Undertaking the Heroine’s Journey in Fantasy Books

Journey banner

The Hero’s Journey. We all know it. We’ve seen it played out countless times–from the classic Greek myths to more modern stories like Star Wars, The Lord of the Ring, Eragon, and the game Journey.

Mythologist Joseph Campbell was the first to propose the archetype. Seeing a common pattern across various mythologies, he suggested the term “monomyth” and broke it down into 17 stages. The gist? Hero receives a quest (usually by some higher being) and leaves the comfort of his home to venture out into the wide world. The hero encounters a mentor and a ragtag band of companions on the way and, through a series of tests, becomes stronger. He succeeds in his goal and returns to the mundane world to share his wisdom and power.

Okay. Simple enough. But what about the Heroine’s Journey?

What about the experiences that pertain to women? Because while the hero’s journey can be undergone by anyone, it has a definite masculine taste and is most often associated with male characters. I mean, one of the stages is named “The Woman As Temptress.” (*raises eyebrow*)

Many people scoffed at the mere notion of a heroine’s journey. Campbell himself had reportedly said in an interview, “Women don’t need to make the journey. In the whole mythological journey, the woman is there. All she has to do is realize that she’s the place that people are trying to get to.” (Which, if true, is enough to make you sprain your eyeballs from rolling them so hard).

Undeterred, women in the past couple of decades have come forward with their own model of the heroine’s journey. But my absolute favourite would have to be Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s interpretation, as outlined in her book, 45 Master Characters: Mythic Models for Creating Original Characters.

The Heroine's Journey Chart

“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.”

The gist of Schmidt’s version is this: the protagonist starts out living in what they believe is a perfect life. Then something, or someone, shatters their bubble. They are yanked away from their former life–either literally or metaphorically–and they realize they must take some kind of action. Trials and tribulations follow and they fall into some dark times but crawl out of it in the end with the help of others. Fears and baddies are faced, the day is won, and the heroine returns home with a better understanding of themselves and the world.

The important difference between this and the hero’s journey is that the heroine, at some point in their journey, has to fall (Stage 6 – Death). A moment where everything goes to hell and the heroine is left dejected, defeated, and lost. Then, in stage 7 (Support), they realize that they can’t do this alone, that it’s okay to accept the help of others. This is a reaffirming of bonds between the heroine and their companion(s). And with it comes newfound strength and resolve to face their fears.

Another major difference is that the ultimate goal of a Heroine’s Journey isn’t external. It’s not the search of the holy grail or the defeating of a big bad evil. It’s a wholly personal one–an exploration of the inner self; the acceptance of one’s strengths; the proving of oneself to oneself. All that happens on the way, like facing a big bad evil, are just stepping stones.

It’s a story structure that I find myself loving more and more as I grow older. So today I showcase some fantasy stories that I think are great examples of this archetype (note: as with the hero’s journey, heroine’s journey can be undergone by anyone regardless of gender):

1. The Fitz and the Fool Trilogy by Robin Hobb

fitz-cover-collage.jpg

The life of FitzChivalry Farseer as a whole can be seen as a heroine’s journey, but I think the structure is most easily evident in the final trilogy. In Fool’s Assassin, Fitz starts out with his loving wife and his adopted children in their beautiful country estate. But, as you learn learn throughout the course of the Realm of the Elderlings series, nothing is ever easy. Things–bad, terrible things–happen and Fitz must undertake his most harrowing journey yet. Fitz has never been able to easily accept love and help from those around him, and his struggles to find himself in a world that is so confusingly hostile has always been the main focus of the series for me. These struggles remain up until the very end of Assassin’s Fate, a point in which all truths are revealed and the circle is closed shut.

2. Daughter of the Forest by Juliet Marillier

Daughter of the ForestMost of Juliet Marillier’s stories fit the bill, honestly, but Daughter of the Forest remains my favourite of hers. Sorcha is the only daughter in the Sevenwaters family. Though ignored by her father, she is wholly loved by her six brothers and her life at the Sevenwaters estate is more or less idyllic. Then a jealous stepmother steps into the picture and turns her brothers into swans. This curse will only be broken if Sorcha can make six shirts out of nettle plants and remain silent through the duration of the task. Thus begins her quest– an arduous one with many enemies and many friends.

It’s worth noting that while she finds love and support in Red, the British lord who finds her and takes her to Britain, at no point does he swoop in and carry her on his back. The journey is all Sorcha’s–all the pain and losses and tribulations. But while her inner strength is ultimately hers to uncover, it’s not done without the help of a warm hand holding onto hers.

3. Uprooted by Naomi Novik

Uprooted

Uprooted tells the tale of Agnieszka who is unwitting taken from the comfort of her small village to the home of the Dragon, a powerful wizard who keeps the valley safe from the dark forces of the Woods. In her journey, Agnieszka transforms from an awkward village girl who is ignorant of her magical gifts to a young woman with confidence in her abilities and the knowledge that compassion and understanding are some of the greatest weapons one can have in the face of hatred and anger.

4. A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

A Monster Calls
There’s no sweeping epic journey in A Monster Calls. At least, not of a physical kind–most of the story is set either in the protagonist’s house or his grandmother’s. But emotionally, it is a tale to rival any epic fantasy.

Connor is thirteen years old and dealing with the fact that his mother has terminal cancer and that a tree monster has taken to visiting him at night. The monster makes a deal: it will tell Connor three stories and at the end of the third, Connor will tell his own.

It’s a strange and sad story. And what I love most about it is that, at the end of it all, Connor’s main support comes from the unlikeliest of places.

Letting go can be a form of strength. And Connor’s journey is about realizing that.

 

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I’m always on the lookout for stories that follow this pattern–and there are a lot of them out there–so feel free to comment with your recommendations and suggestions for other books (of any genre) that you would include on this list.

 

23 thoughts on “Undertaking the Heroine’s Journey in Fantasy Books

  1. Sionna (Books in Her Eyes) says:

    We had to learn about the Hero’s Journey in high school, and it felt like most books fell into the archetype. I really like looking at this heroin’s journey though and how the change in internal — I haven’t thought about it, but I go like this type of character growth as well. I love the fall since it shows the reader that not everything goes smoothly and then support is so important because, well… we live alone 🙂
    Great Post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Consu says:

    Great post! I’ve studied the hero’s jouney in uni but this is a perfect explanation for the heroine’s. It shows how much research and effort went into the post, thanks for doing it!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. gwalsh1985 says:

    This is wonderful and well thought out post. Some of my favourites ‘A Monster Calls’ and ‘Uprooted’ have been listed above as part of the heroine’s journey which doesn’t surprise me now that I really think about it.

    I love that the idea around the heroine’s journey is more of an internal/ emotional one. In terms of ‘traits’ a lot of people would still balk at the idea of an internal/ emotional journey being any good because it is considered more ‘female’ but I guess that’s another discussion for another time.

    Personally, and I don’t know whether this is because *I* am female, I want the internal/ emotional journey because it adds depth and extra layers of conflict. In some ways what is at stake is the person’s sense of self, not just who they are in relation to the external world but who they are point blank.

    I’m going to be reading now with the question of ‘is this a heroine’s journey?’ in mind.

    Really good post, much enjoyed!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kathy @Pages Below the Vaulted Sky says:

      Ahh! Thank you! ❤ It makes me giddy to no end that I wrote something that has people reflecting.

      And I'm not sure either if it's because I'm female that I'm drawn to this archetype (I'll have to do a survey of my dude friends), but honestly, I think EVERYONE should be drawn to it. Life in general is a super emotional journey, regardless of your gender, and our external goals are so intrinsically entwined with our internal ones. And to see that portrayed in fiction makes you that much more connected with the story and the characters.

      Liked by 1 person

      • gwalsh1985 says:

        Sometimes I do wonder if it is a more ‘female’ trait to be involved in the more emotional elements of a journey but then I think of female characters who have emotional journeys (or male characters) but get a large male or at least both male and female audience. But then when I look at those characters again (such as Katniss, Arya Stark and Luke Skywalker) there are still a lot of elements to them that ‘allow’ (for the lack of a better word) male audience members to relate i.e. through violence and fighting. I’m fascinated overall by the differences of male and female characters and how they are perceived by male and female readers/ watchers. I call this the ‘Sansa Stark’ problem in that how she is received versus Arya (by both men and women) is really troubling. I love any discussion on gender in books. Thanks again for your post!!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Kathy @Pages Below the Vaulted Sky says:

        Oh my god, I would be totally down for a collab post/open discussion on the perception of female characters anytime in the future!
        I’ve been planning a post on why I dislike the phrase “Strong Female characters”, and Sansa vs. Arya is a brilliant example. Also, when Breaking Bad was airing, I was frankly disturbed by the amount of hatred that was directed towards Skyler White, and the amount of adoration showered at Heisenberg (mostly by the male audience).

        Liked by 1 person

      • gwalsh1985 says:

        I think female characters are fascinating and how they are viewed (by men and women alike) equally fascinating. I can honestly think of so many things to discuss and I think there is such a contradiction – female characters being viewed negatively if they have *too* many ‘female’ traits but then female characters being viewed negatively if they have *too* many ‘male’ traits or act a certain way when it’s ok for a male character in their story to have the same traits or act the same way. I’ve not watched Breaking Bad but sadly what you say doesn’t surprise me. The fact that it’s quite common for male viewers to be vocal about how much they hate a female character also worries me because I have seen some vitriol for other shows and movies. I look forward to your post on ‘Strong Female Characters’ very much. It’s a complex term isn’t it- but what is strength? It takes more than one form and ultimately why can’t a female character just be that – a character, with flaws and qualities just like the rest.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Kathy @Pages Below the Vaulted Sky says:

        Rey vs Luke Skywalker immediately comes to mind when I think of female characters being criticized for having the same “strong/male” traits as male characters. Boy, the “debates” I’ve had with people on that. *shudders*

        And I think people confuse “complexity” with “strength.” Do you know the show Penny Dreadful? Its main character, Vanessa Ives, is kind of the opposite of what so many books and other media call a “strong female protagonist.” She’s not physically strong, she’s kind of frail, she’s fearful of a lot of things, and she can be selfish and vengeful. But she also tries so very hard to fix her past mistakes and she’s trying to keep her head up in a society that punishes women for being too sexual and too different. And that too me kind of represents what strength is in a female character. Surviving and keeping to your beliefs in a world that tries so hard to grind you down (getting a bit Handmaid’s Tale here).

        Also, I just remembered we’re having this lengthy convo in a wordpress comments section. 😂 If you have another preferred social media to talk about stuff like this, feel free to tell me!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. gwalsh1985 says:

    Hahaha! I know, I do tend to go off on one! Would love to discuss in greater detail. Poor Rey, she was picked apart a bit by some ‘fans’ wasn’t she? But then I could get into another long discussion about fans and fan entitlement 😉 You’ll start wishing you never got me started!

    Liked by 1 person

      • gwalsh1985 says:

        If I was David Attenborough I think I would enjoy studying entitled college dudes in their natural habitat. I have thoughts and opinions on their thoughts and opinions but I need to remind myself to calm it the f*ck down as I get outraged quite easily! Thank you for the email address! I shall ping you one with mine!

        Like

  5. Justine says:

    Lol I was seriously thinking, “Woa! Kathy posted twice today!” And then realized I was looking through the fantasy book blog tag. 😅

    But anyways, I ended up reading this lol and it was really interesting! I haven’t been leisurely reading for that long nor do I study literature so I don’t know much of the more technical(?) aspects of fantasy so this was super informative for me.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Kathy @Pages Below the Vaulted Sky says:

      ahahaha I definitely do not have enough posts ready to do any kind of double posting anytime soon. XD
      And yay! Glad you found it informative! I never studied lit either but I’ve always liked cutting open fantasy stories and peering at the innards. Which totally doesn’t make me sound like a serial killer at all.

      Liked by 1 person

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