The Heroine’s Journey

Cover image for The Heroine's Journey by Gail Carrigerby Gail Carriger

ISBN 9781944751500

“I like it when things end happily, and most of the time that means, to me, together. I enjoy it when characters end up in solidarity, friends or family, lovers or platonic. That’s what I hunt for…connection.”

The Heroine’s Journey is a story structure book mapped to three goddess myths, including Demeter, Isis, and Ishtar.  Gail Carriger delineates three main stages, including The Descent, The Search, and The Ascent, and highlights key beats such as the breaking of the familial network in act one, the appeal to, or creation of, found family in act two, and the negotiation for reunification in act three. Each of these beats emphasizes the importance of relationships, casts asking for help as a strength, and points out that the heroine is weakest when she tries to go it alone. While the Heroine’s Journey can be turned tragic, the heroine is more likely to get a happy ending surrounded by friends and family. Carriger provides examples from a number of well-known pop culture works, relying particularly on Harry Potter and Twilight due to their common currency, and also talking about how she has employed the ideas in her own novels.

Carriger is the author of a variety of steampunk and urban fantasy fiction titles, including the young adult Finishing School series, and the Parasol Protectorate books. The Heroine’s Journey is her first non-fiction title, but her voice is still distinctly recognizable. She employs humour and short chapters with a chatty tone, but her insights are sharp if not always perfectly organized in her first foray into non-fiction. Her fiction books feature casts of cooperating characters building relationships and finding their place in the world, so it is no surprise that The Heroine’s Journey deals in precisely the types of stories Carriger likes to read and write. These are stories of connection, romantic, platonic, familial, and everything in between. Carriger was an anthropologist in a previous career, and describes The Heroine’s Journey as a social, anthropological approach to story with a grounding in the classics, and decidedly not a Jungian or psychoanalytic approach derivative of Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.

Although she emphasizes that the Heroine’s Journey is not derivative of the Hero’s Journey, Carriger does frequently cast the two in contrast to one another, using our familiarity with the Hero’s Journey to illuminate the key differences between these structures. She summarizes the Hero’s Journey in one pithy sentence as: “Increasingly isolated protagonist stomps around prodding evil with pointy bits, eventually fatally prods baddie, gains glory and honor.” By contrast, the Heroine’s Journey rendered in one pithy sentence is: “Increasingly networked protagonist strides around with good friends, prodding them and others to victory together.” The sections in which she examines what happens when a hero enters a Heroine’s Journey, or a heroine enters a Hero’s Journey are particularly interesting as a result of these conflicts and differences.

Carriger weaves an important caveat throughout the book, stating it explicitly up front, but then reiterating it throughout the text. Although it is called the Heroine’s Journey, it can be undertaken by a person of any gender, just as the Hero’s Journey can. She underscores this point by using the 2017 Wonder Woman movie as a prime example of the Hero’s Journey structure, and then arguing that Harry Potter is in fact a Heroine’s Journey, clearly hitting the beats of broken familial network, found family, and the importance of belong, love, and working together. This is key to her point that “biological sex characteristics are irrelevant to whether a main character is a hero or a heroine. In other words, women, female-identified, and non-binary characters can be heroes. Men, male-identified, and non-binary characters can be heroines.”

With National Novel Writing Novel upon us, I’d recommend this book for anyone writing a story that doesn’t map easily to something like the Hero’s Journey or other common plotting structures due to its emphasis on interpersonal relationships or emotional rather than action outcomes. Fans of mythology and those who enjoy looking for patterns and structures in their stories may also find The Heroine’s Journey to be an interesting exploration of story types and structures that are wildly popular with many readers but don’t fit well into other models.

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