, in particular, is pushing at the boundaries of familiarity in storytelling. In the most recent addition to its Amazing Things are Happening Here campaign, the hospital shares the story of a young boy, Danion Jones, who received care at the hospital and died before the age of seven. The ad is both uncomfortable and transcendent. It is shocking in its honesty and in its departure from the public storytelling that nonprofits usually generate.

“We are wary of listening to stories that we think are being told to manipulate our emotions or push us to believe a certain way,” says Francesca Polletta, author of It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics. “On the other hand, ambivalent stories, stories with no clear moral agenda, invite the listener to imagine themselves in the story.”

We’re seeing the rise of antiheroes on television. We’re starting to see the acceptance of complicated characters and nuanced situations in advertising. People will always find comfort in common plotlines. But we best relate to—we best see ourselves in—protagonists and stories that accurately reflect our complex lives. Social innovators, including philanthropic foundations and nonprofit organizations, will gain support and understanding if they, too, share authentic stories about their complex protagonists, messy work, and sometimes muddled results.

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  • BY Robert Rosenthal

    ON July 11, 2013 10:22 AM

    Great, compelling questions, Thaler. But I don’t see Danion’s story as all that different form other hero stories, to be honest. The protagonist, of course, is his mother. Faced with the tragic early loss of her young son, she sought guidance from the doctors, who instilled her with the confidence in the miracle of science that she needed to accept the journey of surgery. When she committed to that path she was rewarded with four more years with her child before death took him.

    But death takes us all—enjoying a better life before that happens is a common enough value proposition in marketing, in my opinion. Hospices use it all the time.

    Still, terrific post. Thanks for sharing,

  • Ted Russell Neff's avatar

    BY Ted Russell Neff

    ON July 21, 2013 08:12 PM

    I don’t know if something will replace the hero’s journey but I do see a shift coming in the narrative of the hero’s journey. The visual arts usually reflect epic hero journeys - travelling to far-away places and foreign lands; flying through outer space or to the underworld; battling monsters, dragons, soldiers, aliens and other physical threats.

    The new hero’s journey will be driven by the types of experiences people have in their personal lives. And now that most of the planet has been explored and there is more cooperation and connection (relative to history), the most common hero’s journey may revolve around a person’s health.

    Dis-ease pushes us towards the final frontier – the human psyche or consciousness. And the reason it relates to the hero’s journey is the recent findings that shows the core cause of what ails us physically and psychologically may be largely created and driven by traumas, stressors and conflicts that turn into pain, illness and disease.

    Those who stay in the ordinary world to handle these emerging types of ailments are finding it increasingly difficult to arrive at a place of healing and instead are locked into a circular loop of treating symptoms and feeling better, at least for a while. Turns out healing (and transformation) often require a journey into a special world where the secrets to healing are revealed through this new hero’s journey.

  • BY Steven Forsty

    ON July 25, 2013 10:15 AM

    This is reminiscent of Greek Mythology, Chiron, and later philosopher and psychologist Carl Jung. Good Stuff! The Wounded Healer

  • BY Thaler Pekar

    ON July 25, 2013 03:30 PM

    Thanks, Steven, Robert, Ted!

  • BY Dale Quinlan

    ON March 6, 2015 07:02 AM

    Excellent direction forward!  am thinking that trauma recovery is the emergent counter-narrative to the Campbell formulation. Not a replacement or displacement, but entry into the workings of the critical sub-stage of transcending the part where the hero is wounded. Rather than a superficial skip over the adversity, the more meaningful question of how/why this particular hero did survive ans not get lust at the transcendent point. Rock keeps getting it together jst before he is defeated, but the new counter-narrative is giving meaning and description to that process. Expanding the machinery of the depression step in the Kubler-Ross model and giving it meaning making as the evolving understanding of grieving is doing.

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