Crossing the Threshold: the webpage of Melinda Rose Goodin

The Hero's Journey -- a path to plotting. Examining "Nobody's baby but mine" by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

By Melinda Goodin


The Hero's Journey is a traditional storytelling pattern that has appeared across many Western cultures. It follows ancient patterns of personality and relationships that can be found in the world's myths, legends and folk tales. These patterns may be familiar to anyone who has read fairy tales or mythology: questing heroes, the heralds who call them to the adventure, the wise old men and women who give them advice and magical gifts, shapeshifters who alternately assist and interfere with the quest, dark villains out to destroy the hero and those foolish sidekicks who cause trouble but also bring comic relief.

The main textbooks that deal with the Hero's Journey are Joseph Campbell's The Hero With A Thousand Faces and Chris Vogler's The Writer's Journey . Campbell's work is theoretical and technical, but fascinating reading. Vogler has synthesized Campbell's theories and placed them into an easily understood and implementable format. In this article, I refer to Vogler's more accessible text.

I swear by this theory - it's almost impossible to have a sagging middle if you follow Vogler's techniques. And the good thing about the Journey is it works for two main types of writers -- the "by the seat of the pants" writers can use it to analyze a complete first draft before rewriting, and the "plan it first" writers can set everything up and ensure all the characters and plot turns are in place. Although Vogler focuses on mystery/action/science fiction movies, the technique works just as well for popular fiction of any genre.

The "Hero" in "The Writer's Journey" is a generic and non-sexist term referring to the protagonist or character that has the most significant changes to make throughout the novel. In romance novels, the protagonist is usually the heroine, but in more cases recently, both the hero and the heroine act as protagonists. Each have their separate pathway to take, but the two journeys intermingle throughout the progress of the novel. Within this article, I will use the pronoun she to refer to the Journey's "hero", as "s/he" sends my word processor into an autocorrecting frenzy.

The Hero's Journey can be physical or emotional. An emotional journey, such as usually occurs in a romance, takes the protagonist from her normal state of affairs and challenges her ideas, beliefs and current existence. A proactive protagonists responds to such challenges, undergoing tests of her moral fiber and emotional strength. Frequently she will have to examine all that she has believed to be true before a major confrontation. It is here that she pulls victory from disaster. And it is here that she seeks to return to normalcy. Many writers believe this is the end of the journey. But it isn't.

The protagonist has not finished learning the lessons of the journey until she has released the old beliefs that had her stuck at the beginning of the story. If she can't do this, she really hasn't learned anything from her trials and tribulations. The final test often requires she let go of something she has cherished or hoarded for all of this time. Only when she has completed this final change can she return to a normal state of affairs, but her life will have been irrevocably changed.

The stages of the Journey are set out in the following general pattern:

We are introduced to the protagonist/s in their Ordinary World, where they receive the Call To Adventure. Often, they Refuse The Call, until circumstances or their Mentor encourage them to take the first steps. Once they Cross The First Threshold, they leave their ordinary world behind and step into a special world where they must learn the protocols and ways of passage. Within the special world they must pass Tests, earn the assistance of Allies and defeat or learn from Enemies.

When they are ready, or as time pressures them, the protagonist/s must Approach The Innermost Cave, crossing a second threshold. There they must undertake the Supreme Ordeal. Upon victory, they Seize The Reward and are pursued along The Road Back to their Ordinary world by vengeful enemies. It is on the road back that they cross the third threshold, and suffer a metaphorical Death And Resurrection as they give up those patterns of behavior, beliefs or possessions that they have held on to all this time and that stop them from truly changing. Then they can Return With The Elixir: they are a different person, one who will make a positive change to their ordinary world.

Each of these stages is examined in depth by Christopher Vogler, and he shows how to analyze movies and books to find the underlying Journey. The Journey is flexible enough to remain strong with the order of the stages changed or, in some cases, even missed altogether.

Susan Elizabeth Phillips is one author whose novels progress clearly along the hero's journey. Analysis of her latest paperback release Nobody's Baby But Mine shows how this old storytelling tradition lends itself to contemporary romances. (Warning: Although I've tried not to reveal any of the delightful ways Ms Phillips gives life to this excellent novel, some of this analysis contains "spoilers".)

We are introduced to our protagonist, Jane Darlington, in her Ordinary World. She is a genius physics professor who desperately wants a baby, but has just been dumped from a lackluster six year relationship. Jane wants a stupid father for her baby and cannot find such a man amongst her academic colleagues. Her brilliance isolated her as a child and she fears creating the same problems for her own child. Surely a stupid father will balance out her own intelligence to help create a normal child?

Enter the Call To Adventure in the form of Jodie, a young sports groupie with her own reasons for getting involved. She meets Jane on her 34th birthday, and our desperately unhappy protagonist tells Jodie everything. Jodie says she knows the perfect sperm-donor: legendary quarterback Cal Bonner. He's handsome, agile, strong. Best of all, she assures Jane, he's a good ol' boy and very very stupid. She can get Jane to Cal Bonner's room. All Jane has to do is dress as a hooker and seduce him.

Jane balks at the immorality of the plan, and even at the last moment attempts to Refuse The Call. Jodie goads Jane with the reminder of her ticking biological clock and Bonner's perfect qualifications. Jodie finally resorts to muscle relaxants to overcome Jane's qualms.

Crossing The First Threshold into a new world where she doesn't know the rules, Jane goes to Cal Bonner's room. She fails the first test of convincing him that she is a hooker because she's so uptight and he's against employing prostitutes. Cal is suspicious and much smarter than she knows, but still desires her. They have sex, and Jane hopes the tampered-with condom will do its job. To her dismay, the brief liaison doesn't result in pregnancy. She forces a second encounter, which is successful. She hugs her happiness to herself and hopes never to have to see Cal again.

Cal is facing retirement and fears any sign of permanency or aging. He is also fascinated by the woman whose every move is a contradiction to her words. Cal discovers her identity and circumstances and is enraged. The idea of fathering a child appalls him, but he is determined to legitimize his child and make Jane pay. By threatening to seize custody of the child, Cal bullies her into marriage and isolation in South Carolina. Cal insists that the marriage will only last as long as her pregnancy. His family has already suffered the loss of one daughter in law, and he demands that Jane act as badly as possible so his family and friends do not become attached to her. This is a major Test for Jane, who desperately wants to be part of a loving family. Out of regret for her past actions and a feeling of justice, Jane makes Enemies of Cal's family and townsfolk. Despite this, her basic integrity earns her Allies: Cal's hillbilly grandmother Annie and his worst football rival, Kevin.

Jane Crosses The Second Threshold, learning from her enemy/ally Cal. She is no longer willing to bend to meet other people's needs and she fights back whenever Cal yells and blusters. She's well aware that he would never use his strength against her and he's pleasantly surprised to find a woman who doesn't back away from him when he vents his anger. Cal learns to respect her strength and determination to protect her child, and he realizes how desperate she was to act against her firm moral character.

Cal and Jane settle into an uneasy friendship that is fraught with sexual tension. Jane Approaches The Innermost Cave by admitting her attraction and growing love. Aware that she is exposing herself to possible pain, she allows their relationship to become sexual. They each become aware of the other's integrity and good qualities and slowly slip into love. Her Supreme Ordeal occurs when she takes what she sees as the final risk and bares herself to him. Will he simply see her as a conquered challenge and move on?

It appears that her fears were all too real. Cal backs away, frightened by the implications of love within his marriage. Jane Crosses the third threshold, suffering a Death And Resurrection when she finds proof that Cal is still intent on revenge, even though their relationship has smoothed out. She confronts him and realizes Cal still intends to divorce her after the child is born. His fear of commitment and aging blinds him to the fact that she feels love for him and not just friendship.

Although it feels like her heart is breaking, she leaves him to save herself further pain and takes The Road Back to her own life. She intends to say goodbye to Annie and leave, but ends up confronting Cal's parents. They learn the truth and insist she stay with Annie so they can get to know her. Jane discovers she has in fact gained a family who love her and will do anything to ensure she is treated well. She has the family she's always wanted, a true friend in Kevin, and is no longer willing to accept the limited affection Cal offers.

Cal realizes that he has loved her for some time, but his fear of having no career after retirement and feeling worthless without a job concealed his true feelings. Cal finally realizes he must tell Jane he loves her, and is surprised to find that his family has been looking after her. He is even more surprised when they defend her and protect her from his bullying. He finally faces his fears and proves he wants a future with her. In this stage, known as Return with the Elixir, Jane realizes he truly loves her and welcomes him back. They have both matured and learned to be stronger people. Their marriage, careers and relationships with others can only improve as a result. Jane's Reward is the love of Cal and his family, and finally earning a place to belong within their community.

As you can see from Susan Elizabeth Phillip's example, the Hero's Journey is not a rigid technique. In "Nobody's Baby But Mine", the seizing of the reward doesn't happen after the supreme ordeal. Jane doesn't have a mentor. But the flow of the story still works.

Certain authors' novels are easier to analyze for this technique. For excellent examples of how this technique can be used in romance, try Karen Harbaugh's Vampire Viscount (paranormal Regency), any of Amanda Quick's historicals but particularly Ravished , or Ruth Wind's Last Chance Ranch (contemporary). If you prefer movies, the "Star Wars" trilogy reflects George Lucas' admiration of Joseph Campbell's studies. You could also try analyzing "Romancing the Stone", "The Last of the Mohicans" or "Terminator."

I'd be pleased to correspond with anyone regarding these issues. I can be contacted by e-mail at thresholdsite AT optusnet DOT com DOT au

Recommended reading:
Note: the underlined links will take you to (an on-line bookstore) so you can order the title.

Campbell, Joseph. The Hero With A Thousand Faces   New York: Fine Communications, 1996. ISBN 1567311202

Harbaugh, Karen. Vampire Viscount Signet: October 1995. ISBN 0451183193

Pearson, Carol S. Awakening The Heroes Within San Francisco: Harper, 1991. ISBN 0062506781

Quick, Amanda. Ravished Bantam, 1992. ISBN 0553293168

Phillips, Susan E. Nobody's Baby But Mine Avon, 1997. ISBN: 0380782340

Vogler, Christopher. The Writer's Journey: mythic structure for storytellers and screenwriters Studio City, CA: Michael Wiese Productions, 1992. ISBN 0941188132

Wind, Ruth. Last Chance Ranch Silhouette Special Edition #977, August 1995. ISBN 0373099770

Navigation Center
Crossing the Threshold homepage :

Siren Search interactive adventure (not available at the moment.):
Locus spreadsheet : Agent research gateway: Writing articles :
Melinda's blog
Introduction : What's new?

The Communications Center
I love to hear from visitors.
View My Guestbook
Sign My Guestbook

Send me e-mail at: Melinda Goodin

© 1998 Melinda Goodin

Page last updated:  April 12th 2007