Not every s/hero’s journey follows a straight path. Sometimes, just when you think you’ve reaped the reward, you find yourself falling into the abyss. 

Has this every happened to you? You get the promotion, you meet a challenge you have been dreading, you return from a long-awaited trip …and then you feel deflated.

Friends are congratulating you, maybe even envying your success. You are supposed to be floating on top of the world. And yet, something inside of you feels disappointed or let down.

This happened to me when I got a prestigious promotion at my last job. My partner had a party to celebrate, friends were toasting my success, and yet I felt like hiding in a corner.

Much later I realized it was because the new job was out of alignment with what I really cared about. But in the moment, all I could think was, “What is wrong with me?”

If you think about your life in Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey framework, this is not supposed to happen. Once the hero defeats the enemy and captures the prize, he is supposed to march home in glory to praise and accolades. If you read my last post, you will understand what I mean.

But all too often, that is not the way things happen. Maureen Murdock, a student of Campbell, realized that for most women, there are some missing pieces in Campbell’s framework. In her book, The Heroine’s Journey, she talks about the high price women pay when they give up their feminine (yin) qualities to pursue success in the external (yang) world.

I think Murdock’s analysis applies to people of any gender identity who make sacrifices of things they value to achieve goals that are out of alignment with their beliefs. It can also happen when you have a peak experience that makes you realize you have followed the wrong path. Heck, it can even happen to superheroes.

In the latest Wonder Woman movie, Princess Diana (aka Wonder Woman) has to choose between her mother, Queen Hyppolita and the new adventure that is calling to her. When she chooses to go off and fight the Nazis, she is banished from Paradise Island forever.

Diana uses battle skills she learned on Paradise Island to help defeat the enemy, but in the process she loses the first love of her life, who sacrifices himself for the cause. At the end of the movie, she does not return home in glory. Remember, she has been banished.

Instead, she is bereft because she realizes that evil cannot be defeated forever. There will always be a new enemy to vanquish. She wonders if her sacrifices, losing both her mother and the man she loves, were worth the price.

Diana realizes that her actions have been out of alignment with her values. She vows to use her superpowers to heal the world with love rather than war. But the movie ends with her in a contemplative state, working as a curator in a museum and reminiscing over her dead lover’s photo.

That is what Murdock calls a great descent, when we have to turn inwards to reconnect with what really matters to us.

For my writer friends, I think this is an important nuance to using the hero’s journey framework for your book. Your s/hero’s adventure doesn’t have to end in glory. It can end with a realization, a lesson, a vow to create a better future. After all, your readers don’t want their s/hero to be perfect. They want to feel she understands what they are going through and figured out a way through it.

Let me know what you think. Would you rather read about a s/hero who goes through life without a hitch, or one who sometime falls into the abyss and has to find a way out?