The Heroine’s Journey: Disillusionment, Alchemic Transformation, and Philip Marlowe

The Heroine’s Journey

While researching the Hero’s Journey for my last blog post, I came across an alternative called the Heroine’s Journey. It was devised by psychologist Maureen Murdock, and like Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the Heroine’s Journey was never meant to be a primer on writing novels. Murdock’s book, The Heroine’s Journey, Woman’s Quest for Wholeness, is about redressing our society’s unbalanced value system, which privileges rapaciousness and greed over kindness and compassion. The character going through the Heroine’s Journey will first become disillusioned by the male sphere she has entered, after which she will be reborn as a spiritual warrior with the “male” and “female” aspects of herself reconciled and in harmony (wholeness).

While the Heroine’s Journey is interesting as a concept, using the problematization of the “feminine” as a framework for every female centered story seems too rigid for general use. I also object to story outlines that tell you what your book should be about. By contrast, the midpoint section (the dark cave) in the Hero’s Journey is open enough to let a writer explore any theme as long it is binary Alchemic transformation: “despair to hope, weakness to strength, folly to wisdom, love to hate” (Vogler). While the Hero’s Journey still makes demands on theme, the transformation can be anything you want, including a return to the feminine.

Since the publication of The Heroine’s Journey, Woman’s Quest for Wholeness, many writers have adapted the Heroine’s Journey for fiction much in the same way Vogler adapted The Hero with a Thousand Faces. One version appears in Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s book, 45 Master Characters. I haven’t read it, but it is summarized on the Heroine’s Journey’s Wikipedia entry. Here is a condensed, side-by-side comparison of the two:

Maureen Murdock’s Heroine’s Journey

  1. The heroine actively enters a sphere outside of the domestic (the “masculine” sphere)
  2. The heroine becomes disillusioned
  3. The heroine seeks the feminine
  4. The heroine reconciles both sides of her nature

Victoria Lynn Schmidt’s Heroine’s Journey

  1. The heroine becomes disillusioned
  2. The heroine will react to disillusionment
  3. The heroine’s reaction will be a failure; she will react again by reconnecting with the feminine
  4. The heroine reconciles both sides of her nature with a little help from a friend

Like Murdock’s Heroine’s Journey, Schmidt’s version is also about disillusionment. The chief difference is that the heroine in Murdock’s version becomes disillusioned at the story’s midpoint, while Schmidt’s heroine learns that the world isn’t perfect at the inciting incident point.

I think I prefer the original Murdock version. Because it follows the heroine’s journey into a “masculine” world, the narrative framework gives ample space for world building and the layering of themes. It is also closer to the original Hero’s journey because the return to the feminine feels like a transformation. By contrast, Schmidt’s Heroine’s Journey produces a heroine that is very reactive and one that seems to fail a lot.

I also love the idea of characters finding balance and synthesis, but how exactly do you get character to this destination?

This prompted me to think about stories that fit the Heroine’s Journey pattern. I couldn’t really come up with one. I suspect if anyone ever wrote a back story for my favorite detective, Philip Marlowe, he or she might use the Heroine’s journey. He’s very masculine and feminine, a compassionate strongman. But I suppose his transformation into a spiritual warrior would be incomplete. He still has an asymptotic yearning for perfection- the alchemic transformation. The final destination of the Heroine’s Journey wouldn’t be enough.

And that is the secret to writing noir.