Why I Chose to Write a Heroine’s Journey (and How You Can Too)
Today's guest post comes to us from Evonne Marzouk, author of The Prophetess. As writers, we often hear of the hero's journey, but we don't often dissect the heroine's journey and how it differs. Evonne's post gives us great insight into this female perspective.
“Storytelling is universal and is as ancient as humankind. Before there was writing, there was storytelling. It occurs in every culture and from every age. It exists (and existed) to entertain, to inform, and to promulgate cultural traditions and values.” – National Geographic
When I set out to write my novel The Prophetess, I wanted to accomplish two important things: to tell a good story, and to offer a taste of wisdom that could speak to the hearts and souls of my readers.
Growing up, I was a fan of wisdom stories like The Celestine Prophecy and The Alchemist, and other hero’s stories like The Hobbit, Harry Potter, and Superman. But those stories always seemed to be about men, and I wanted to write a woman’s story. So learning about the heroine’s journey was one very helpful step in the framing of my book.
To understand the heroine’s journey, it may help to first get familiar with the hero’s journey, a foundational model of a wide range of books and stories. The hero’s journey begins with a man feeling limited by societal expectations: performing, providing and protecting. After being called for something more, the hero experiences success, invitations, trials until he faces death. In the end, which is called the final climax, he faces a fateful choice. If he is willing to transform, he finds his authentic self, has the courage to face the villain, and succeeds. If the hero is not willing to transform, he rebels and is not successful in his goals.
Based on one of Western civilization’s oldest myths, the heroine’s journey may be less immediately familiar. I’ve found it is especially resonant for many women (and others who appreciate a more feminine perspective). Modern readers have said the archetype for this story is based on the Descent of the ancient Sumerian goddess Inanna into the underworld, one of Western civilization’s most ancient stories.
A heroine begins her journey immersed in an illusion: that her world is perfect. She is drawn into action by a moment of realization or betrayal. While the hero has the choice to awaken at the end of his story, the heroine awakens at the beginning. She realizes she never had power – and goes forth from her safe and contained world to grow into herself. She descends into another world and gradually faces increasing challenges, until she faces her own death or virtual death. At the end of her story, the heroine is reborn to come full circle.
One really good example of a heroine’s journey that almost everyone knows is The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy’s journey begins with questioning authority and her place in the world. She travels to a foreign land (Oz) and begins to gather friends (Scarecrow, Tin Man, Cowardly Lion) to help her along the way. She gains the courage to stand up for herself. Finally, she is willing to go it alone and faces her own symbolic death (in the castle of the Wicked Witch). Her friends (first her dog Toto, and then the rest of her friends) save her from death (in the castle). At the end, she comes back to the beginning (Kansas) with new wisdom that shows how far she’s come.
The hero’s journey is linear, with a clear beginning, middle and end, while the heroine’s journey is circular, bringing the character back to the beginning with deeper wisdom. The hero proves himself to the group; the archetypal heroine needs to discover her own powers and believe in herself. While a hero is told to provide and be strong, a heroine is told to be passive and receptive. He is told to save and protect, but if she is saved, she is kept from her journey.
The heroine’s moment of crisis is also different from the hero. He survives by making a personal choice and defeating a villain. She survives through the support of others. But looking at some heroine’s journey models, I’ve noticed that others help the heroine not because she is weak. They save her because she is so deeply loved that they cannot accept a world without her.
Many women today are familiar with a heroine’s journey cycle in our lives. Life often presents a moment of departure – in childhood, in school, maybe in an unworkable marriage or a job situation – when we realize the world we have been living in as safe and easy isn’t so perfect after all. Without knowing what lies ahead, we set out from what we’ve always known, to grow into ourselves.
In my novel The Prophetess, the main character Rachel is a feminine heroine using powers of insight, intuition and empathy – rather than traditional male powers of strength, power and domination – to save the day. Using the nine-stage Heroine’s Journey, an emphasis on what I like to call “feminine superpowers”, as well as my particular wisdom tradition, I’ve created a particular kind of heroine: a prophetess. The book empowers feminine heroism, quietly encouraging readers to fulfill their biggest dreams.
As we talk about “feminine” and “masculine” stories and gifts, it’s important to understand that masculine gifts are not limited to men, and feminine gifts are not limited to women. Some sensitive men struggle with society’s expectations of their strength, and some women are more comfortable with traditionally masculine gifts. Transgender and nonbinary individuals might identify with gifts in both or neither of these categories. There is great opportunity in valuing all different types of gifts and stories, so that we can all maximize the use of our individual strengths and together resolve some of the crushing dilemmas our society faces today.
In The Prophetess, Rachel is called to become the fullest version of herself. At first, her calling is bigger than she can imagine. One of Rachel’s teachers tells her, “When they say you are great, believe them.” As I’ve been teaching about this, I’ve realized that many people, and especially women, really struggle to accept and embrace their own greatness. It might be matter of misplaced humility, a small perception of themselves, or because they feel they don’t have time, energy, motivation, or courage to live into their greatness.
To support people and especially women in that process, I’ve created a special, printable workbook, a Heroine’s Journal: A Jewish Mystical Journey of Growing into Your Gifts. The short booklet offers twelve short lessons as a personal exploration. Using this journal, all women can set out from our safe world by beginning to explore our gifts. Like The Prophetess, although it’s grounded in what I’ve learned from my own wisdom tradition, its wisdom and lessons are available and relevant for all.
When too many stories focus on the hero’s journey model and strengths that are thought of as masculine, those of us with other strengths and aspects to our stories might not see ourselves in the stories told to us. For example, if we only hear stories of power and domination, we might feel unworthy if that’s not our particular strength. Worse, we might undervalue real gifts that do have important value, like empathy, insight, kindness, and nurturing love. And lacking the stories that teach us to own our own power, we may not know how to prove ourselves to ourselves, and take the actions the world needs from us.
I hope this heroine’s journey model will encourage more writers and readers to write and recognize different kinds of stories and different kinds of strengths, so that we can all see ourselves more consistently in the stories we read.
Evonne Marzouk grew up in Philadelphia and received her B.A. from the Johns Hopkins University. She is the author of the Jewish novel The Prophetess and has spoken to schools, Bat Mitzvah programs, synagogues and book clubs about the book’s themes and Jewish lessons. Evonne was the founder and former Executive Director of a Jewish environmental organization called Canfei Nesharim, and is currently a board member of its successor organization GrowTorah. She worked with rabbis, scientists, educators, and community leaders to create and distribute Torah teachings on the environment, including a comprehensive set of core teachings on the environment, which was later gathered into a book, Uplifting People and Planet: Eighteen Essential Jewish Lessons on the Environment. Professionally, she has worked for over twenty years at the United States Environmental Protection Agency.