The hero’s journey is a classic story structure that has been used for centuries. This timeless storytelling technique encompasses the three core aspects of a protagonist’s journey. Using it in fiction often seems like common sense, but the secret is to use it in nonfiction as well.
In this article, I will define what the hero’s journey is, explain how powerful it can be when used in nonfiction, and like always, give examples for better understanding. When we begin to employ fiction writing techniques in nonfiction, our stories will be that much more powerful.
While there are some aspects of fiction writing that we can’t use in nonfiction, many fiction rules apply to great storytelling. Nonfiction is a type of storytelling, so let’s dive into how to use the hero’s journey in our nonfiction.
What Exactly Is The Hero’s Journey?
Twenty-one time New York Times bestselling author, Jerry Jenkins, describes the hero’s journey as three specific stages: Departure, initiation, and return of the hero. Let’s discuss the three aspects and then dive into how to apply it to nonfiction.
#1 – Departure
In fiction, the hero’s journey often begins as they depart from their normal life. Whether it is Katniss Everdeen leaving home to compete in The Hunger Games, Frodo Baggins leaving the Shire, or Buttercup setting off on her adventure in S. Morgenstern’s classic, The Princess Bride, the journey associated with heroes begins with them leaving.
#2 – Initiation
Enter, conflict, obstacles, and trial and error. At this point in the story, a hero meets unexpected issues. How will they overcome the obstacles they face and enter into conflict in a way that results in victory?
Katniss is armed with her skill with a bow and arrow, Frodo is just a young hobbit, and the Buttercup’s adventure takes her into places she’s never seen before. These initiations reveal the character of protagonists and are a crucial point in the hero’s journey.
#3 – Return
When a hero returns, they are changed in some way. Whether Katniss has come out a victor, Frodo emerges from Mordor having succeeded in his quest, or Buttercup escaping into a happily ever after, their return bookends the story.
The Powerful Role It Plays In Nonfiction Writing
But what does a hero’s journey have to do with nonfiction? The protagonist’s of your favorite nonfiction carry much more heroic weight than you may realize. Think of Lopez Lomong in Running For My Life. His journey is heroic from first to last page.
Consider Rick Bragg’s national bestseller, All Over But The Shoutin’. A memoir, this evocative story will keep you on the edge of your seat. Remember Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson’s New York Times bestseller, highlighting one of his first cases, concerning Walter McMillian.
What do these books have in common? They tell a story, a real story, but they do so by also sharing the journey of the protagonist. It is not simple to write a nonfiction story, especially about yourself, and share both the highs and lows of your journey.
This type of writing takes deep inner reflection, humility, and a commitment to telling the truth without a filter. However, this type of storytelling resonates with readers. There is a reason these books are so loved.
3 Examples Of The Hero’s Journey
Rather than simply tell you that it’s important to include a hero’s journey in your nonfiction storytelling techniques, it’s important to see real life examples. Knowing writing rules is simply a step in becoming a great writer. Actually employing the writing rules takes you a step further.
Sometimes, seeing the example of a writer who has come before is the exact bridge we need to fill in the gaps between head knowledge and execution. Let’s dive into our first example.
#1 – I’m Possible: Jumping Into Fear and Discovering a Life of Purpose
Jeremy Cowart is a photographer who has captured the images of individuals such as:
- Taylor Swift
- The Killer
- Gwyneth Paltrow
- Barack Obama
- The Kardashians
- Chris Stapleton
- Dolly Parton
The list goes on, but he has also been published in Rolling Stone, ESPN The Magazine, People Magazine, Entertainment Weekly, Wall Street Journal, and worked for companies such as Nike and Warner Brothers Records.
However, in his book, Jeremy shares his journey to reaching the success has today. In fact, in school his guidance counselor approached Jeremy’s mother due to concern for his antisocial behavior.
The journey from shy child to successful artist is full of conflict, highs and lows, and a return to what he loves and keeps him grounded.
#2 – Becoming Elisabeth Elliot
New York Times bestselling author, Ellen Vaughn, shares the life of the young missionary Elisabeth. Complete with photos, journal entries, and a minute-by-minute recounting of the day Elisabeth’s husband, Jim, was tragically killed, Vaughn shares not just the heroic side often associated with Elliot, but the inner turmoil as well.
In fiction, well-rounded characters are humanized, and in nonfiction, individuals must be revealed as human as well. Stories that stay with us are ones we resonate with, connect to, and ones where we can put ourselves in the protagonist’s place.
While we likely haven’t lost a husband in the way Elisabeth Elliot did, all of us can, in some way, relate to loss and overcoming tragedy.
Humanizing nonfiction characters is crucial to connecting with readers, but also a key aspect in the hero’s journey.
#3 – The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned From 15 Years As CEO of the Walt Disney Company
Bob Iger shares his journey and the leadership style that eventually led him to become CEO of Disney. Ironically, he released his story in 2019 and stepped down from his position as CEO in 2021.
However, according to the Los Angeles Times, “Bob Iger returned to the role of chief executive of the Walt Disney Co. in November 2022, replacing Bob Chapek, his hand-picked successor.”
The hero’s journey of Bob Iger has had many twists and turns, to put it lightly. In his bestselling book, Iger shares, with striking humility, successes as well as the failures that have paved the path to where he is today.
In his book, he states that, “Wherever you are along the path, you’re the same person you’ve always been.”
This is a crucial statement to keep in mind as you write your own nonfiction or fiction, and craft your hero’s journey.
Heroes will grow and change along their journey. They will depart, face conflict, and ultimately, return. Some of the best writers take the time to delve into the core of who they are and reveal that no matter what comes their way, they simply come out stronger in the end—a true hero.
What If I’m Not A Hero?
Writing yourself as the protagonist, and therefore hero, of your story may feel a bit uncomfortable. This discomfort is understandable, but don’t let it keep you from sharing your story with readers who will benefit.
We all see successes and failures. It’s part of being human. How we handle them, portray them, and grow from them is what defines the hero’s journey. Happy writing!
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