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I was recently taught about the Hero-Journey template

Instead of the Hero leaving the Ordinary World, can they remain and the Ordinary World changes and/or warps (possibly along with the Hero)? And what if I absolutely do not want an Ordinary World; could I omit the Ordinary World completely or have the character reminisce about it or do flashbacks and have no present Ordinary World?

  • Do you mean can you do it ever ever? Or can you do it while still following the template exactly? – Mac Cooper Dec 7 '15 at 17:11
  • Both, really. I want to know if I can continue with the template as well as write a story not connected to the template. Should I edit the question? – Justin Alexander Dec 7 '15 at 17:12
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    Maybe. Personally, if it was my question I'd edit to specify only WITH the template, but only because the answer to "can I do x ever?" is almost always a yes. But since you are looking for both, I think it's fine as it stands :) – Mac Cooper Dec 7 '15 at 17:25
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Don't take the Hero's Journey literally. In my opinion, one of the most important lessons about the Hero's Journey is this: Don't take it literally. The Hero's Journey is not about classical Greek Heros, it is not about myths, it is not about religion, and it is not about fairytales. The reason the Hero's Journey is such a successful structure is that it can serve as a universal descriptopn of change. Each story is about change. Hence, each story can be interpreted in terms of the Hero's Journey.

What is the Ordinary World? In stories such as Harry Potter or Neil Gaiman's Stardust, the Ordinary World indeed is a world in it's own right that is left behind at some point of the story. It is very easy to write stories that are set within the same world and never leave it. So, if you take the Ordinary World literally: Yes, ignore it as much as you like.

The Ordinary World and Mathematics. However, when thinking about the Hero's Journey as a fundamental description of change, the Ordinary World becomes much more general: It turns into the Status Quo at the beginning of the story that has been changed in some manner at the end of the story.

Is it possible to omit the Status Quo of a story? Yes, it is. Lisa Genova did so in her recent novel Inside the O'Briens.

Is it advisable? Hell, no. Each change requires a status quo to be able to judge its significance. Think of it as a mathematical problem: Change in mathematics is described by the differential operator d/dt (or x or whatever you like). When solving a differential problem, the differential operator is inverted, and a differential problem can become an integrational problem. Integration, however, requires at least one initial or boundary condition. If this boundary condition is not specified, it is still possible to find an analytical solution of the problem at hand, but a definite answer to a specific question can not be formulated. Hence, boundary conditions anchor a class of problems to a specific situation and allow a specific answer.

In storytelling, these boundary conditions can be regared as the Ordinary World. They specify your settings and will determine the absolute value of the change that has been achieved at the end of the story. If you do not provide the Ordinary World, your readers might be able to agree that a change occured - but they will not be able to judge the magnitude of this change or whether it was important or not.

An example. The ultimate change of the story is this:

Derek didn't drink for 28 days.

Is that important? It could be. If Derek used to be an alcoholic and the story ends 28 days after he threw away all the alcohol that was left in his flat, this ending is a reason to cheer. If, on the other hand, Derek only used to drink a beer with friends once or twice a week, then no: Going without drinking for 28 days is not especially exciting for Derek. It's still a change, because the longest Derek has gone without drinking before has been two weeks. But is this change worth telling an entire story about?


tl;dr: Don't take the Hero's Journey literally. If you do, it is nothing but a template that will fix your stories into unnatural structures. Think of it more than a universal description of change. If you accept this notion, the answer to you question is: Yes, a story can survive without an Ordinary World. But it would not be the best of stories, since you don't motivate it at all and deny your readers the possibility to attach significance to it.

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The Hero's Journey is really just a catalog of elements that are commonly found in epic myths and popular folktales from around the world. According to the theory, they have profound psychological resonance, but even the original source stories don't include all the elements in every story, or consistently present them in the same order.

With that said, the establishment of the "Ordinary World" is one of the core "Hero's Journey" elements, and it's arguably just good storytelling. However, it absolutely doesn't have to be literal. All it means, in practice, is whatever your character has come to accept as day-to-day normality for his or her own life --leaving it does not need to be a physical journey. It also doesn't need to resemble what the reader views as ordinary (although if it does, it may help build identification with the character).

If you omit it entirely, and just throw the reader into the middle of the action, your story is likely to feel more episodic --it will be more difficult to bring it back around to a place that feels like an appropriate final stopping point.

  • Very solid point at the end. You may be able to start in fantasy and stay there but add a lot of imagery of some "other place" whether it is OW, heaven, in bed with a wife, whatever. The goal could be to get back to that place or as a precursor to that place (a heroic death leading to heaven, say). – Stu W Dec 8 '15 at 15:41
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Can you have the Ordinary World in flashbacks? Absolutely. It can be a place or a state of being which used to exist and now doesn't, and the goal of the journey can be to restore it. We do need to get enough feel for the Ordinary World to know why the Hero wants it restored, so that we feel that along with the Hero, but if it doesn't currently exist, that's fine. This is, of course, presuming that the Hero wants to get back to the Ordinary World.

Can the Hero stay put and the world change? Also absolutely. In David and Leigh Eddings's Belgariad and Malloreon series, several characters start as "simple farm boys," but their actions change the world (and in some cases the universe) around them. The Ordinary World of their innocent childhoods has been changed, or for one character obliterated. They miss the innocence of childhood, but they don't actually want to restore that life, because there were Bad Things happening at the time as well which they had to conquer. Lyra goes on a similar journey in Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials.

A Hero's Journey without an Ordinary World to return to is, as Chris Sunami points out, more of an episodic cycle, like Star Trek or a police procedural. Each single episode may (or may not) return to the status quo; on Trek this is known as Hitting the Reset Button. If your story is too episodic, then the characters don't grow or learn anything. That's more of a comic strip (like Foxtrot, where nobody ages).

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"Can you"? As in, if you do this, will the Literature Police arrest you, or will mobs of Pro-Hero's Journey fanatics assault you? No, they won't, and therefore, yes, you can.

Can you do this and still be following the template? Well, how dogmatically are you taking the template? Few stories follow such a template 100% slavishly.

If you're writing this story for a class and the assignment is, "write a story following this template", then I suppose you should adhere very closely to it. But if you're writing a story with no particular constraints, and you simply decided that the Hero's Journey was a good model to follow, then you should feel free to deviate from it all you like. People rarely judge a story by, How closely did the story follow a template written by some professor of literature? The standard is usually more like, How entertaining is this story?

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