Mythic Structure: The Virgin’s Promise, Part One

by Melanie Marttila
published in Writing

Last year, I wrote a two-part series on The Hero’s Journey. In the second of those columns I mentioned discovering Kim Hudson’s The Virgin’s Promise and vowed to return to the topic once I’d had a chance to study the book.

Now that I’ve done my homework, I’m going to write another two-part series on The Virgin’s Promise, which is not only the title of Hudson’s book, but also the name of her archetypal feminine journey. In this article, I’ll introduce The Virgin’s Promise and its stages. Then, as before, I’ll choose a couple of well-known stories and analyze them in terms of The Virgin’s Promise, so that you, too, will have this new structural tool to use when writing or analyzing future stories.

The Seed of the Idea

When Hudson was first introduced to The Hero’s Journey as a young screenwriter, she immediately saw the usefulness of the structure, but she always felt something was missing. It was The Hero’s Journey, after all. Where were the women? They were present only as the mother, for whom the hero has his Oedipal complex, the giver of gifts, the source of the hero’s temptation, or the sacred goal of the hero’s quest.

Hudson dove into not only Christopher Vogler’s Hero’s Journey, but also, it’s source, Joseph Campbell’s Monomyth. She studied Gustav Jung’s theory of the universal unconscious and his archetypes. She studied Maureen Murdock’s books and anything else she could find on the subject (Hudson’s book contains an extensive bibliography). She searched for a feminine corollary for The Hero’s Journey that could be used as a storytelling structure in screenwriting and fiction.

Hudson first settled on the archetype of the virgin. Just as the hero is the masculine (though not always male) youth who leaves his home on a quest to save it, the virgin is the feminine (though not always female) youth who must find her own identity and path separate from the one her home confines her to and, in so doing, transforms both herself and her kingdom.

The Virgin’s Promise is all about the protagonist finding her own power and authentic self, breaking with tradition, and bringing her family, town, or kingdom with her into a new way of thinking and living. The Virgin’s Promise is both transgressive and transformative. It is the traditional coming of age story.

Because of this, the virgin, though a feminine archetype, may be either a female or a male character. Just as The Hero’s Journey can tell the story of a woman’s adventure, The Virgin’s Promise can tell the tale of a man’s achieving a greater understanding of himself and changing his world in the process. For this reason, romantic comedies featuring men, such as Crazy, Stupid Love, follow The Virgin’s Promise structure.

The Virgin’s Promise may also be used to structure the character arc of a secondary character, or your protagonist may move between The Hero’s Journey and The Virgin’s Promise at different stages of their character arc. Hudson goes into a lot more detail in her book than I can possibly cover in two posts, and I encourage you to check it out for yourselves.

For now, though, let’s break down the stages of The Virgin’s Promise.

Dependent World

The dependent world is the virgin’s ordinary world. The virgin is dependent on her parents, family, society, culture, or spirituality for her survival. Whatever external authority that provides for the virgin, whether it is a positive or negative influence, it is the antagonistic force the virgin must overcome or break free of to realize her true self and value, which is the goal of The Virgin’s Promise.

Price of Conformity

There is some expectation placed upon the virgin, such as the need to excel in school or take up the family business. Tradition restricts her, such as an arranged marriage, or society places limitations on her, such as the Victorian perception that if a woman could not marry by a certain age, she was an old maid and suitable only to be a teacher, governess, nun, or nurse. This is the price she must pay to be protected by her dependent world.

The virgin may be blissfully ignorant of the constraints placed upon her, she may be aware of them but accept them, or she may be aware of them and resent them.

Opportunity to Shine

This is the point at which the virgin reveals her talent, dream, or true nature for the first time. When this opportunity arises, it’s not threatening to her dependent world and so the virgin feels safe in testing the waters.

The event might present as unique, or the virgin may think she won’t get caught. Regardless, the opportunity to shine shows the virgin’s potential. Realizing her talent, dream, or true nature becomes her personal goal, the thing she needs, whether she understands it or not.

Dresses the Part

The virgin has had a taste of the person she might become but the dream cannot become reality until there is some tangible representation through which it might transform. Far from “playing dress-up,” dressing the part shows the virgin that her dream is possible. Whether on a conscious or unconscious level, she begins to work toward her goal of transformation.

Secret World

Once the virgin has a taste of what living her dream could feel like, she needs a private place to express this part of herself without risk of exposure to her dependent world. The virgin is still under the impression that she can please everyone but has taken an important step forward by including herself in the list. She’s not yet ready to transform herself or her dependent world.

No Longer Fits Her World

As she spends more time in her secret world, the virgin learns about herself and begins to feel that her dreams are attainable. Something happens that shows her that her secret world and her dependent world cannot remain separate forever. Even worse, they’re not compatible. The virgin’s two worlds are on a collision course and there’s no telling what might happen when they crash.

Caught Shining

The dreaded collision of the virgin’s two worlds happens and, as a result, she may be punished, shamed, or exiled. The virgin can be caught shining because she grows to big to be hidden by her secret world anymore. Her circumstances may change enough that she no longer wishes to hide, she may be recognized by people from her dependent world while in her secret world, or she may be betrayed.

Gives Up What Kept Her Stuck

This is the major turning point of The Virgin’s Promise. Back in the price of conformity, the virgin often experiences an event that becomes a complex. Other structural gurus call this the lie the protagonist believes (K.M. Weiland) or the misbelief (Lisa Cron). The virgin learned to bury her pain and created a pattern of belief that kept her from taking action and claiming her life.

Now the virgin must struggle to overcome her complex. This often involves either metaphorical or literal death. If the virgin fails to give up what keeps her stuck, she will never reach her apotheosis so that she can transform herself, or her dependent world.

Kingdom in Chaos

The virgin depends on her dependent world (oddly enough), but the dependent world also depends on the virgin. Once she truly begins to change, her dependent world goes into panic. They’re going to lose their great hope, their caregiver, the dutiful child who will carry on the family legacy, or the political alliances or dowry her arranged marriage will bring them.

The dependent world attempts to regain control over the virgin, and the virgin is having none of it. Promises and hearts are broken. The family, town, or kingdom falls into chaos.

Wanders in the Wilderness

The virgin has transgressed or rebelled against her dependent world, but is still unsure of her ability to stand on her own. Will she give in and return to her dependent world or forge ahead? To make this decision, the virgin will often need some solitude to consider her options and discover which choice is right for her.

In many stories that follow The Virgin’s Promise, the protagonist literally takes a walk alone, often in a park or the woods.

Chooses Her Light

The virgin chooses her dream, regardless of the consequences. This is her triumph, and the virgin must prove her new dedication with action. She applies for the job, confesses her love, competes or performs professionally, or uses her talent to save the day. The virgin risks rejection and failure. Depending upon the nature of the story, she could risk imprisonment or even death.

Re-Ordering (Rescue)

In this stage, the dependent world recognizes the virgin’s true value as she demonstrated it by pursuing her dream. As a result, she is reconnected with her community. The virgin has brought chaos to the kingdom. Now, she must set things to rights. If the dependent world has been a negative or oppressive force, the virgin, through her example, inspires the hero to fight, or forcibly change it. This is when the re-ordering becomes the rescue. In some stories, both a rescue and a re-ordering occur.

This is an example of how the virgin’s and hero’s journeys can intersect.

The Kingdom is Brighter

The virgin has defied the dependent world and thrown it into chaos by becoming her authentic self. She then restored order and her community has accepted her as she is. They’ve had to make some changes to reintegrate the virgin and, in the end, they realize these changes are for the better. Not just the virgin, but also everyone in her dependent world benefits from the transformation.

The Virgin’s Promise in Application

As I mentioned, in my next post, I’ll take two SF/F stories, one with a male protagonist and one with a female protagonist, and analyze them in terms of The Virgin’s Promise.

In the meantime, I’ll invite you to see if any of your favorite novels or movies use The Virgin’s Promise structure. If you’ve ever tried to analyze a story using The Hero’s Journey and found that things didn’t quite fit, it may be because the story follows a different archetype and structure.

Until next time, keep speculating and see where it leads 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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