How to Better Understand Your Character Using the Hero’s Journey

understanding character using the hero's journey
Photo by Klaus Nielsen:

How we can explore our character development and personal values through examining stories of overcoming adversity

What are the circumstances that forged your character? What challenges have you faced that make you the person you are today? If you were a hero, what would be your origins story? 

“People grow through experience if they meet life honestly and courageously. This is how character is built.” – Eleanor Roosevelt

A hero’s origins story? 

I heard the crack as my collarbone gave way. Surely this should not happen to a superhero. Where had I gone wrong?

Scroll back 30 seconds.

My cape billowed behind me. This was mainly because my Superman suit was too big and there was a draft in the hall. But the steely look on my face; that was 100% genuine.

The family was watching television, but not me.  I laughed at their weakness. Mortals! They would watch greatness on the screen, but I would achieve greatness, right here in the hallway of our home.  

This was no time for sitting around, I had committed myself to the rigours of disciplined training.  I knew that if I was going to make an impact on the world – especially aged 6 – I needed to stand out.  But I had to admit, that learning to fly was hard.  

I had a method.  In the hall was a big antique chair with strong arms and a soft leather seat.  From the arms, I could launch myself to the stairs.  Then I could turn on the stairs and leap back to the safety of the leather cushion.  All I needed to do was inch the chair further away from the stairs after each successful flight. At some point, surely, I would be released from the habit of falling to earth.

Do you dream of being a hero? 

Back and forth I went, time and again.  My confidence rose. I felt the superpowers burgeoning within me; indisputably all they needed was some great need, a challenge, a crisis for them to burst forth. 

I moved the chair a whole foot away from the stairs and mounted the launch platform once again.  I surveyed the distant stairs with my steely gaze and set my sights on the third step.  My expression hardened, my mouth set, and my teeth clenched. My muscles bunched in anticipation as I crouched and, with an incredible force, leapt into the void.  

I felt the blood (or was that superpower?) rushing through my veins as I flew, my body outstretched.  I could feel the air rushing past my cheek; had I reached escape velocity?  

Building character through challenges, obstacles, and adversity

The horizon started to fall away.  My speed was ebbing.  The steps seemed so distant. My confident gaze was replaced by wide-eyed panic. My lofty dreams were about to crash into the unforgiving floor of reality.

Above the sound of the television, there was a large thump followed by a high-pitched yowl.  The rest of the family burst through the door and into the hall to gape at the terrible sight of the fallen hero.  There I lay; a diminutive blue and red heap at the base of the stairs, one arm held at an unexpected angle.  

Hot tears of frustration and humiliation burnt my (noble) cheeks.  To maintain my dignity and protect my battered pride I removed my hero cape for the journey to hospital.  But as I sat there, quietly sobbing, I started to plan my return to my training. 

I had failed to fly but I had proven my focus and determination. Deep down I wanted to be a hero to help people, I wanted to serve them, but I knew I needed more power (influence) to achieve this. And I also wanted adventure, so this was certainly not the last chapter in my trying to develop superpowers! 

This light-hearted story holds some deeper insights. My core values are leadership (which is in essence influence), service (to others) and adventure (a love of challenge, exploration and risk-taking).

If you look at your own stories you can discover similar revelations about your own character and values. 

“Character cannot be developed in ease and quiet. Only through experience of trial and suffering can the soul be strengthened, ambition inspired, and success achieved.” – Helen Keller

The Adventure Journal or Notebook

Wherever I go, be that for work or on an adventure, I take a notebook. I prefer a plain hardback notepad that I can sketch in as well as take notes. I have filled many such books over the years, and they act as a journal of my travels, ideas and experiences. I enjoy taking them off the shelf and browsing through them, remembering places, or re-discovering my thoughts while exploring.

Therefore, when it comes to the idea of considering personal stories it is the picture of a notebook that comes to mind. In the Right Questions Toolkit, it is the journal that we take with us, to remind us of our story, and to allow us to record the next chapter of our adventure. It is the book where you are the hero of the story.

The Hero’s Journey: The 12-Step Story Arc

The Hero’s Journey (or monomyth) is a structured story arc, and common template, used by storytellers over the years, from authors of ancient mythology through to Hollywood screenwriters. If you think of tales of heroes, be that Odysseus or Luke Skywalker, Perseus or Katniss Everdeen, you can see the underlying similarities.

A 17-step structure was proposed by Joseph Campbell in The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949) and this was refined into a 12-step process by Christopher Vogler in The Writers Journey (2007). But both templates are based on a three-act structure of:

  1. Departure. The beginning, where the hero leaves their ordinary life.
  2. Initiation. The middle, where the hero overcomes adversity to get a prize.
  3. Return. The end, where the hero returns home but with new wisdom.

Tool: The Hero’s Journal

This template can be used to examine our own stories. Our character and values can be revealed through reflecting upon how we dealt with adversity in our past. 

So, think about your story and the adventures (and misadventures) you have had to date. Which circumstances and choices have shaped you the most? You may have an actual journal or diary that you can refer to and remind yourself of some of these key times. I also find photos a good prompt for these important life stages.

Once you have identified a few significant moments in your life, times when you had to overcome obstacles and were shaped by this process, you can then use the following questions and 12-step structure of the Hero’s Journey to further analyse the experience:


  • What was your ‘ordinary life’ before your journey?
  • What was your ‘call to adventure’?
  • How did you initially resist or ‘refuse the call’?
  • Who influenced you (which ‘mentor’ or advisor) to change your mind?
  • What marked the ‘crossing of the threshold’ to start the adventure?


  • Which ‘tests and enemies’ did you face along the way?
  • What led to the greatest challenge (the ‘inmost cave’)?
  • How did you overcome your ‘ordeal’ or struggle?
  • What was the ‘reward’ or payoff?


  • How was the onward journey, ‘the road back’, after the ordeal?
  • How had you changed (as the new ‘resurrected’ self)?
  • What did take from the experience and what wisdom (‘elixir’) did you gain?

Once you have worked through these twelve steps and questions, now consider:

  • What does this story say about my character?
  • Which tenets or principles guided my decisions through the journey?
  • What is the most important value or lesson you can take with you into the future?

There is further to go on our journey and each obstacle we overcome gives us more character, resilience and wisdom for the adventures ahead. There will be further challenges in your life but you can choose how to deal with them. As adventurer, author and entrepreneur Yossi Ghinsberg puts it:

“Be the hero of your journey” – Yossi Ghinsberg

So, what adventure will you write with your life?

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