If you’re looking for hero’s journey examples in real life, here are the books and movies to seek out – plus, get tips on applying the template to your story!
The hero’s journey is one we all know well: it has formed the structure of our stories, myths, and legends since humans first began to weave tales and remains part of our collective subconscious today. Joseph Campbell detailed the tropes of the hero’s journey in his seminal book, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, setting out the key stages that a main character typically progresses through: Odysseus and Katniss Everdeen, though thousands of years apart in their creation, must navigate these same phases of their journeys.
So, we know the hero’s journey in movies and stories is a popular storytelling framework, but what about real life?
Below, we take a look at how this template can translate into real-world tales of heroism and adventure and how the story structure of the hero’s journey can inform our understanding of them. Plus, we give you a getting-started guide on applying the hero’s journey template to recount your own real-life experiences.
- Here Are Best Hero’s Journey Examples In Real Life
- 1. Jarhead by Anthony Swofford
- 2. The Pursuit of Happyness by Chris Gardner
- 3. Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fossey
- 4. Apollo 13 by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Klugar
- 5. A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar
- 6. Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart
- 7. Annapurna by Maurice Herzog
- Applying the Hero’s Journey Template to Your Own Life Story
Here Are Best Hero’s Journey Examples In Real Life
1. Jarhead by Anthony Swofford
As the narrator of his own story, Swofford offers up to the reader his experiences as a young Marine rifle sniper in the first Gulf War. Although the book is based on real events, its structure perfectly reflects the steps of the hero’s journey as they appear in stories through the ages.
Beginning in the ordinary world of his childhood, the narrator details his desire to join the military (specifically, the Marine Corps) from a young age. On the surface, our hero’s journey may look very different from that of Odysseus or Frodo Baggins, but dig a little deeper, and it mirrors the quests that these characters undertake. Leaving his known world behind to join the military, the narrator soon fears he has made a terrible error.
This narrator appears to be The Warrior archetypal hero – but herein lies the rub. The protagonist aligns with an entirely different archetype (possibly that of The Researcher), which causes much of the psychological conflict within the book.
After the Crossing the Threshold section, where the narrator begins his military training and endures the various privations of boot camp, he must face many trials and tribulations, from mental breakdown to dealing with the inadequate kit that puts the life of himself and his comrades at risk, and the daily discomfort of living in the desert.
The book is a disturbing insight into the psychological impact of being trained to kill, and war. The Return with the Elixir is powerful: it’s only many years after leaving the Marines, and much time spent reflecting that the narrator can dissect his experiences and recognize the lessons inherent within them – the book that he wrote, as a result, is the manifestation of the elixir.
“Every war is different. Every war is the same.”Anthony Swofford
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- Swofford, Anthony (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
- 272 Pages - 08/28/2023 (Publication Date) - Scribner Book Company (Publisher)
2. The Pursuit of Happyness by Chris Gardner
Perfectly embodying all the stages of the hero’s journey, this book tells the true story of a man who’d just landed a promising role in the world of finance before getting caught up in a terrible, unexpected spiral of life events that result in him and his young son finding themselves on the streets, homeless.
The road of trials is a bitter and brutal one. The narrator spends nearly a year in shelters, waiting in soup lines and sleeping rough. But, despite the terrible tribulations he faces, Gardner does not give in, determined never to be parted from his son but to seek the Road Back – just as the heroes in Campbell’s monomyths successfully do. Eventually, the circle closes, and the narrator and his son return home as Campbell transitions from the invisible homeless to an influential, powerful, highly visible figure in the world of high finance.
Critics have likened The Pursuit of Happyness to a myth for its resonance, power, and timelessness. This means that when the hero returns, we’re all on our feet, having rooted for his triumph throughout. Because his victory becomes our collective redemption.
“Still a dream, yet more a realist than ever before, I knew this was my time to sail.”Chris Gardner
- Chris Gardner (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
- 320 Pages - 10/24/2006 (Publication Date) - Amistad (Publisher)
3. Gorillas in the Mist by Dian Fossey
Widely cited as one of the most important books ever written about the connection of humans to the natural world, Gorillas in the Mist follows Fossey as she leaves behind her everyday life to enter a special world deep within the rainforests of the Virunga Mountains in Africa. Fossey subsequently spent thirteen years studying and living with a family of mountain gorillas, enduring the daily challenges of loneliness, constant rain, and the threat of poachers.
Fossey’s work was highly influential in convincing people of primates’ innate sentience, and she was fiercely determined in her conversation efforts and opposition to poaching. Tragically, Fossey was murdered in her remote cabin in Rwanda in 1985. But her legacy was powerful: her research and work in the field helped reduce the downward trend of the mountain gorilla population.
The book is a personal adventure story and a quest for enlightenment, with Fossey detailing her attempts at securing the future of the mountain apes that she spends so many years studying. The publication itself serves as her Return with the Elixir (a key stage in the hero’s journey): designed to pass on knowledge of our closest primate relatives, the specialness of these animals, and what must be done to safeguard their survival.
“There are times when one cannot accept facts for fear of shattering one’s being.”Dian Fossey
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4. Apollo 13 by Jim Lovell and Jeffrey Klugar
Used as the basis of the Apollo 13 movie, this is the real-life account of the lunar shot that nearly ended in total catastrophe. As well as spawning the Hollywood blockbuster film of the same name, the book is told using the classic hero’s journey template – evidence of how ingrained this storytelling is in our collective subconscious.
This story literally starts in the known world, Earth, before the Crossing of the Threshold stage, where Jim and his crew are recruited for the daring mission. Next comes The Ordeal. An explosion shortly after launch forces the astronauts to abandon the main ship, seeking refuge in the lunar capsule – which was designed to keep two men alive for just two days. The Return Home stage is fraught with danger, and the narrative shifts focus to what’s going on at mission control to ensure the men’s safe return.
The Return with the Elixer is the last of the steps of the hero’s journey. In the case of this story, it is represented both by the astronauts’ changed sense of self in the wake of the events they’ve endured and in the vital information that NASA has gained from the experience and the rescue, which will inform future space missions.
“From now on, we live in a world where man has walked on the moon. And it’s not a miracle, we just decided to go.”Jim Lovell
- James Lovell (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
- 400 Pages - 08/17/1995 (Publication Date) - Coronet (Publisher)
5. A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar
This biography of the Nobel prize-winning mathematician and economist John Forbes Nash Jr. was nominated for the Pulitzer prize upon its release. It was later adapted into a film directed by Russell Howard. It features an unlikely hero – but a hero nonetheless – in its subject, Nash, a brilliant mathematician whose descent into serious mental illness derailed his career and had devastating effects on his personal life.
The Road of Trials was a harrowing one for Nash. Schizophrenia meant he missed out on a Nobel Prize, despite his game-changing work on game theory – which, by the 1980s, was underpinning much of economics. The Nobel committee decided they weren’t prepared to give the award to him due to his mental illness.
Step-by-step Nash recovered, and in 1994 his work finally received the credit it deserved. He shared the Nobel Prize for Economics with two others. In the subsequent critically-praised film, the movie’s screenwriter perfectly captured the impact of this journey on Nash and those around him.
Nash’s subsequent invitation from Princeton to join the faculty as a professor is his apotheosis moment: this is a key stage of the hero’s journey, as described by Joseph Campbell. It’s the point where, after defeating the enemy, the hero travels toward and meets their destiny.
Linked to this stage is the receiving of the Ultimate Boon: in A Beautiful Mind, this is represented by Nash’s re-connection with his old life. He rebuilds relationships with friends and family members that had been lost during his trials. And, most powerfully of all, connecting once more with his ex-wife, the pair remarried in 2001 and lived – of course – happily ever after.
“People look to the order of numbers when the world falls apart.”Sylvia Nasar
- Sylvia Nasar (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
- 461 Pages - 08/28/2023 (Publication Date) - Faber and Faber (Publisher)
6. Girl Waits with Gun by Amy Stewart
Based on the true story of one of the US’ first female sheriffs, Girls Waits with Gun tells the story of Constance Kopp and her two sisters. It’s a hero’s journey story that, like Kopp herself, breaks the mold of the genre. The tale, as a whole, is about finding your place in a world that sees you as a misfit: Kopp isn’t interested in getting married and has no time for a quiet domestic routine. Instead, she yearns for adventure and independence.
The Call to Action announces itself loud and clear: when a drunk driver, Henry Kaufman (owner of the local silk factory), crashes into the sisters’ buggy, Kopp demands the man pay for the damages. When he refuses, she begins plotting how to obtain justice. The First Threshold is crossed when, turning up at the silk factory, Kopp meets an employee in a state of high distress: her baby has gone missing.
A campaign of intimidation against the sisters unfolds, which results in the sheriff arming the women for them to defend themselves. But neither Kopp nor her sisters are prepared to back down, and Constance can’t get the missing baby out of her mind…
As a direct result of successfully navigating her trials and tribulations, Kaufman ends up in court, and the judge finds against him. There’s a buzz around Kopp, who’s now famed for her bravery and tenacity – so much so that the sheriff offers her the Ultimate Boon: the position of undersheriff – a role in which no woman had ever served before.
“We have to be a part of the world in which we live. We don’t scurry away when we’re in trouble, or if someone else is. We don’t run and hide.”Amy Stewart
7. Annapurna by Maurice Herzog
A survival story is a perfect vehicle in which to deploy the hero’s journey structure. Annapurna recounts Herzog’s attempt in 1950 (along with his climbing partner Louis Lachenel) to scale the notorious, treacherous Himalayan mountain, after which the book is named.
The trials and tribulations that follow are brutal: frostbite and snow blindness nearly resulted in the death of the two climbers, but ultimately, they were successful in their quest. The Road Back is not just a spiritual one: it’s represented by the very real climb back down the mountain. And the Ultimate Boon? Having passed through The Ordeal, Herzog and Lachenel were recognized as the first expedition in history to have reached the summit of an 8,000-plus meter mountain…and return alive.
The book has enjoyed enduring appeal since its first publication in 1951, which turned Herzog into the world’s first mountaineering celebrity! National Geographic ranked Annapurna at number six in its list of 100 Greatest Adventure and Exploration Books, claiming it to be one of the most influential books on mountaineering of all time.
“Annapurna, to which we had gone empty-handed, was a treasure on which we should live the rest of our days. With this realization we turn the page: a new life begins.”Maurice Herezog
- Herzog, Maurice; Joe Simpson (new introduction) (Author)
- English (Publication Language)
- 288 Pages - 08/28/1997 (Publication Date) - Pimlico (Publisher)
Applying the Hero’s Journey Template to Your Own Life Story
The monomyth template is a powerful tool for fictional and real-life stories. The same steps can be discerned in Frodo’s journey to Mordor in The Lord of the Rings, in Harry Potter’s quest to discover his wizarding destiny, and in Luke Skywalker’s adventure that takes him from moisture farm worker to Jedi in Star Wars can be deployed to create a compelling true-life tale.
How to Craft Your Hero’s Journey
Begin by identifying some of the key stages in the hero’s journey to add structure and dynamism to your story. Start the tale in the Ordinary World. Write about your subject’s life before the Call to Adventure. Next is a Refusal of the Call moment. Perhaps the individual unexpectedly got awarded a scholarship or was presented with an opportunity to travel abroad? If they were initially reluctant to cross this First Threshold, then this marks the important Refusal stage. For inspiration, read our article profile common essays about heroes.
Finding Each Stage
Work through the story you want to tell, using Campbell’s hero outline to find those milestones in the tale that can act as both strong organizing and structural devices. While there may not be the presence of supernatural aids as mentors, look to your narrator’s key allies with a view to how they fulfill this role. Consider a moment that marked the Return Threshold and how your narrator and those around them reacted to it.
Becoming Your Own Mythologist
You may be surprised at just how natural the hero’s journey template fits when crafting a real life story – whether your own or someone else’s. The power of myth is so potent, after all, because it captures the kernel of our collective human experience, across borders and time.
Try using this story structure when creating a piece of creative writing or crafting a documentary or video content. The hero’s journey structure can even be used to assemble and edit a wedding video to create a powerful narrative that stirs emotions!
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