Where the Story Ends

Written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson. 


One of the questions we are most frequently asked by our readers and workshop participants is “How do you know where a story ends?”

Where to end a story is one of the most important decisions a storyteller makes. A story ends when a central character finds what they are looking for—even if it wasn’t what they thought they set out to find—or finds what they didn’t know they were looking for.

Where and how a teller ends (and begins) a story frequently determines whether the story is a hero’s journey, heroine’s journey, or other journey story. The ending can be even more important than the nature of the events being described. For example, if you tell the story of Joan of Arc and end with her leading the French to an unlikely victory over the English at Orleans, the story would likely be a hero’s journey. tumblr_pikcqdTIGC1u8gqcko1_400If the story then continues through her capture and trial for witchcraft—depending on the perspective—it could be a hero’s journey (Joan as martyr) or a heroine’s journey (Joan seeking understanding and serenity in the face of a rigged trial). If the storyteller then reflects on Joan’s life and meaning from the present day, the story could be a hero’s journey characterizing Joan as an inspiring icon to generations of women and the French following her death.joan_of_arc_704 It could also be a heroine’s journey that reflects on recent theories regarding Joan’s mental health, or on the differences in how passionate male and female leaders are treated. Or it could be a Journey of Integrity, in which the narrator reflects on Joan’s decision-making process through the lens of victory, defeat, and the years since her death.

The Hero’s Journey ends when the hero finds success or the ultimate boon. He has achieved his goal, returns to his society, and/or is recognized by his peers as having achieved success. The hero is a master of two worlds—the inner world which makes him a good leader/hero and the outer world which allows him to be a leader or proclaims him a hero.

luke & reyThe hero’s journey also ends with the implication that the hero’s success won’t be snatched away any time soon. It’s a kind of happily-ever after ending. If a sequel is anticipated, perhaps the hero’s success will lead to other complications that provide the chance for a new hero’s journey, but the success won’t be undone—at least not for that hero. If the success is undone, the former hero tends to become a supporting character (no longer the main character). They may become a wise elder or a mentor who urges the hero of the next generation to reclaim, recapture, or make additional progress on a larger problem that wasn’t anticipated when the first success was achieved.

In a hero’s journey, there is always the sense that success is right around the corner. Their journey is not envisioned as a long, imperfect struggle that will continue forever. The hero’s agency—his or her ability to bring about change—is central to the hero’s journey arc, so the journey usually ends shortly after the hero accomplishes their final feat and/or their victory/ability is hailed by others.

In a heroine’s journey, the story ends when the heroine recognizes and experiences wholeness. Life includes both success and failure, vulnerability and ability, self and others, and a larger world. The heroine’s self is not necessarily dominant or foregrounded, even over long periods of time. The heroine’s final goal is not to defeat or dismiss vulnerability, or failure, or sadness, or pain, or self, or others. Their goal is to integrate and value all these as necessary and valuable aspects of the human experience. It is rare that this experience of wholeness is solely an internal realization; a non-dual world is also manifested in the events of the story. It may be tempting to try to view wholeness as a resolution to a story in which the unpleasant aspects of life are part of the past but not the present, or new understanding will eliminate future suffering—but that is a hero’s journey.

Several of our readers have wondered if the heroine’s journey is more depressing than a hero’s journey. Many heroine journey stories have heartwarming or uplifting endings. For example, in the play about the women’s suffrage movement, I Want to Go to Jail, the story ends with a celebratory moment after a group political action. However, the main characters and the audience (which has the benefit of hindsight) understand that more action will be required before women are able to vote.National Womens' Party picketing

Another example of a heroine’s journey that ends on a positive note is the 2018 movie, The Green Book, which tells the story of an African American pianist traveling through the American south in the early 1960’s with an Italian-American bouncer who serves as his bodyguard. The story has a heartwarming ending when the jazz pianist drives through the night so that the bodyguard can get home for Christmas. The jazz pianist is then is welcomed into their home, but it remains clear that the pervasive racism that has followed the pianist throughout his tour has been neither “solved” nor “conquered.” Green BookThe odd-couple main characters have grown personally and relationally within the racist societal backdrop. The heroine’s journey doesn’t end with a sense of a “once-and-for-all” victory.

The end of the Healing Journey revolves around forgiving the self and sometimes others for not being able to control even one thing that you feel you most need to control. In this journey, the protagonist’s rage against the wound is at the center of the story. This may also appear as the apparent unfairness of an injury/illness, or the protagonist feeling overwhelmed by the cards they have been dealt. The protagonist often tries at first to solve their dilemma with a hero’s journey approach. For example, she might imagine that if she fights her illness hard enough, she will be healed, or that if she just accepts her illness instead, the conflict within will be resolved and she will get better. The hero’s journey promises that you can get well. The heroine’s journey involves finding compassion for one’s self and others whether or not you recover. The Healing Journey usually involves a point of absolute break-down, where the injured one wants to quit, and possibly die.DSC_0510 - Copy Then there is a moment or experience of beauty that surprises them, and allows for a shift in perspective, a shaft of light to enter their consciousness. Sometimes they give up trying to control, sometimes they give up magical thinking, sometimes they give up, giving up—the action can vary. What is important is that the protagonist forgives him/herself and an imperfect world.

A Journey of Integrity involves both the protagonist action and awareness (culminating in the moment of integrity), and also the witness/viewers’ awareness of and reflection on the meaning of the protagonist’s action. These stories may end with the protagonist returning to ordinary action in the ordinary world, but they also often jump forward in time or expand geographically so that the narrator or audience can see and comment upon the protagonist’s action within a larger context.

Readers and listeners always evaluate the meaning of a story through the lens of its ending. No story has a single, objective endpoint. As storytellers, we shape the readers’ experiences and the meaning of a story through the endings that we choose.

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In our next post we will discuss how the storyteller’s choice in where to begin a story affects the journey.

The Post-Mythic Journey of Integrity

Written by Nancer Ballard; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson. 


Today we are going to describe a new narrative arc that focuses on non-mythic human  experience and the embodiment of human possibility. The Journey of Integrity differs from the mythic Hero’s Journey and Heroine’s Journey in several important ways. First, the limits on a human being’s ability to control or impact the world is central to the journey rather than being an obstacle to overcome. The Journey of Integrity draws its power from the protagonist being an ordinary person, not an unusually talented hero or superhuman. Second, the protagonist in a Journey of Integrity recognizes that the world is a complex non-linear system that may continue to ramify geographically and in time beyond the story. Moreover, the success of the journey is not defined by changes in the external world. Third, the journey often comes as an interruption to the protagonist’s goals and life journey rather than as a call to adventure or invitation for personal transformation. The journey tracks a deepening of conviction rather than the protagonist’s transformation. Also, witnesses or readers play an integral role in the story which affirms the ability of ordinary people to speak out or act in a way that elevates our belief in human possibility.

Integrity Journey by Nancer Ballard

A post-mythic journey for ordinary people affirming the best of humanity.

Stage One: Protagonist sets out on their own journey, goal or path.

At the beginning of the story, the protagonist, and their dreams and goals are identified. Unlike the hero’s journey, and often the heroine’s journey, the integrity-driven story usually doesn’t start by focusing on the journey that ultimately defines the story. The moment that lies at the center of the Journey of Integrity requires a veering away from pursuing what the protagonist thought was her goal.

Stage Two: A concerning situation presents itself as a background event.

The protagonist learns about a concerning situation. The situation is often the sort of abstract concern we hear of half a dozen times a day—an act of corruption, a fire set in another county, someone has been accused of a crime, a group of people are being dismissed or ignored, a medical crisis has arisen in another country, etc. The protagonist is following their own journey and the situation may have nothing directly to do with the protagonist’s goals or those close to the protagonist. Stage Two emphasizes a real potential concern, the ordinariness of real concerns, and our tendency to screen out concerns that have no immediate effect on us.

Stage Three:  Protagonist continues on their path as they observe or become increasingly aware of the unfolding of a concerning situation.

The protagonist experiences growing awareness of the unfolding of the concerning situation. Consciously or unconsciously, the protagonist begins to track developments. The protagonist may hope that they have overestimated the seriousness of the situation, or that the situation will be resolved through the natural course of events, or that someone else who is closer to the situation, or whose job is to respond to such situations, will take action.

Stage Four:  The Protagonist grows more concerned about the unfolding situation.

As previously described, the unfolding situation often presents an interruption to the protagonist’s intended journey, goals, or plans rather than a manifestation of them. Stage Four addresses the central conflict of whether the protagonist will choose to interrupt (and potentially derail) their own plans and goals in order to respond to the concerning situation. The protagonist weighs difficult (e.g. worthy, but competing) feelings, priorities, values, and actions. This stage focuses on the problem of weighing alternative positive values rather than eschewing negative temptations or meeting the increasingly difficult tests of skill.

Stage Five: The concerning situation isn’t resolving. Protagonist is convinced someone needs to take action.

In Stage Five of the Journey of Integrity, “need,” “agency,” and “urgency” converge. The concerning situation may be deteriorating. Or time may be running out to fix the problem before it causes far-reaching or irreparable consequences. Or the protagonist may realize that the concerning situation is only the tip of the iceberg. The protagonist feels the need for action but may believe that there are others in a better position to make change or avert disaster. The protagonist is likely to tell a confidante that they feel someone needs to take action or speak out. They may try to gather support for group action, hoping that they can provide support and honor their prior commitments by not taking a lead role. Others may either agree that action needs to be taken or contend that action is useless. In Stage Five, the protagonist often begins to differentiate themself from others either by the intensity of their convictions or because they start to daydream or actively plan how action might proceed. Although the protagonist hasn’t yet committed to action, their mind turns over possibilities and strategies.

Stage Six: Others may try to dissuade protagonist from taking action.

The protagonist actively mulls over the “what ifs” of taking action and focuses on how to take action or speak out rather than whether to do so. Others may be alarmed at this change of focus and try to dissuade the protagonist from taking action. They warn that action could lead to adverse personal consequences (such as being dismissed, denigrated, fired, or being denied a long-sought opportunity). Action could also derail the protagonist from achieving their own goals by taking up too much time or attention, causing them to miss opportunities, or overtaxing them in an area unrelated to their personal goals. Moreover, taking action could be useless and a waste of time, or lead to disappointment and cynicism. Those trying to dissuade the protagonist may be justifying their own inaction, or they may have seen similar situations and realize that adverse consequences are real, and that the protagonist will not avoid them by acting out of good purpose.

Colleagues, friends, and/or family offer logic or reason to try to dissuade the protagonist from taking action.  However, because the protagonist is often deeply empathic or emotionally attuned to those affected by the unfolding situation, logic is not enough to dissuade the protagonist. There may be differences in scale between the consequences to the protagonist and the consequences of not taking action. (What is losing a job compared to a child losing their parent?) On the other hand, the protagonist is not naive. They understand that they may suffer as a consequence of taking action and that the outcome is beyond their control and perhaps beyond the ability of anyone’s control.  Stage Six of the Journey of Integrity differs from many mythic/epic journeys in that the protagonist consciously grapples with how to act given the limits of human control, time beyond the moment of reckoning, and the nonlinear complexity of cause and effect.

Stage Seven:  The Protagonist decides they must act or speak out regardless of the consequences. 

The Journey of Integrity protagonist’s decision to act arises from a deep conviction that the action must be taken, and must be taken now, or at a particular time regardless of the personal consequences. Stage Seven of the Journey of Integrity is akin to the existentialist moment. In existentialism, authentic existence means one has to envision or “create oneself” and act in accordance with this self rather than in accordance with one’s role, or societal demands, or personal history. In the Integrity Journey, the protagonist may begin to mentally and/or physically prepare for possible adverse reactions or ramifications of their decision on their own life or journey. They may confirm that they do not want to act, but realize that they have the ability to act in this time and in this place, and others cannot, or will not. They often feel like they have no choice, because not acting would be a betrayal of who they are what they stand for or how they want to live their life.

Like Søren Kierkegaard, who is widely considered to be the first existentialist philosopher, the Journey of Integrity protagonist recognizes, at least implicitly, that it is up to the individual—not society, or religion, or the state—to give meaning to life and to live authentically. The protagonist in a Journey of Integrity, like existentialist writers such as Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, focus on the power of an individual to act out of conscience (rather than for specific outcomes) and are acutely aware of their own and others’ vulnerability and the randomness of individual fates.

Stage Eight:  Action is taken. In the moment that action is taken, the protagonist’s self and values are one.

At the moment of action, the protagonist’s values, beliefs, knowledge, experience, hesitancies, trauma, and abilities come together in the decision to act and also fuel the action. The protagonist sees that the world has more moving pieces, forces, and people than any one person, including the most powerful of people, have the ability to control. A mythic hero’s limitations may serve to make the hero appear humble or increase plot suspense, but viewers and readers are never really afraid that the hero won’t succeed. However, in a Journey of Integrity, the protagonist is profoundly aware of their and others’ human limitations and accepts those limits. In speaking out or acting, the protagonist simultaneously affirms who she or he is, and the kind of world that they want to live in. Because the protagonist has chosen to act from non-logical, non-strategic values regardless of outcome and others’ reactions, the protagonist often experiences a moment of profound freedom or power that may feel ironic or surprising in the context of taking significant personal risk in a high stakes situation they cannot control.

Stage Nine: The chips fall where they may. The result is important to the story but is not the measure of the protagonist’s worth.

The protagonist’s original journey may be helped or thwarted by their action of integrity. The protagonist’s action may have important, slight or no apparent consequences in the external world. If the teller wants the story to be a hero’s journey, then the protagonist will be rewarded for their bravery even if that outcome is somewhat unrealistic, or the focus of the story will shift to the positive results achieved by the action. Unlike a hero’s journey story, real world results are important in a Journey of Integrity story, but they are not viewed as a measure of the protagonist’s worth or the value of having taken action. In a Heroine’s Journey, the heroine’s action is likely to bring about an experience of community within a larger world. In the Journey of Integrity, the protagonist’s action is implicitly for the benefit of a larger community, but the protagonist may or may not experience a greater sense of community as a result of taking action.

Stage Ten: The protagonist continues life in the ordinary world.  The world may or may not be changed.

The protagonist is changed as a result of their action, but this change is a deepening awareness and affirmation of who they are, rather than being transformed into a new person. Once the moment of integrity is over, the protagonist returns to their ordinary world as an ordinary person (albeit a person who, for a moment, has acted in a remarkable way). Sometimes the protagonist is hampered in returning to their ordinary life by those who would want to make the protagonist into a hero or use the event for their own purposes. The protagonist understands that the power of their action lies in it being available to an ordinary human being rather than associated with a god-like being. They may be declared a hero or heroine or may become a leader, at least momentarily, but the heroic status is likely to be short-lived, and it is not the protagonist’s destination. In a Journey of Integrity, the protagonist’s leadership is based on inspiration rather than extraordinary talent, intellect, or power over others. Such inspiration may flare for a moment, but its subliminal impacts can linger for years.

Stage 11Those who witness the moment of integrity reflect on the nature of the world (or their new understanding of it) in light of others’ reactions to the action. Regardless of the world’s response, the protagonist’s act stands apart from the reaction as an act that affirms humanity’s capacity for good.

A story of integrity often ends with a depiction or narration on the ramifications of the protagonist’s action in the world. The ramifications can be major or minuscule. Whether the act was successful in fulfilling its mission and how long the change lasts will affect witness’ view of the goodness or fairness or cruelty of life, but the protagonist’s act cannot be denigrated by other characters’ reactions. The response to the protagonist’s action can give witnesses a sense of hope, confirm cynicism, bring relief, or evoke other feelings about the witness’s place in the world or view of humanity. However, regardless of the world’s response, the protagonist’s act stands apart from a cruel, or receptive, or crazy, or indifferent world. Their action affirms the possibility of good people, good works, or good results and demonstrates the power of the individual to represent the best of humanity for its own sake.

Unlike mythic tales, the witness never forgets that the protagonist is a human being, who–like the witness, viewer, or reader– suffers and tires, and can feel humiliated or elated, relieved or betrayed. Indeed, it is the protagonist’s human-ness that gives the Journey of Integrity story meaning. In the moment of speaking out or taking action, a palpably human protagonist enacts our best values and by doing so, elevates the reader or witness’s sense of positive possibility for humanity.

Facing the Witch: The Aletis Heroine’s Journey

by guest blogger, Jody Gentian Bower; editorial review by Nancer Ballard and Savannah Jackson. Jody Gentian Bower, PhD., is a cultural mythologist and the author of Jane Eyre’s Sisters:  How Women Live and Write the Heroine’s Story.


In the 1980s, I belonged to a women’s book club. Over time I noticed that most of the novels we read featuring a female protagonist had a similar plot. Then I realized that many of the great novels by women, the established classics, followed the same plot. I found a similar plot in the biographies of many noted women.

The idea that women authors* have been telling a consistent story for centuries wouldn’t leave me alone. Yet I couldn’t find any discussion of this plot by scholars of literature. The Heroine’s Journey by therapist Maureen Murdock, Women Who Run with the Wolves by folklorist Clarissa Pinkola Estés, and Jean Benedict Raffa’s memoir The Bridge to Wholeness touched on some of the motifs I’d seen (and opened my eyes to a few I’d missed), but their approaches were not quite what I was looking for. My fascination with the literary plot itself eventually led to Jane Eyre’s Sisters: How Women Live and Write the Heroine Story.

I came to call this plot the Aletis story—aletis being an ancient Greek word that means “wandering heroine.” Allerleirauh_by_Arthur_Rackham (1)Her story is not defined by an external quest like the Hero’s Journey plot. Instead, her journey takes her farther and farther away from home until at last she finds the place—both within and without—where she is able to create the life that she has always longed for. Unlike the hero, who proves himself a man by a heroic act that enforces and preserves the idealized vision of the status quo of the community, the Aletis finds her inner worth and bases her life on what she values. She doesn’t ask anyone else to change, but her example often causes her community to shift out of old ways that no longer work.

I call her the wandering heroine because she keeps moving, keeps on leaving situations where she cannot be herself. For example, Jane Eyre longs for a life lived fully, with passion. She chooses to leave her adoptive, abusive home to go to school; chooses to leave Lowood School and her teaching job to become a governess for strangers; chooses to leave Mr. Rochester when he asks her to compromise her integrity; and chooses to leave the safe harbor she’s found with her cousins when St. John tries to force her into a loveless marriage. Eventually, the Aletis finds (or, like Jane, builds) her own home where she can put down roots and create what she was meant to create. She provides an opportunity for others to do likewise, like Celie of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, who draws a community of like-minded creative people to her—including her own formerly abusive husband.

But first the Aletis must journey into the wild place, the place of danger, the very place her family and community have warned her against. In old tales like “Vasilisa the Beautiful,” she goes from her little village into the forest where the scariest thing of all, the witch Baba Yaga, lives. Bilibin._Baba_Yaga (1)In many recent stories the wild place is the big city, the center of sin and crime. The heroine has been taught all her life to fear this place, yet she is drawn to it.

In the wild place she encounters the witch. The wicked witch is often the villain of a hero story; the hero must defeat her. But in Aletis stories, the witch becomes the girl’s teacher. The witch must be approached with respect; not as an enemy, but not in a craven way either. The heroine has to prove herself to the witch, and the first thing she must prove is that she respects herself too. She must stand boldly before the witch and tell her what she has come for.

The witch sniffs, unconvinced. She sets the girl a series of impossible tasks. These tasks require the girl to use discernment—to sort out the good seeds from the bad—or be diligent and unwavering as she spins the mountain of straw into gold. Her commitment provides the magic that allows the task to be accomplished. Once the girl passes the test, the witch gives her what she needs.

Miranda Priestly of Lauren Weisberger’s The Devil Wears Prada is a modern Baba Yaga, feared by all who know her. (“Miranda” means “miracle” and “Priestly” evokes someone in touch with divine power.) The heroine Andrea, newly come to the big city from her small town, walks boldly into Miranda’s demesne and asks for a job. Miranda sniffs, as do all the sycophants around her, but she lets Andrea stay and sets her a series of increasingly impossible tasks. After Andrea passes the tests, Miranda recommends her for her dream job, investigative journalism. Andrea will not only get to write but will have a positive effect on the wider world.

The Aletis story teaches us how to go willingly into the heart of the unknown. It teaches us that when we come face to face with those we’ve been taught to fear, we don’t have to fight them or defeat them. Instead, we must stand firmly in our integrity as they test our commitment to learning from them. In showing them respect while maintaining our own self-respect, we often receive their respect and ultimately, their cooperation and aid.

To learn more about Jody’s work or purchase a copy of Jane Eyre’s Sisters:  How Women Live and Write the Heroine’s Journey, click here.

*And a few visionary men. Shakespeare’s Viola of Twelfth Night, Charles Dickens’s Lizzie Hexam of Our Mutual Friend, Daniel Defoe’s Moll Flanders, and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Éowyn of The Lord of the Rings are examples.

Disney’s Mulan: Almost A Heroine

Written by Katerina Daley; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson.


From the day Bambi first struggled to his feet in 1942, Disney has been a strong proponent of Hero’s Journey plot arcs. Indeed, as explained in our blog about Christopher Vogler’s  “Memo that Started It All,” for the past quarter century this has been a deliberate commercial decision. To respond to the contemporary demand for female protagonists, Disney has produced a number of films about marriageable but defiant princesses who engage in quests of one sort or another that culminate in a happily ever after ending without loose ends. The 1998 film Mulan, released four years after The Lion King, provides some interesting complications to the Disney Hero’s Journey formula.  Although the title character, Mulan, achieves great fame and honor by the film’s end, her motivations are more complex than the typical hero’s and at the film’s end it is clear that her journey is far from over.

As in Maureen Murdock’s Heroine’s Journey, the movie  begins with Mulan’s Separation from the Feminine. Fa Mulan does not fit the traditional feminine ideal of her community, evidenced by her disastrous failure at fulfilling her role as a potential bride during her meeting with a matchmaker. Due to this failing, the matchmaker chastises her for bringing “dishonor” to her family. Following this Separation, she moves on to Identification with the Masculine and Gathering of Allies when she learns that an order has been issued for sons and fathers to join the army in the fight against the Huns. Rather than allow her aging crippled father to go to war, Mulan cuts her hair and dresses in his armor. Her ally is Mushu the red dragon, the film’s stock anthropomorphic comic animal sidekick, and an alleged ancestral guide.

I'll Make a Man Out of You

The final shot of the “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” song number depicts Mulan as fully integrated among her fellow (male) soldiers.

With Mushu at her side, Mulan sets out for the army camp and finds herself traveling the Road of trials and Meeting Ogres and Dragons. Upon arrival at the camp, Mulan struggles to find acceptance, but she eventually makes a name for herself by succeeding at an exercise no other man can, depicted in the film’s most popular song, the ironically named, “I’ll Make a Man Out of You.” This is the first of many times when Mulan’s new (heroine) perspective permits her to creatively solve a problem that all the men around her are stuck on. After earning the respect of her captain, Li Shang, Mulan joins her fellow soldiers battling  the Huns. During this crucial battle, Mulan experiences the Boon of Success by aiming a firecracker at the overhanging cliffs and creating an avalanche that kills many Huns.  In this attack, Mulan is thought to have killed their savage leader, Shan Yu.

Her success is short-lived, however, and Mulan is soon propelled into Feelings of Spiritual Aridity. She is injured during the Hun attack and once the dust settles and she is treated for her injuries, her gender is revealed. Her betrayal of self was impossible to maintain and Mulan is fed up with attempting to perpetuate the lie that denies and limits who she truly is.

The sentence for having pretended to be a man would normally be death, but her life is spared since she saved her captain’s life during the battle. Instead, she is cast out of the troop and left with nothing but her horse, her armor, and her animal guides, Mushu and Cri-Kee the “lucky” cricket.  Left behind by her fellow soldiers, Mulan learns that Shan Yu and some of the Huns actually survived the avalanche.  She realizes she must go to the Imperial City to save the emperor and her comrades.

When Mulan arrives in the Imperial City, she attempts to advise Captain Li Shang about the Huns and their plans to attack again now that the city’s guard is down, but he doesn’t listen to her because she is a woman. In the face of this rebuff, Mulan realizes she alone can avert disaster and is forced into Healing the Wounded Masculine. She knows that she needs to take action to save China. Ignoring Li Shang, she enlists the help of the three close friends she made while in the army who accept and trust her even knowing that she is a woman.

Mulan Masculine Feminine

Mulan shows her skill at subverting gender expectations by working her society’s sexist views to her advantage.

The film’s rising action reaches its climax when Mulan is able to use the skills she learned training to be a soldier and her intelligence and feminine wiles to defeat Shan Yu and the Huns. In an Integration of the Masculine and Feminine, Mulan  instructs her fellow soldiers to dress as concubines in order to enter the palace, since the invisibility of women  will now finally work to her advantage. She also confronts Shan Yu personally, and by drawing her hair back to imitate the style she wore  while posing as a male soldier, she shocks Shan Yu by revealing that he was defeated by a woman the first time, and will now again be defeated by a woman. She is rewarded by the emperor for saving China and offered a prestigious position among his staff. Mulan rejects the Emperor’s offer, preferring to return home, having brought honor to her family.

Had the movie ended there, Mulan would be one of a very few heroine’s journey tales aimed at children.

However, rather than endorse Mulan’s family-oriented motivation to return home to an every day life to be a satisfying ending, Disney tacks on a quick and confusing love plot. Captain Li Shang arrives at the Fa family home to return Mulan’s father’s helmet, but he suddenly acts sheepish and love-struck. Mulan invites him to stay for dinner. Her grandmother asks if he would like to stay forever. Mulan has already fulfilled her mission of having worked for something greater than herself, but by introducing the marriage-with-Li Shang plot, Disney steps back toward the more familiar Snow White ending and sets up ground for the direct-to-video sequel Mulan II. In the sequel, Mulan becomes  a political escort/body guard for the Emperor’s three daughters (who are also the subjects of a series of aborted and then successful marriage plots) and a quasi-princess in marrying into the Li family. Unable to believe that Mulan’s personally motivated but ultimately selfless drive could satisfy their audience, Disney has tweaked this heroine’s journey tale enough to fit on the rack with their other princess stories and produce a sequel that lacks both the heart and truth of the original.

Captain America: A New Kind of Hero(ine)

Written by Katerina Daley; ed. assistance by Savannah Jackson.


By virtue of being superheroes, it would be easy to assume that all popular DC and Marvel superhero films would chart neatly onto the Hero’s Journey. Indeed, popular movies such as the Christian Bale Batman trilogy and the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man trilogy do map smoothly onto these paths. As film-viewing audiences become increasingly interested in more complex story lines there may be more opportunities for superhero(in)es and Heroine’s Journeys. In Captain America: The Winter Soldier (the sequel to Captain America: the First Avenger) Marvel has created in Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) a hero whose selfless and emotionally-driven arc more accurately resembles Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s Heroine’s Journey than it does Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.

steve rogers on the subway in avengers deleted scene

Steve tries to take in the world around him in this deleted scene from The Avengers.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier begins with the very purposeful meeting between Steve Rogers and Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie). Sam is a former air force para-rescue member who now works with Veterans Affairs helping former soldiers with PTSD. Steve is a perfect case study for this kind of psychoanalysis. Having been a soldier in World War II who witnessed his lifelong best friend plummet to his presumed death, and having been reanimated seventy years after his own presumed death, Steve has many issues to grapple with. In a three minute scene from the previous film involving Steve, The Avengers, he is pictured struggling to come to terms with the world around him. He struggles to understand the end of World War II, the fact that all of his dearest friends are dead, and the preponderance of bizarre technology filling the world around him.

steve rogers visits the captain america exhibit at the smithsonian in the winter soldier

Steve visits the Captain America exhibit at the Smithsonian with presumable regularity, reinforcing his feelings of guilt.

Considering this backstory, it is significant that the first friend Steve makes in this film is Sam and that Sam sees in Steve a familiar vulnerability. After meeting during an early morning run, Sam simply asks, “It’s your bed, right? […] Your bed. It’s too soft,” and in doing so, Sam reveals his own sleep difficulties. Steve acknowledges that he too struggles with sleep and states that his bed now feels like “lying on a marshmallow [and that he] feel[s] like [he’s] gonna sink right to the floor.”

Steve also avoids developing romantic relationships and frequently visits the Smithsonian exhibit on Captain America in order to reinforce his self-inflicted feelings of guilt about the loss of his past friends. He even visits his lost love, Peggy Carter, who is now elderly, suffering from dementia, and forgets his visits the moment he is out of her line of sight. The Mayo Clinic lists sleep issues, emotional numbness, “reliving the traumatic event,” “overwhelming guilt or shame,” and “hopelessness about the future” as markers of PTSD. The film therefore invites the audience to infer that Steve is going through this trauma. As we have observed on our Best Picture Oscar Winners page, Heroine’s Journeys male protagonists often have some kind of marginalizing characteristic. For Steve, it is PTSD.

Following this introduction of Steve’s emotional state, the film refocuses on the familiar patterns of typical superhero films. For Steve, the Illusion of the Perfect World is his naive belief in his status as Captain America working for S.H.I.E.L.D. (Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division), a governmental agency staffed with superheroes that help combat all forms of terrorism. Steve is sent on a mission he believes is to save hostages on a ship, but discovers that his current partner, Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), has instead been given a different mission: “saving S.H.I.E.L.D. intel” from the ship’s computers. This initial Betrayal or Disillusionment from both his partner and his superior, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson), quickly sets the tone of mistrust that will continue to build in a series of successive Betrayals. After confronting Nick Fury with his valid concerns about the lack of transparency between them, Steve is made privy to information regarding the inner workings of S.H.I.E.L.D. that are far above his clearance.

steve rogers realizes he is going to be killed in the winter soldier

Steve realizes that the surprisingly crowded elevator is filled with men who have been ordered to kill him.

For a brief moment, Steve is an insider in the world of S.H.I.E.L.D., but just as soon as this new coping strategy is created, Fury is the subject of an assassination attempt from within S.H.I.E.L.D. When Fury shows up injured and bleeding at Steve’s apartment, he shows him a series of messages, including the simple but powerful “SHIELD COMPROMISED.” This new Betrayal causes Steve to realize that the Perfect World he had lived in was, in fact, an Illusion. Fury gives Steve the flash drive with the intel that Natasha had saved from the ship, and moments later, Fury is shot fatally through the wall of Steve’s apartment. As he lays dying, he urges Steve, “Don’t trust anyone.” Fury’s assassin is a figure known only as The Winter Soldier, a terrorist who has wreaked havoc and committed mass murders for nearly seventy years. Rather than give in to the temptation toward hopelessness, Steve attempts to do justice by avenging Fury’s death. When he is summoned by the new leader of S.H.I.E.L.D., Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford), and questioned about Fury’s death, he claims to know nothing. The next Betrayal takes place immediately after this, as he is branded a fugitive by Pierce and finds himself the subject of an assassination attempt in an elevator in S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters.

After this third Betrayal, Steve undergoes The Awakening and Preparing for the Journey. He becomes even more determined to honor Fury’s memory and expose S.H.I.E.L.D.’s inner corruption, and due to this new determination, he goes against his previous state of emotional numbness and forms a hesitant allegiance with Natasha once again, as they both have a stake in having the truth brought to light. During The Descent or Passing the Gates of Judgment, the usually honest and straightforward Steve is forced to follow the guidance and tactics of the Russian-trained spy Natasha, which results in his growing sense of discomfort with the world around him. As he is hunted by men whom he had previously considered allies and friends, he becomes a more covert operative than he has been accustomed to.

steve sam and natasha form a team in the winter soldier

“Everyone we know is trying to kill us.” “Not everyone.”

In The Eye of the Storm, Steve discovers a hidden bunker belonging to S.H.I.E.L.D. that is being used to preserve the digitized consciousness of Arnim Zola, a founding member of the Nazi subsidiary Hydra. In an interrogation with the digitized consciousness, Steve learns that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been infiltrated by the corrupt and morally devoid members of Hydra, but before Steve and Natasha can receive all the answers they are looking for, they are thrust into the Death/All Is Lost phase as they find themselves the subject of an assassination attempt once again organized by Pierce. Following this near death experience, Steve immediately seeks out Support in the form of Sam Wilson, who proves to be a more capable ally than either Steve or Natasha could have expected. Sam possesses a specific skill set with an EXO-7 Falcon set of wings from his days in the military and, therefore, becomes the perfect third member of their quickly forming heroic team.

As the trio begin working together to isolate the members of S.H.I.E.L.D. who have been corrupted by Hydra, Steve’s journey cycles back and presents another Eye of the Storm. They are successful in apprehending Agent Jasper Sitwell and begin to interrogate him for the information they desire regarding Hydra’s plans. Before they can get all of this information, however, another Death/All Is Lost moment occurs. The group is attacked by The Winter Soldier, the same assassin who killed Fury near the film’s beginning. But as Steve engages in a hand to hand combat with the assassin, he learns the most shocking truth of all: the Winter Soldier is his own childhood best friend, Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), whom Steve had believed to be dead but who was, in fact, frozen in time just as Steve had been.

Following this revelation, Steve appears to have lost all hope until he, Sam, and Natasha are saved by the Support of one of the few uncorrupted S.H.I.E.L.D. agents, Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders). The group then gains more psychological Support when they learn Fury survived his assassination attempt. With his team growing larger and stronger, and with the revelation that his lifelong best friend has been turned into a brainwashed killing machine, Steve enters a stage of Rebirth/Moment of Truth. While preparing to launch an attack on S.H.I.E.L.D. headquarters, Steve breaks into the Smithsonian Captain America exhibit to steal his old Captain America uniform in the hope that Bucky, as the Winter Soldier, will be stirred enough by the familiar memory to recognize Steve for who he really is.

bucky remembers steve in the winter soldier

Steve finally gets Bucky to recognize him.

As Steve and the Winter Soldier engage in a presumable fight to the death, Steve desperately tries to trigger Bucky’s memories. “Bucky, you’ve known me your whole life….Your name is James Buchanan Barnes….I’m not gonna fight you. You’re my friend,” he implores, but Bucky remains firmly fixed in the mode of the Winter Soldier, even with Steve’s familiar uniform and candid speech. “You’re my mission,” the Winter Soldier replies coldly before attacking Steve again, but Steve won’t give up. “Then finish it,” he says shakily, before adding, “’cause I’m with you ’til the end of the line.” This phrase, a direct callback to what Bucky told Steve when Steve’s mother passed away (a flashback scene inserted within the film’s main narrative about half an hour prior), seems to finally bring Bucky back. He gazes at Steve in wide-eyed horror and recognition, unable to move, before suddenly, Steve is ripped from his hands as the aircraft they are fighting on begins to give way. Steve falls to the Potomac below, but Bucky saves him from certain death by dragging him to shore.

At the film’s end, S.H.I.E.L.D. is in shambles, Fury leaves in hopes of finding and destroying whatever remains of Hydra, and Steve and Sam go off in search of Bucky to see if they can help him. Very few things are clearly resolved, but there is no doubt that Steve is undertaking a Return to a World Seen through New Eyes. His emotional journey of saving and reconnecting with his best friend is just beginning, as is his friendship with Sam, and a subtly hinted-at romance with former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp). Steve’s world at the end of the film may appear similar to the world at the film’s beginning insofar as he is still undertaking dangerous adventures as Captain America, but he is now wrestling with the disillusionment that S.H.I.E.L.D. is not as idealistically motivated as he had believed. He still seeks to do good in the world, but it is his own personal, emotional drive that compels him to do so, not any kind of blind faith in the government or America as a whole.

Wonder Woman: Another Hero’s Journey Hollywood Success

Written by Savannah Jackson; ed. assistance Nancer Ballard.


Leading up to, and since its release, the DC superhero(ine) movie Wonder Woman (2017) has garnered approval for partaking in the new wave of “feminist” movies due to its female director (Patty Jenkins) and protagonist. The movie follows Diana Prince (Gal Gadot) who, having grown up in a mythic land surrounded only by powerful women, struggles to achieve success in a man’s “real” world (both on and off the battlefield) and make sense of her identity. Placing a confident woman hero on the big screen is a success for female representation in the film industry, but the movie does little to alter the typical male heroic plot. Some have argued that Diana’s completion of the Hero’s Journey is long-needed proof that the monomyth applies to both men and women, but this ignores countless women who’ve already gone through the Hero’s Journey, and men who’ve completed the Heroine’s Journey. We believe that, while this movie shows young girls and women that they can take the main stage, it fails to present them with any alternative to the masculine narrative society usually demands they fit themselves into if they want to succeed.

In the recent movie, Diana’s story begins on the secluded, paradisiacal island of Themyscira, and it is all Diana has ever known. This is her ordinary world where she feels safe and comfortable, and yet, there is tension between her and her mother, Hippolyta (Connie Nielsen), who forbids her from learning to fight, knowing that Diana’s growing strength makes it easier for Ares (David Thewlis), the god of war, to discover and destroy her. Diana looks up to her aunt Antiope (Robin Wright), who goes behind Hippolyta’s back to teach Diana to fight and is a strong role model (mentor) for the young superheroine-to-be. Diana refuses her personal call to leave the island out of respect for her mother’s wishes—to a certain point. However, the death of her mentor and her second call to adventure coincide when World War II pilot Steve Trevor (Chris Pine) crashes from the sky and convinces Diana that the world beyond her island cannot be ignored.

While many Hero Journey characters metaphorically cross the threshold, Diana literally crosses the veil that separates and protects Themyscira from the time-bound outside world currently engaged in WWII. Diana encounters her tests, allies, and enemies as she befriends those fighting with Steve (Samir, Charlie, and Chief) in the war, struggles to comprehend the suffering around her, and combats the villainous Nazi doctors (Ludendorff and Dr. Maru). As the team goes through their approach and prepares to confront and defeat the doctors creating weapons of pain and destruction, Diana reaches her ordeal when she decides to cross through No Man’s Land.

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Diana successfully crosses through No Man’s Land.

Through this scene, Diana recognizes her potential and secures her position as a leader. There is reward in the trust she has gained and the brief moment of peace experienced by the small town she liberates. For a moment Diana imagines a less chaotic life with Steve, but she’s not deterred from continuing with their plan to kill the Nazi doctors and thus end the production of their weapons. The group finally confronts Ludendorff but is unable to prevent the death of the people of the small town Diana liberated only moments ago. Diana eventually kills Ludendorff, but this does nothing to end the war, and she grapples with the reality of this. Diana loses faith in the possible goodness of man but when Steve tells Diana she is the best equipped to save mankind, she accepts all her superhuman powers and fights Ares (e.g. Resurrection). Having accepted and fully achieved her role as a superhuman weapon, Diana turns Ares’ power against him and defeats him, thus reaching the climax of the movie. Having been recognized as a leader and savior by Steve—the ones who counts in Diana’s mind—the movie jumps to Diana in the modern day where she continues her commitment to fight for justice, keeping the picture of her times with Steve close at hand.

Wonder Woman’s message that a Hero’s Journey can be completed by both women and men is not revolutionary, although it is a positive development that Diana, as a female hero, isn’t immediately killed upon completing the journey’s arc. At its core, the movie reinforces the masculine Hero’s Journey paradigm rather than moving toward a larger vision of wholeness. Throughout her journey, Diana seems to only come closer to the preordained role she already desired. She questions the efficacy of violence when she succeeds in killing Ludendorff and nothing changes, but instead of altering her worldview and coming to terms with this, she doubles down and confronts Ares to destroy him and end the war.

There is ironic beauty in Diana defeating Ares by harnessing his own power and turning it against him, but this is not a new, un-masculine tactic (for example, in the conclusion of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Aang strips Ozai of his power to end his tyrannical rule instead of killing him). Diana kills the god of war, and in the flash forward to the future, she seems to still be content with this. She accepts her duty to protect mankind even if they do not deserve it but falls short of healing a mother/daughter split. Diana does not have to reconcile her view with her mother’s admonition that “fighting does not make you a hero.” In the present “real” world, Diana Prince—Wonder Woman—still fights in the name of justice, and ultimately is stuck within the constraints of the Hero’s Journey.

The Heroine’s Journey of Viola Price

Written by Katerina Daley; ed. assistance Nancer Ballard.


The difference between a hero’s journey and a heroine’s journey is often where the story spends its time and where and how it ends.   Hero’s journey films and books usually end with a moment of glory although in actual life the glorious moment may have been followed by a long-period of struggle and maladjustment to life after glory that evolves over time into a broader and deeper recognition of life’s complexities.  Given the attention given to some  recent hero’s journey films such as  American Sniper and Unbroken,  we’d like to discuss an interesting heroine’s journey film.

In the 2014 television movie A Day Late and a Dollar Short, based on the 2001 Terry McMillan novel of the same name, a dying woman seeks to provide the members of her dysfunctional family with a guide for living with compassion. Her goal is not mastery, or creating fairy tale endings, or a erecting a personal monument, but to positively contribute to those who will outlive her. The journey of Viola Price (Whoopi Goldberg) follows Victoria Schmidt’s Heroine’s Journey path. Using compassion and empathy, Viola seeks to help her family members while she’s alive and after she’s gone while recognizing the limits of her control. The story also depicts complex conflicts that cannot be resolved in a fairy tale manner because there have already been consequences.

A-Day-Late-and-a-Dollar-Short-Whoopi-GoldbergAt the beginning of the film, Viola lives in the Illusion of a (semi) Perfect World. She lives  with her long term husband, Cecil (Ving Rhames) and dreams of traveling to Paris.  This dream quickly shatters. After suffering a severe asthma attack she receives news from her doctor that she has  congestive heart failure and that another asthma attack could kill her. This  news brings the Realization that her coping strategy of dreaming of a brighter future in Paris cannot save her and that she must figure out what is important to do in the time she has left.

Upon realizing that her time  is limited, Viola undergoes an Awakening and Preparing for the Journey be realizing that she must try to heal family competitions and strife  before she’s gone. “There’s a whole lot of mess I gotta clean up before I go,” she says in one early moment in the film. “I can’t have them killing each other after I’m gone.” Her worries are well-founded, for  it quickly becomes apparent that the large Price family is falling apart at the seams. Each family member presents a great challenge to her which she is determined to overcome through sheer force of will.

A-Day-Late-and-a-Dollar-Short-Ving-Rhames Then Cecil walks out on her for a woman who is younger than their children. In her Descent,  Viola discovers that the other woman is pregnant, which causes her  to ask how long the affair has been going on. She is also worried that Cecil will abandon their troubled family for a new one once she’s gone.

In what is a small measure of success, Viola successfully convinces Cecil to reconnect with his children.  At a party she also learns that his mistress appears to have been pregnant for longer than Cecil says he has been going out with her, and that she may have told him he was the father in order to give her child a father but the  baby may not be his. Viola doesn’t gloat upon her small taste of success; instead, upon seeing how much Cecil cares for this other woman, she encourages him to make things work with her.

Meanwhile, their  adult children’s personal and relationship difficulties continue to sprial  downward. The oldest daughter, Charlotte (Tichina Arnold), is bossy, overworked, and angry. Viola  sees herself in Charlotte and  worries  about the future of her daughter’s marriage when she witnesses Charlotte  snapping at her husband. She encourages Charlotte to be more attentive which leads Charlotte to realize that her husband is sneaking around. Charlotte has forgiven her husband for a prior affair on the condition that he mend his ways,  but she finds him meeting secretly with his prior mistress.

Viola’s second daughter, Paris (Anika Noni Rose), is an anxiety-ridden, pill popping television host who is also a single parent that has given up on sex and romantic love, and has a troublesome seventeen year old son.  Paris and the oldest daughter, Charlotte, also have a highly contentious relationship Hoping to ease some of her rigidity, Viola introduces Paris to a handsome gardener who works in the neighborhood.  He shares many of Paris’s interests and has also been through pill addiction of his own, but Charlotte wants nothing to do with him.  When she learns her son has gotten his sixteen year old girlfriend pregnant, she appears on the edge of another relapse.

A-Day-Late-and-a-Dollar-Short-Tichina-Arnold-Ashanti-Bromfield-and-Kimberly-EliseThe youngest Price daughter, Janelle (Kimberly Elise), is flighty, clueless, and headstrong.  A remarried widow and  mother to a reactive fifteen year old, Shanice, she cannot see her daughter’s  pain, although Viola quickly notices Shanice’s diversionary  behavior and finds indications of self-harm. Shanice, as it turns out, is being molested by Janelle’s new husband. Janelle throws her husband out but does not win over her daughter by doing so.

The only son in the family, Lewis (Mekhi Phifer), is an unemployed, divorced alcoholic who often gets arrested for petty crimes . Viola feels great remorse about the fact that he has been characterized as a wasted genius his entire life and the feeling that she “failed [him] as a mother.” If Viola does not quite believe that all if lost, moviegoers certainly have; this family’s trials seem too profound for  a positive outcome.

Support for Viola’s  mission takes many incremental forms When Lewis unwittingly stumbles upon the funeral plans that Viola has been preparing in secret, he follows through with her request that he spend more time with his son and  learns that his son is being beaten by his ex-wife’s new husband.  Although he initially makes the ill-advised move of attacking the stepfather, a violation of his probation, the film suggests that he will learn from his mistakes and take a larger role in his son’s life. Charlotte who is initially furious when she thinks her husband has been seeing his old mistress learns that the other woman had a child as a result of their affair, and that her husband has been helping to support the child.  And Paris begins to soften and edge toward a relationship with the sober gardener.

A-Day-Late-and-a-Dollar-Short-Mekhi-Phifer-Kimberly-Elise-Anika-Noni-Rose-Ving-Rhames-Ashanti-Bromfield-and-Tichina-ArnoldBefore any of the repairing is complete, Viola dies.  But after she has passed, it is revealed that she left a series of letters that the quarreling family members are instructed to read to one another (Paris to Charlotte, Shanice to Janelle, and Cecil to Lewis). Each letter has been written to inspire both recipient and reader to view the other in a different light. For example, in the letter read by Paris, Viola views Charlotte’s husband’s responsibility to his out-of-wedlock son as a sign of  growing maturity and responsibiity rather than as a threat to their relationship. Viola urges Paris to trust her son’s feelings for his girlfriend as Viola trusted Paris when she, too, became pregnant at a young age.  After each has had their Moment of Truth from Viola  Cecil open his letter from Viola in which she writes, “I’m leaving this wayward family to you. You’re in charge now.” In the end, loving relationship and difficult realities are united, and  relationship f appears to have the upper hand.  The film intercuts the reading of these letters with shots of the family embracing one another, caring for one another. Viola, now as spirit, observes, “I don’t know if all this hugging and kissing you’re looking at is what will be or what I hope will be. But either way? It’s a beautiful thing.”