December 21, 2010

the hero's journey - resurrection

We’re coming to the end of it. The hero is on his way home, on his way toward a new adventure, just on his way somewhere. Now comes one of the trickiest and most challenging passages for the hero, and for the writer. For the story to feel complete, the audience needs to experience an additional moment of death and rebirth. This is the climax. The first half of the story may have been building to a particular moment of seizing the sword, but in all reality, this is the point of the story where everything comes together and confronts the hero with the last and most dangerous ordeal. Heroes have to undergo a final purging and purification before returning to the Ordinary World. They must be resurrected.

Just as heroes had to shed their old selves to enter the Special World, they must shed the self that has been on this grand adventure and take on a new persona suitable for the Ordinary World. This new self should reflect the best parts of the old self and incorporate the lessons learned on the adventure. The idea of this last death-and-rebirth moment is to see if the hero retained what he learned from the Supreme Ordeal near the middle of the story. To learn something in a Special World is one thing. To bring the knowledge home and apply it is another thing entirely.

The Resurrection may merely be a hero facing death one last time in an ordeal, battle, or showdown. It’s often the final, decisive confrontation with the villain or Shadow. The difference between this confrontation and that of the Ordeal is that the threat now is not only to the hero, but to the whole world. The stakes are now at their absolute highest.

The hero should be the one to act in this climactic moment.

The hero should be the one to act in this climactic moment.

The hero should be the one to act in this climactic moment.

Three times for retention. Say it out loud. Copy it down. Make a daily mantra of it. Many writers make the mistake of having the hero rescued from death by a timely intervention of an Ally – may I say it? Deus ex Machina. Literally “god from the machine.” The idea is that in an impossible situation, the hero receives the help of his patron god, and everything is hunky-dory. It’s one thing to have such a plot device be a reasonable part of your story, such as in the Percy Jackson novels. They’re about gods and goddesses and demigods. It makes sense for godly intervention in those stories, and even so, the heroes are the ones that act! 

For crime novels, this would be the equivalent of the hero fighting for his life in the last pages of the story. He’s going to lose it. The readers know it, the writer knows it, the hero knows it, and then… a police force shows up to save him and capture the criminal. Hooray! No. Not hooray. The Pit and the Pendulum by Edgar Allan Poe is a perfect example of deus ex machina. The protagonist, imprisoned in a torture chamber, has no chance of surviving, but then… the Inquisition shows up! Wait… what?


So the hero in your story is fulfilling his exemplary role and fighting tooth-and-nail against the baddie. It’s the ultimate showdown. It’s the classic gunfight of the Western, the swordfight of the swashbuckler, the military battle of the epic, or the high-flying kung fu fight of a martial arts story. These showdowns are not fully satisfying unless the hero is taken right to the edge of death. He must be clearly fighting for his life.

Most of the time, heroes survive this brush with death and are reborn again. Usually the villains die or are defeated, but sometimes, the hero dies. These dead heroes usually fall under the tragic hero archetype. We knew from the beginning that they were going to die. Instead of living on mortally, these heroes are Resurrected in the sense that they will live on in the memory of the survivors, those for whom they gave their lives. The martial arts movie Hero perfectly executes the death of the hero (if you have not seen it, watch it… it’s a beautiful movie) in a rain of arrows. 

As I said before, the Resurrection is the climax, an explosive moment, the highest peak in energy, or the last big event in a story. It can be the showdown, but it can also be a difficult choice or an emotional confrontation.

Sometimes the climax is quiet, a gentle increase of emotion. A quiet climax gives the sense that all the conflicts have been harmoniously resolved. After a hero has experienced the death of a loved one, there may be a quiet climax of acceptance or understanding.

Some stories need more than one climax, or a series of rolling climaxes. Subplots may require separate climaxes. The hero may have separate climaxes for different levels of awareness. He may have a mental climax, where he changes or makes a decision internally. This decision may bring about a physical confrontation, and resulting from that, the hero may undergo a change of feeling, emotion or behavior. All three of these climaxes may mount at a single time also.

A climax should provide the feeling of catharsis for the reader, a purifying emotional release or emotional breakthrough. Laughter, tears, and shudders of terror are the triggers that bring about this healthy cleansing. The energy of the act builds up until a moment of climax, when the energy is at its peak. The resolution of this energy leaves the reader, writer, and protagonist in a strange place of comfort and giddiness. (It’s difficult not to attribute this structure of climax and catharsis to sex.)

The catharsis is the logical climax of a hero’s character arc, a term used to describe the gradual stages of change in a character. A common flaw in stories is that the writers make heroes grow or change, but do so abruptly. Change needs to happen over time, in degrees or gradual stages. (I’ll do a post on this later.) The Resurrection is the hero’s final attempt to make major change in attitude or behavior.

This stage of the Hero’s Journey is the hero’s final test, his chance to show what he has learned. Heroes are purged by final sacrifice or deeper experience of the mysteries of life and death. Those who survive go on to close the circle of the Hero’s Journey when they return home.


  1. I kinda disagree with you about about the Pit and the Pendulum. It's not exactly unreasonable to have the inquisition show up. You have no context to what's going on outside the pit. There are egregious examples of deus ex machina--the movie Legion.

  2. the point is that the protagonist did absolutely nothing to free himself; that's what i was trying to drive home.

  3. Ah. Well then in that case, consider my objection withdrawn. :D