Mythic Storytelling: The Heroine’s Journey by Gail Carriger

by Melanie Marttila
published in Reading

Greetings, Speculators! As you might guess from the title of this column, I’ve found another mythic structure to expound upon. I’m going to take a slightly different approach this time, however.

When I read Gail Carriger’s interpretation of the heroine’s journey, it struck a chord with me (imagine angelic chorus here). I thought that Instead of reviewing the structure and analyzing a genre story using the structure, as I did with the hero’s journey and the virgin’s promise, I’m going to let you know about Carriger’s approach to the heroine’s journey, its structure, and what it taught me about the stories I gravitate toward.

Carriger’s Background

Gail Carriger graduated university with an honors degree in archaeology, with minors in theology, geology, anthropology, philosophy, and classics. She is a hugely successful author, has taught classes, sat on panels, and discussed mythic books with readers, librarians, and booksellers.

Every time she mentioned the heroine’s journey, people asked her what she meant. So, she decided to put her years of learning and practice into a book.

Her Approach

After reviewing the hero’s journey for context, Carriger uses three core goddess-based ancient myths as the basis for an understanding of the heroine’s journey narrative beats and themes. She draws on Demeter from ancient Greek myth, Isis from ancient Egyptian myth, and Inanna from ancient Sumerian myth.

Then, she explores the critical, social, and academic disenfranchisement of the heroine’s journey in contrast to its commercial success. Carriger finishes with a breakdown of how the heroine’s journey can be used to create a compelling narrative in a variety of genres. I encourage you to pick up The Heroine’s Journey for yourselves if you want to dig into these last two points.

The Structure

Carriger presents the heroine’s journey beats in a simple list with italics to demark the major divisions. I’m going to add a little formatting to make the structure even clearer.

·         Act 1: The Descent

1.       Descent precipitated by a broken familial network.

2.       Heroine’s pleas are ignored, and she abdicates power.

3.       Withdrawal is involuntary.

4.       Family offers aid but no solution.

·         Act 2: The Search

5.       Heroine’s loss of family yields isolation/risk.

6.       She employs disguise/subversion and alters her identity.

7.       She appeals to and forms a surrogate network (found family).

8.       She visits the underworld, aided by friends/family.

·         Act 3: The Ascent

9.       Success in her search results in a new or reborn familial network.

10.     This ties to negotiation and compromise that will benefit all.

What I learned from The Heroine’s Journey

While Carriger’s heroine’s journey shares much with Kim Hudson’s virgin’s promise (family issues, disguise, emphasis on healing family rifts or newfound family, the heroine or virgin may be of either gender/any sexual identity), Hudson’s book, though I liked it better than Vogler’s (The Writer’s Journey), didn’t resonate with me in the same way as Carriger’s. I had to sit with the thought for a while before I figured out why.

Carriger’s beats are more accessible. They’re unambiguous. I didn’t have to work out what they might refer to. And I saw—so clearly—that this pattern is present in all my stories. Every. Single. One. I’ve been inadvertently trying to make heroes out of my heroines, and it’s caused all kinds of writerly problems. Carriger’s book was a revelation. It will help me to stay true to my stories, my characters, and their arcs.

Though the heroine’s journey is ideally suited to romance, mythic or fairy tale retellings, and middle grade and young adult stories, it can apply to many genres and categories. If readers are expecting a mythic hero’s journey, however, they may be disappointed when confronted by a heroine’s journey story. The key is to clearly signal what kind of story you’re writing and to set up reader expectations so they won’t feel betrayed. Again, I’ll defer to Carriger with respect to how to do this and invite you to read her book.

Over to You

I’ve shared my experience with The Heroine’s Journey in the hope that it might prove helpful to other writers of mythic journeys. If you’ve felt that your stories or characters are like square pegs trying to fit into hound holes (or, vice versa), you may be relying too heavily on a journey or archetypes that aren’t suited to the stories you want to tell.

Have you read a writing craft book or attended a workshop that shed a revelatory light on your work or process? If you have, and you’re willing to, please share your experience in the comments. You never know who it might help.

Until next time, keep speculating and see where it takes you!

Melanie Marttila creates worlds from whole cloth. She’s a dreamsinger, an ink alchemist, and an unabashed learning mutt. Her speculative short fiction has appeared in Bastion Science Fiction Magazine, On Spec Magazine, and Sudbury Ink. She lives and writes in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada, where she spends her days working as a corporate trainer. She blogs at and you can find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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