Reader Question: Do all characters get their own ‘hero’s journey’?
Or is the Protagonist’s journey the only one that matters?
A tweet from @khanb1:
is it imprtnt to give all chars their own hero journy regrdless of acrhtype?
Okay, this one short question raises a plethora of issues. Let me break it down into three parts: Archetypes, Hero, Journey.
One of the essential principles of screenwriting that I teach is this: Character = Function. That is in a screenplay, every character has a narrative purpose. They exist for a reason. Part of the reason is tied to the Plotline [External World] in that the character influences events that transpire. Part of the reason is tied to the Themeline [Internal World] in that the character influences the emotional course of the story.
Most movies have five primary character archetypes: Protagonist, Nemesis, Attractor, Mentor, Trickster. These types are malleable in an endless variety of forms, but at their essence as characters, they each provide a specific narrative function: A Protagonist is most often the central character in a story and it is their goal which dictates the end point of the Plotline; Nemesis characters generally provide an oppositional dynamic against the Protagonist; Attractors are most fundamentally connected to the Protagonist’s emotional development; Mentors are most fundamentally connected to the Protagonist’s intellectual development; Tricksters test the Protagonist usually by shifting sides.
The ‘hero’ is almost always the Protagonist. It’s their story, they are the ones who go through the most dramatic metamorphosis.
Often a Protagonist does go an actual physical journey, leaving their Old World and venturing into a New World. That’s not always the case as sometimes the journey is purely symbolic in nature. But whether the journey is physical or symbolic, there is an accompanying aspect that is psychological in nature. Again Plotline (External World) where events happen and Themeline (Internal World) where the emotional meaning of those events unfolds.
Here is a classic example of the hero’s journey:
In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo Baggins must take the ring to destroy it in the fires of Mount doom. That is the spine of the Plotline, the actual physical journey. But in the story’s Internal World, there is an accompanying psychological dynamic: The growing influence of the ring over Frodo where he begins to suffer the very same fate that happened to Gollum, obsessed with possessing the ring. Fortunately Frodo can’t bring himself to throw the ring into the Crack of Doom, Gollum, a Trickster, is there to seize the ring from Frodo, eventually falling to his death and ensuring the ring is destroyed.
Now let’s look at two stories that are not your typical hero’s journey, yet are in their own way:
In The King’s Speech, the Protagonist (Bertie) never travels outside England for the entirety of the movie, so in that sense, his is not a typical hero’s journey. However he does venture forth from his Old World into a New World in at least two respects: (1) Old World as monarchical realm vs. New World as Lionel’s office; (2) Old World as Bertie suffering his speech impediment alone vs. New World as Bertie sharing the experience of his stuttering — and its underlying psychological influences — with another person in the form of Lionel. As noted in a recent post, the accompanying psychological dynamic is about Bertie going into those aspects of his psyche that bring him pain and cause him fear — recalling and reliving experiences with his father, brother, childhood nurse, and a lifetime of embarrassment re his public speaking — in order to overcome those fears and in so doing discover his voice to rightfully claim the throne as King.
In Bridesmaids, the Protagonist (Annie) does go on a few side trips, but they simply service the more symbolic nature of her hero’s journey: Old World as single woman hamstrung by infantile notions of what romance is vs. New World of the whole crazy wedding preparation thing for which she has zero preparation. The accompanying psychological dynamic is tied to her metamorphosis most definitively physicalized by her forsaking the dead-end pseudo-relationship with who she thought was an ideal romantic mate (Ted), then experiencing genuine love in the form of the police officer Nathan, eventually falling for him.
So speaking to the original question, do all the characters in these stories go through a hero’s journey? Yes and no. Yes, in the sense that they are participants in the Protagonist’s journey. No, in the sense that the journey is not really theirs.
It may seem like a subtle distinction, but it’s an important one: In most stories, the symbolic focus and importance of the hero’s journey is tied to the Protagonist and their psychological metamorphosis. All the other characters’ involvement in that hero’s journey is secondary, they are tied to, advance, and influence events in the Plotline and Themeline, but fundamentally they do so in order to service the Protagonist’s story.
A related question: Do all characters go through some sort of metamorphosis? Some may, some don’t. But strictly speaking, the most important transformation dynamic is almost always that of the story’s Protagonist.
I look forward to continuing the discussion in Comments.