Portions of this essay originally appeared on my personal blog. I’ve edited the content from its previous form, which can be read in its entirety here: Part One and Part Two.
We’re often taught in high school English that the Hero’s Journey is the One True Story, the Archetype to End All Archetypes. But that’s not exactly true. Global mythology is actually rife with stories that follow different—but no less resonant – narrative archetypes
When viewed through the Hero’s Journey lens, a story like Inanna’s Descent or Journey to the West might seem strange or unsatisfying, but that’s more a fault of perspective than anything else. Trying to understand these stories as Hero’s Journeys is a lot like looking at a black hole through a backyard telescope: it’s a fruitless effort. In fact, unless you use the right filter, you’ll miss out entirely on just how beautiful that blown-out star can be.
In 45 Master Characters (a cool little handbook on storytelling archetypes), author Victoria Lynn Schmidt describes the Feminine Journey (also known as the Heroine’s Journey) thusly:
The feminine journey is a journey in which the hero gathers the courage to face death and endure the transformation toward being reborn as a complete being in charge of her own life.
Her journey starts by questioning authority, then gaining the courage to stand up for herself, and finally embodying the willingness to go it alone and face her own symbolic death. (pg 199)
Contrast this to the Masculine Journey, in which the hero “rejects inner exploration” in favor of pursuing some external goal. “His journey ends with questioning authority and his role in society, and by finding his authentic self.”(243)
In this essay, I’m going to walk through the nine stages of the Heroine’s Journey, explaining how each step takes the Heroine closer to a greater sense of her self and her role within the group. To give you a sense of how the pattern works, I’m going to apply it to one of my favorite games in recent years, Dragon Age 2.
(One important point: The Heroine’s Journey is in fact a gender-neutral monomyth. Although it is most often used for female characters -- hence the name -- both male and female characters can and do embark on this journey. To reflect that, I’ll be alternating Hawke’s gender as I go.)
1. The Illusion of a Perfect World
The story opens with the Heroine ensconced in a seemingly perfect world, a “glass bubble” designed to protect her—but not nurture. She’s safe, yes, but she’s also “shielded from the pain and uncertainty of taking risks for her own growth…she is asleep to the world around her and ignorant of the power she has to awaken herself.” (200)
Deep down, the Heroine knows her perfect little bubble isn’t so perfect, and in fact, the heroine must generally rely on some manner of coping strategy in order to tolerate living there. This might be as simple as living in denial or sublimating her own needs in order to serve others, while more self-aware heroines often succumb to depression, feeling helpless to effect real change.
Hawke’s perfect world, Lothering, isn’t shown in Dragon Age 2 – the darkspawn have already destroyed the village by the time the game opens – but assuming the player played Origins, she would be familiar enough with the setting—a simple, idyllic farming town where little of import ever occurred.
But the idea of a “glass bubble” actually goes much deeper than just a sense of place. Consider that Hawke is born into a family of mages; he’s possibly even a mage himself. In a world where discovered “apostate” mages are, at best, imprisoned for life and, at worst, executed without trial, Hawke must hide and deny his family’s magical heritage in order to eke by—though, of course, it’s better than the alternative.
Thus, his coping strategy is one of self-suppression: if he wants to protect his family and himself, then he must lie about who he is.
2. The Betrayal and Realization
Something out of the Heroine’s control shatters this perfect world, and everything she thinks is important is ripped from her. Once and for all, the heroine sees that this system she’s tried to so hard to work within doesn’t reward her as intended, and as Schmidt says, “she’s pushed toward a fork in the road where she must decide whether to go into the world to actively face her fears, or staying where she is and becoming a passive victim”. (206)
Note that this stage is about the heroine finally comprehending that her coping strategies don’t work, and finding the motivation to change—not the actual changing part yet, that comes later. What matters now is establishing why she takes her journey.
In Dragon Age 2, the external event that shatters the “glass bubble” at first seems to be the fall of Lothering. No matter how much Hawke plays by the rules and tries to conceal her family’s magical power, the darkspawn still invade and destroy her home, and she still loses everything: her farmstead, her friends, her possessions, her weapons, any family or pets who don’t appear in the prologue, and so on. By the time Hawke meets Ser Wesley, she can no longer hide the fact that Bethany – and possibly she too – is a mage.
Yet note that even after reaching Kirkwall, Hawke still tries to return to the coping strategy that worked in Lothering, in that she still takes pains to hide herself and/or her sister from the Templars. Instead of confronting the Templars head-on, she signs on for the Deep Roads expedition, hoping that if she simply has enough money, she can protect her family and that which she fears will be unable to pursue her further.
That’s why I think Hawke’s true Realization moment doesn’t come until a little bit later, when she meets the apostate Anders and attempts to help him free Karl. When the escape attempt fails, Hawke learns for the first time what Tranquility is—and she realizes a) that the consequences of discovery by the Templars are worse than she even imagined; and b) that no amount of keeping her head down will save her family if—and when—they are discovered.
3. The Awakening, or Preparing for the Journey
Now that the bubble’s been shattered, what the heck does the Heroine do now? How does she cope with what has happened? Does she react passively, and blame herself or others? Does she take active steps to seize change and go after she wants?
While the previous stage was about finding the motivation to change, the Awakening is about the choice to change—and as anybody who’s embarked on a great journey will tell you, that’s usually the hardest step. Especially given that someone – often many someones – will emerge to inform her that she simply can’t accomplish her new goals. They’ll tell her that change is too hard or painful, that she’s better off keeping quiet and staying still, and they’ll even offer to rebuild her perfect world, so she can go back to the way things used to be.
By this point, however, the Heroine realizes that her bubble was an illusion, even a prison, and therefore is no longer interested in rebuilding it. Thus, she chooses to ignore the naysayers and steps out into the world.
Of course, the heroine doesn’t really know where she’s headed, so she gathers any and all weapons and tools she thinks will help her on her journey (whether they actually do or not, well, we shall see). As she bids farewell to her old life, the Heroine makes her first new allies that will carry her into the life ahead – as Schmidt says, “whether she realizes it or not, she has friends who support her”. (207)
(Note that in the Hero’s Journey, there’s usually a separate step called “The Refusal of the Call”, wherein the Hero rejects the Journey ahead of him and reintegrates into his illusory world. This doesn’t generally happen in a Heroine’s Journey, because the coping strategy she once used has already been proven useless, and she has abandoned it for good. The bubble is shattered and can’t be re-entered, no matter how much she wishes it could. No going back now.)
In Dragon Age 2, the Awakening stage occupies the remainder of Act I. As Hawke cannot yet come to terms with the revelations that surfaced during “Tranquility”, he passively stays on the same path he was on before—that is, continuing his preparations for the Deep Roads expedition. He gathers weapons and knowledge, returns the Amell estate to his mother (a guilt-ridden appeasement that can’t possibly replace the life she lost in Lothering), and comes to some sort of understanding with his surviving sibling.
And, of course, Hawke meets his new companions in Act 1, starting with Aveline, who he first encounters as his old life is literally burning down around him. Next comes Varric, the storyteller and best friend; Anders, DA2’s great plot catalyst; and Merrill and Isabela, DA2’s connection to its predecessor. Fenris and Sebastian may also be encountered as well (though Sebastian may not be recruited until Act 2).
By the time he departs for the Deep Roads, Hawke seems to have assured the safety of his family as best he could. But all these preparations were for naught, as by the end of the expedition, Hawke loses his remaining sibling to the Wardens, the Chantry, or death. (For narrative consistency, I tend to prefer the sibling-joins-the-Chantry option.)
And even though the money from the Deep Roads expedition has indeed momentarily staved off the Templars for a mage Hawke, the cost of the expedition was much higher—and for a non-mage Hawke, the whole enterprise proved utterly useless, as Bethany is lost anyway. In terms of saving what really mattered – Hawke’s family – the Deep Roads expedition was a miserable failure.
4. The Descent, or Passing Through the Gates of Judgment
Now that the heroine has made the decision to change, she must actually get around to the changing bit. This is a stage about the Heroine facing her fears and obstacles, like gates needing to be opened. The Heroine might even confront the main villain for the first time during this phase, but the emphasis will be on the Heroine’s personal growth, instead of setting up some final showdown.
For each fear she confronts, the Heroine will attempt to use one of her weapons or other self-defense mechanisms. But it won’t work, and thus will be stripped away from her. The only way she gets past her fears is by finding the strength within to confront them head-on.
As Schmidt writes, the Heroine’s fears or obstacles generally coincide with one or more of seven inner turmoils – these should sound familiar to any fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender, as they coincide with the chakras Aang must open to awaken his true power, the Avatar state:
- Finding Survival – what is she most afraid of?
- Finding Pleasure – what is she most guilty about?
- Finding Willpower – what is her greatest shame?
- Finding the Capacity to Give/Receive Love – what loss does she grieve?
- Finding Truth and the Ability to Communicate – what lies does she tell herself?
- Finding Insight – what illusions does she cling to?
- Finding Self-Awareness – what earthly attachments does she hold?
However dangerous they might seem, none of these obstacles are actually lethal (that part comes later). But they are all sufficiently deadly that, in order to succeed, the heroine must learn to trust her instincts and surrender to the descent. She must confront and move past her inner demons to proceed with her journey.
Obviously this stage can be a long one, and in Dragon Age 2, pretty much any of the major plot events in Act 2 fit this bill – even as Hawke gets stronger, she continues to lose more and more, as the people, power and control she values are stripped away from her through the course of the story. I hesitate to get too specific about which quest corresponds to which turmoil, considering that’s really best left up to the individual roleplayer, but I think the Act II love interest companion quests offer a logical example for Hawke’s attempt to find her capacity to give and receive love.
Four of the five love interests offered in the game require the player to complete certain “companion quests” before they will sleep with you (or, in the case of the chaste Sebastian romance, before the romance can proceed).
All of these companion quests involve helping the love interest cope with their grief in some way. For Anders, it requires vengeance on Alrik, the Templar who performed the Ritual of Tranquility on Karl. For Merrill, it’s securing the Arulin’Holm, which will help fix the Eluvian and indirectly help her come to terms with Tamlen’s death. For Fenris, it’s going after Hadriana, his greatest tormenter back in Tevinter. For Sebastian, it’s investigating the Harrimans, who put the kill order out on the Vael family. As far as I know, Isabela is the only companion who doesn’t require a certain quest be completed before she’ll sleep with you—though one could argue that the conclusion to Act 2 serves the same purpose.
These quests hold up a mirror for the player, inviting them to ask what loss it is that Hawke most grieves. That differs from player to player, of course, but I think it’s likely that for most Hawkes, it’s the loss of her sibling during the Deep Roads expedition that still weighs first and foremost on her mind. She misses Carver and/or Bethany dearly, and the dialogue exchanged during some of the romance scenes—particularly the Marian/Merrill romance – suggest that in some ways, Hawke is trying to fill the hole her sibling left behind by finding a new person to protect, someone who, like a younger sibling, will believe her when she says “everything will be alright”.
Yet sleeping with these companions really doesn’t progress these relationships in the way Hawke might expect. Isabela and Fenris both leave Hawke the morning after, seemingly breaking the romance off. Meanwhile, Anders and Merrill both attempt to manipulate Hawke into inviting them to move in, and as the story progresses, both use Hawke’s love as a tool to enable their own personal obsessions, be it the cause of mage freedom or fixing the Eluvian.
Thus, Hawke tries to use love as a tool to deal with her grief, but the attempt ultimately fails. Sex doesn’t solve anything. It just makes things more complicated.
5. The Eye of the Storm
After facing her fears, the heroine gets a moment to catch her breath and think about what has just occurred. She realizes that hey, actually, when push came to shove, she didn’t do half-bad. And she starts to understand that she’s stronger than she thinks, better, smarter, more competent. Maybe, she thinks, the hard part is finally over.
Of course, nobody ever gets off that easy. Maybe she gets cocky and takes a chance she shouldn’t. Maybe she lets supporting characters take her home before it’s really time to go. Whatever it is, she relaxes, relents, lets down her guard, if even for a second – which only makes the next stage hurt all the more.
In Dragon Age 2, the moments of relaxation and reflection are mostly player-enforced – whenever you shut off the game counts, I guess — but I think a good in-game example is the scene after Leandra’s death in “All That Remains”, when the love interest (or Aveline), comes to visit Hawke and offer his/her condolences.
After all, relaxation and reflection isn’t always achieved through positive events. Sometimes it must be forced upon you, via loss.
Stage 4 and 5: Redux
In the Heroine’s Journey, Stages 4 and 5 may be repeated as often as necessary, in order to deal with all the Heroine’s fears and obstacles. In a way, these two stages are like a ritual cleansing, a stripping away of everything the Heroine thinks matters so that she can learn to trust herself when it really counts. This physical descent is reminiscent of the Belly of the Whale stage in the Hero’s Journey, except a) it can happen more than once, and b) rather than it being the lowest part of her journey, it’s instead an important step towards her eventual enlightenment.
As I said before, in Dragon Age 2, most of the Act 2 plots are Descent plots, involving a loss of some kind: loss of a mother, loss of control over the Qunari, or, in the case of Isabela, loss of a friend. In that vein, note that many of the Act 2 quests follow the same trajectory:
- Hawke first formulates a plan (save her mother, prevent the gaatlok from being sold, save Isabela’s skin) and storms in, guns blazing;
- Whatever initial strategy Hawke had in mind is thrown out the window when Something Big Goes Wrong (her mother’s fridged, an elf steals the saar-qamek instead, Isabela ditches her)
- Hawke must trust her instincts and adapt to the circumstances on the fly.
This is the real subversive (and brilliant) element of Dragon Age 2, in that the player assumes going into the game that Hawke, as a player character, ultimately has the power to decide fate – that is, that Hawke is in control of the world around her. But the Act 2 quests reveal that Hawke’s power is simply an illusion.
That’s not to say that Hawke is useless or unable to affect the course of events in Kirkwall – a common complaint about the game – because of course Hawke matters; the game is all about affecting the course of events in Kirkwall. (I mean, Champion, hello.) But rather Act 2 demonstrates that the strategy and preconceptions – the weapons -- that Hawke arms herself with are illusory. In a crunch, instinct is what truly matters. This is even reinforced by frenetic, fast-paced gameplay, which allows little opportunity for the pre-determined battlefield strategies that so characterized Origins.
I don’t need to tell you that the more streamlined gameplay was a highly controversial move on the developers’ part, and for those players expecting Origins redux deeply unsatisfying. But in the context of a Heroine’s Journey, Hawke’s growing reliance not on tactical remove but on her own instincts to survive is a crucial step of the journey, one that cannot be skipped if later events are to make any sense whatsoever.
This is reinforced by the opening to Act 3, given that there’s no save point between the duel with the Arishok and Orsino’s attempt to start a riot. To get through that sequence in the square, players must rely on their instincts, and truly think on their feet.
6. Death: All Is Lost
In the Death stage, everything goes to hell at once. The Heroine is caught off guard when the villain swoops back onto the scene, but this time the Heroine doesn’t have any of her weapons left to use in her defense. The villain isn’t playing around. She’s intent on the Heroine’s destruction, and the Heroine, vulnerable and broken, believes there’s nothing she can do to prevent it. Everything is lost. She dies. She fails at her journey. She accepts defeat.
In Dragon Age 2’s second Act, nowhere do the circumstances quest seem quite so dire as when the Qunari first invade the city. In this case, all Hawke’s efforts throughout Act 2 have been for naught. The city, his new adopted home, still comes under attack—but this time, unlike at the start of the game, there’s nowhere to flee.
In addition, Hawke once again experiences betrayal from his family – that is, from his companions, the only family he has left – when Isabela disappears with the only means of placating the Qunari and stopping the invasion. Kirkwall –and by extension, Hawke – is surely lost.
Note that the Death scene in Dragon Age 2 is not located at the climax of the story, as you might find in a Hero’s Journey; it’s smack in the middle. That’s a huge difference between these two narrative structures, and one that I personally find far more applicable to real life. Hitting rock bottom is never really so simple as it’s presented in the Hero’s Journey. Climbing out of that pit is ugly and time-consuming, and backsliding occurs, and I suppose it’s never really the end, only a change of direction.
Remember how I said the Heroine’s Journey starts with a betrayal? Well, when the Heroine crawls out of her own Death, facing her worst fears on her own, it means she’s finally reached the point where she can trust her chosen group again and accept help from others. As Schmidt writes, “she can’t be betrayed again because she has her own strength and self-realization that can’t be taken away from her.” (232)
Another way of saying this is, she can’t be healed from the trauma of her own death until she understands that strength lies in numbers – the heroine realizes it’s okay to be part of a group, even if that group is just one other person. (236)
It’s important to distinguish “accepting help from others” from “the prince swoops in to save the day”. The choices that save the Heroine must still be her own, the Heroine must still have agency. What happens here is more akin to cooperation: by letting someone else help her, the Heroine exposes that ally to the benefits of taking the inner journey—they help her, she helps them.
If we consider the Battle of Kirkwall as Hawke’s Death stage in Dragon Age 2, then I think the Support stage first begins when Hawke does the unthinkable – she pairs up with the Templars, who her family has been on the run from their entire lives, in order to save the city and the people she loves.
It’s a subtle moment, one easily overlooked amid the greater drama of Act 2’s climax, but given that Dragon Age 2 is really about the Mage-Templar conflict and not the Qunari menace, I think it sets the stage for everything to come in Act 3. Act 1 Hawke, with Bethany’s example weighing on her mind, might have offered her help to the Templars to keep them at bay, but she never would have accepted aid from them – not until all other options were exhausted, and all else was lost.
The rest of Act 3 is one long Support stages, a sequence showing Hawke consolidating support among her Companions and among the Mages or Templars for the fight that is to come. Most of the quests in Act 3 involve proving loyalty of one kind or another. Hawke proves her loyalty to Meredith or to the resistance in how she deals with the three apostate mages; Hawke proves her loyalty to her friends, by defending Fenris when Danarius shows up, or helping Anders with the sela petrae and drakestone, no matter how suspicious his request – or by not helping. Either way, Hawke draws a line in the sand, and every action culminates in Anders blowing up the Chantry, which provides the final test of loyalty and the story’s ultimate crisis point.
You might have noticed by now that I skipped over the duel with the Arishok, which was intentional. I mean, it’s a great capper to the Act, to be sure… but what does it really signify? In the grand scheme of the Heroine’s Journey, how the duel resolves makes little impact on the Mage-Templar conflict except to make Hawke’s greater involvement more believable. Indeed, as is revealed during Act 3, the Champion title doesn’t come with any greater power to prevent the coming war—just more headaches and responsibility.
This is another point that I think was greatly dissatisfying for those expecting a traditional Hero’s Journey out of Dragon Age 2. In a Hero’s Journey, the duel with the Arishok would have meant something grand or significant—but then again, in a Hero’s Journey, the Qunari would have been the real villains all along. Instead in this tale they’re the great bait and switch, and sometimes I wonder if the point of the Qunari was to be another defense mechanism stripped away from Hawke. In a way, the belief that all her problems could be solved by defeating an external foe, especially who treated mages like her sister (and maybe herself) as animals, was a retreat from the real problem, which is Meredith, the Templars and the system itself.
8. Rebirth: The Moment of Truth
The Heroine has found her strength, her resolve, and now she reaches out and grabs her goal with open eyes and open arms. She laughs at anyone silly enough to oppose her. She is no longer afraid to die – she has braved death, and come out the other side – in fact, she realizes now that she was already dead, way back when she was trapped in her glass bubble. She has learned her lessons. She has faced her fears. She is reborn. Nothing can stop her now. (236)
In Dragon Age 2, ostensibly the Rebirth moment occurs following the Chantry explosion, when Hawke must decide whether to support the Templars or the Mages. Once the choice is made, the rest of the Act unfolds as if Hawke is reborn “pro-Mage” or “pro-Templar”.
But personally, I think a more telling and poignant Rebirth moment is when Hawke decides whether or not to kill Anders, given that every moment and decision in the game has led up to this choice. Killing or sparing Anders is a decision that must take into account both Hawke’s birth family and the family he created for himself, while integrating the lessons learned from all those he met in Kirkwall, from Keran to Kelder, from Justice to Hybris, from Tarohne to Evelina. This test of loyalty raises the hardest questions of Hawke’s journey: Which should take precedence, revenge or mercy? Does sparing Anders mean justice only matters when it’s convenient? Does killing Anders prove the martyr right, in that there never was any difference between justice and vengeance? These philosophical questions are genuinely tough to answer, and made all the harder by the strength of the arguments on both sides.
How Hawke chooses to deal with Anders, I think, sums up far more about who Hawke really is than whether he follows Meredith or Orsino, and in my opinion, this choice the true emotional climax of the game.
9. Full Circle—Return to a Perfect World
The Heroine has achieved her goal, and returns home a changed person, utterly capable to live a better life. Her job now is to share her experiences, to influence the group, and help those still in the glass bubble break out and embark on their own journeys. In the Hero’s Journey, the Hero gets the girl, or the kingdom, or some other external reward, but in the Heroine’s Journey, the Heroine gets a sense of strength, awareness, or some other internal reward. There are more battles to be fought, yes, but she knows that she can face them, chin up, eyes open. (239)
Often times, says Schmidt, the Heroine’s Journey feels episodic in nature, because the ending is really a return to the start. The Heroine’s goals are achieved, but it always feels like there’s more to do, and one of the most important characteristics of this final stage is the hint that even as the Heroine’s life continues on, another cycle awaits, and nothing ever truly ends.
In Dragon Age 2, there is a limited amount of perfect world to return to, per se, given that Thedas is on fire with a new war. But the pro-Templar Hawke returns to the Viscountry, while the pro-Mage Hawke runs off to foment revolution (possibly with Anders by his side).
Either way, the story clearly isn’t over—even when Varric’s telling to Cassandra has concluded. More battles remain to be fought, but whatever they are, Hawke will be ready—wherever she is, of course.
Now that you know how The Heroine’s Journey works, you can probably start to recognize the pattern wherever you look. I’ve mentioned Avatar: The Last Airbender above, but other examples include Tangled (the original version of this essay walked through this movie in great detail as well), Thelma and Louise, American Beauty, and The Wizard of Oz. Director James Cameron is a particular fan, applying this monomyth to several of his movies, including Titanic, The Terminator and The Abyss. And of course the romance genre is full of it, as are generational family sagas and historical religious texts.
Yet the Heroine’s Journey also tends to meet resistance wherever it goes. How many times have you heard critics and fanboys alike deride romance novels or “chick flicks” as being boring or over-the-top, with plots that don’t go anywhere or characters obsessed with their own feelings? So too was Dragon Age 2 criticized on release: The story didn’t go anywhere, Hawke didn’t make enough of a difference in Kirkwall, the characters whined too much about their feelings, etc.
Dragon Age 2 is not a perfect game, but personally, I think some of its negative reception stems from the fact that we as a culture are not trained how to appreciate stories of inner journeys and introspection – or, if you want to be frank about it, what classically are considered feminine stories – in the same way we’re trained to value masculine stories. And it’s a damn shame too, because if any of this essay spoke to you at all, then it’s evidence that the Heroine’s Journey is just as valid an archetype as the Hero’s Journey, and for some people far more applicable and inspirational.
Could Hawke’s story have been told as a Hero’s Journey? Sure, but I don’t think it would have been nearly as rich a story, nor one I personally found as challenging and fulfilling. The great irony is that the game probably would’ve sold far more copies if it had gone the Hero’s Journey route, no matter that game store shelves are lousy with Hero’s Journeys already. If only Dragon Age 2 had been exactly like all the other games already out there, it probably would’ve been a blockbuster.
But I tire of those kinds of games, and those kinds of stories. Not that coming of age stories aren’t important, but… well… that’s all they are, you know? The Hero's Journey ignores the rich and vast realm of human experience available to those who’ve already come of age.
Isn’t it time we started embarking on new Journeys as well?