• The VOIDRUNNER'S CODEX is coming! Explore new worlds, fight oppressive empires, fend off fearsome aliens, and wield deadly psionics with this comprehensive boxed set expansion for 5E and A5E!

The Hero's Journey pt. 2: Character Archetypes


This is the second part of an exploration I wrote a while back on the Hero's Journey as it relates to RPG's. This was prompted in part by a recent video posted by Heath's Geekverse on the same subject.

Here is a link to the first post.

Here is a brief TL;DR summary:
  • The hero's journey narrative contains a particular cast of archetypical characters.
  • Each of these characters fulfills a specific, formulaic role in the narrative.
  • These characters can take many different forms, sometimes not "characters" at all.
  • The NPC's described in these archetypical characters do not all need to be adverseries to engage in combat with.
  • The villain is the character that is the diametric opposite of the hero and must be defeated in some way.

Hero’s Journey Mythic Archetypes​

A man named Joseph Campbell studied mythological hero stories from around the world and published a book asserting that all these stories have certain traits in common. This book is called “The Hero With 1000 Faces.” He believed in a “monomyth,” meaning that each hero story can be thought of as a retelling of the same myth. The version I am presenting here is slightly altered by Christian Vogler as written in “The Writer’s Journey,” which he wrote for writers. I feel Vogler’s approach applies more directly, is more accessible than Campbell, and I will be leaning on the Vogler text a bit more for citations in this section. With storytelling, and more so with RPG’s, you should not feel constrained by this structure.

As the discussion continues, keep in mind: tension is a hard requirement for a Hero's journey to function as it should. Tension is the engine that drives the Hero's Journey story. Tension cannot be achieved without significant emotional investment in the Hero.

Empathy is a hard requirement to invest emotionally in the Hero. Unsympathetic, unflawed characters cannot be empathized with. Such beings are quite alien to us. We must be able to invest emotionally in the characters, which requires that they show their humanity.


The hero is someone who is willing to sacrifice his own needs on behalf of others. Heroes, or, the characters controlled by the players, are the primary characters of an RPG. The hero is the nexus point of the story, the “center of gravity.” The NPCs are sometimes heroic, but they are never the heroes.

Heroes, in the original latin, meant “To protect and serve.” The hero is the protagonist with which the players identify. The heroes created by the players move the adventure forward. Heroes are the ones who face death. In dramatic hero stories, they are proxies for ourselves, and (among other things) function as a way to prepare us for death. The hero can be thought of as the ego’s search for self-identity and wholeness.

The heroes are the narrative focus in an RPG--the “Camera” is always on them, almost never anyone or anything else. The hero is an action figure, that is to say, the hero's actions control (or should control) most of what happens in the adventure. The heroes are the most active one(s) in the adventure and in the world.

Most people think of strength, bravery, bravado, combat prowess, and charisma when they think “hero,” but the most important quality of a hero is the willingness to sacrifice one’s self. The quality of self-sacrifice trumps all others in a true hero. This is not to imply that the players should want their characters to die, but the willingness is what’s important. The sacrifice doesn’t always have to come in the form of one’s life, either. Sacrificing something of value is also heroic.

Heroes with flaws are much more interesting, and more importantly, relatable, to players. To be able to empathize with these characters is of utmost importance for the necessary tension inherent in the hero epic. Flaws also give the character somewhere to go (a story arc). One of the biggest problems that The Wrath of Khan remake had, in my opinion, was that in the first movie, the crew were not a cohesive team. They worked together onboard the Enterprise, though, got into some shenanigans, saved each other’s asses a few times, and grew into a well unified team. When the second film began, they were suddenly not a cohesive team again and had to restart the same story arc that had already been told.

The rise of the term anti-heroes, coined as a term defining a literary device, parallels the rise of realism in art and literature in the 1700s. When the main character/protagonist of a story lacks the archetypal qualities of a hero such as bravery, morals, and a willingness for self-sacrifice, we call this an anti-hero. This character is not a villain, but is (partially or entirely) an inversion of the hero outlined above. The character may periodically make choices that are noble, but it is for the wrong reasons, acting out of self-interest or by mere coincidence of circumstance. Deadpool, Casey Jones, Captain Jack Sparrow, and Han Solo before committing to the Rebellion are good examples of anti-heroes. They can change into full blown heroes, but can also change into full blown villains. (These would probably be morally neutral characters.)

But wait, my players like to play evil characters! Whuddabout that? Yeah, whaddabout that?! In terms of narrative, they’re still the focus of the story. They will still be the “heroes” (or, more appropriately perhaps, the “protagonist”) of their story. The do-gooders are the villains (or, more appropriately perhaps, the “antagonist”) of their story. And of course, many evil people throughout history think of themselves as the good guys.


The mentor character is a parent or godlike figure that protects the heroes and gives them gifts to help them on their way. The mentor character is the single most common trope in any hero’s journey story and appears in almost all of them.

A mentor is, more often than not, also a wizard. One of the quintessential mentor figures is Obi-Wan Kenobe, throughout the prequels and the original trilogy. His role as mentor with Luke is very clear and self-explanatory, and in classic fashion, he gifts Luke his first lightsaber. The mentor often provides gifts along with her or his guidance.

The mentor has most likely traveled the path the Hero is embarking upon already. S/he will work to dispel or quell any doubts, illusions, naivety, or childishness the Hero might be clinging on to. These parts of the Hero's identity must be shed before starting or during the journey.

Threshold Guardian​

A character who serves to keep the unworthy from entering. They cluster around thresholds, and can be overcome by being passed or made into an ally. These guardians serve to test the hero's character and commitment to the journey.

A threshold guardian is a figure or event that tests the resolve of a Hero as he pursues his destiny and/or his goal. The Guardian is not necessarily adversarial, but puts the hero in a position where he must make a decision that reflects a sincere commitment to the task at hand, by providing a threat or bar to progress that the hero must specifically choose to overcome.

Sometimes the Guardian's challenge is an illusion which must be penetrated; when it is not, the Guardian himself is often the challenge, and defeating him can turn him into an ally. Whatever form the Guardian and his challenge take, their defeat forces the hero to grow; heroes that are not yet ready for their journey are forced to turn back until they have matured sufficiently to handle the task.

Physical force is not necessarily the solution. Outwitting the guardian or persuading them to your side may, in fact, be required.

A hero may have more than one encounter with Threshold Guardians during his adventure—each one tests him and at the same time heralds an escalation of the danger (and consequent reward) the hero faces.

Heimdall is the quintessential threshold guardian, and the clearest example I can imagine. In Norse mythology, Heimdall is a god who keeps watch for invaders and the onset of Ragnarök from his dwelling Himinbjörg, where the burning rainbow bridge Bifröst meets the sky. He is attested as possessing foreknowledge and keen senses, particularly eyesight and hearing. However mysterious Norse mythology may be, in the MCU his role as the bridge keeper is clear and rigidly defined.


A force that brings a new challenge to the hero. The Herald is the character, or something else such as an item or event, that signifies that something is about to change for the hero. This archetype appears at the beginning of the adventure, often delivering a message. The Herald issues a challenge or bears news of a coming change. There is no requirement that the Herald be helpful, only that they inform the hero. In some cases, the herald could also bear a warning of the upcoming danger, perhaps even attempting to dissuade the hero from embarking upon their journey. The herald basically delivers the message that your main character's world is about to change.

The herald in Star Wars was Princess Leia, even though she played other roles—you could almost say the holographic projection of Princess Leia, specifically, was the herald. Help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope. Alright, now what do I click? Click Preferences. Okay, I clicked preferences. Now go to default media browser. Okay... there’s a little hourglass and it says it’s buffering. It’s telling me I have to download RealPlayer 7...


Characters who change constantly from the hero’s point of view. A shifting or unstable character, often of the opposite gender, assuming a heterosexual hero(ine); or whatever gender identity the hero(ine) may feel attracted to. They mislead the hero and act as a catalyst of change by introducing doubt and suspense. They may also introduce a twist in the story. Their true nature and origins are unknown. Everything they say is suspect. Their only constant is change. It’s not that they substantively can’t be trusted, but rather the hero’s perception of them is that they are not to be trusted.

Just as it sounds, a shapeshifter is ambiguous and difficult or impossible to positively identify. It can possibly be just as difficult for the shapeshifter to understand her or his own identity. Outward changes in appearance, clothing, and in some cases, biological sex or species, will be the norm with the shapeshifter. The love interest can often be the shapeshifter. How many of us have had the misfortune of falling into a relationship with a two-faced partner? But more importantly than changes in appearance, the shapeshifter’s role and story function will evolve as the journey progresses.

The werewolf may be the most common and famous example of this type of character in popular folklore. A femme or hommes fatale or a double agent can be a shapeshifter. An unreliable narrator can also be a shapeshifter, though this rarely would apply to an RPG. Catwoman is also an excellent example of a shapeshifter. While she’s catwoman, she is Batman’s enemy. However, Selena Kyle loves Bruce Wayne and vice versa, making for a very unique and taut friend/foe relationship, riddled with tension and treachery.


Shadows are pretty analogous to villains, but they don’t have to be the actual villains necessarily. In Star Wars, the powerful Dark Side of the Force is a shadow. They’re there to create tension, conflict, and drama. The Dark Side gives the Hero something to struggle against.


Probably obvious, somebody who travels with the PC’s, assisting with combat, logistics, and support roles. This might be NPC’s or just the other PC’s, or both.


The trickster embodies the energies of mischief and desire for change. They serve to strip the Hero of ego and self-identity, thus preparing her or him to become something new (this is often the “resurrection,” even if that resurrection is metaphorical). This is not always comfortable or voluntary for the Hero, but it’s not a requirement that it be adversarial either.

Tricksters can be comic relief allies as well. In the Lord of the Rings films, Gimli played this role (especially in The Two Towers) in an overemphasized fashion that I didn’t personally care for. But the role is necessary to help catalyze change. It’s also necessary to give the audience some respite from the action and dreadful doom of a Hero’s journey myth, so they do not overload and become incoherent of the story arc at hand.

Tricksters have a special way of drawing attention to absurdity, imbalance, hypocrisy, and unfairness. Once the Hero’s attention has been directed to these things, it’s now the Hero’s responsibility to eradicate them.


The villain opposes the hero diametrically. The villain is the yang to the hero’s yin. Her or his actions drive the plot equally to, but opposite of, the hero’s. Their energy feeds the hero’s, and the hero’s energy feeds the villain’s. Villains warrant their own post and shall be discussed at a future time.
Last edited:

log in or register to remove this ad

Obligatory comment that Joseph Campbell is a hack who cherry-picked stories to arrive at the pre-determined conclusion of the monomyth.

This does not mean that the hero's journey is not a perfectly good way to tell a story. Just emphasizing that the monomyth aspect of his writing is itself a myth.

Remove ads