The hero's quest archetype, as laid out by Joseph Campbell in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, is a structure which can be applied to literature. The structure is a common model for much of literature and mythology, continuing in popular usage even today, with some of the greatest modern epics of following the formula. One such modern epic, Andrew Hussie's webcomic, Homestuck, contains multiple iterations of this archetype, as its primary function is as a mythology-building entity.
Joseph Campbell would be best classified as a psychoanalyst, not a structuralist. His work followed that of Carl Jung, a successor to Freud. Jung first developed the concept of the archetype based on his theories about the collective unconscious, a region of the mind where "each of us has his private, unrecognized, rudimentary, yet secretly potent, pantheon of dream" (Campbell). This unconscious contains elements of myth common to all humans; these elements came to be called archetypes and are the basic structures of mythology, appearing in different forms throughout the mythologies of different world cultures.
So why call the archetype a structure if it's based in psychoanalytic principles? The archetype of the hero's journey is, essentially, a combination of the two: a psychoanalytic structure, functioning in both psychoanalytic and structuralist realms. In the one, it serves as an element of the unconscious mind's shared mythology. In the other, it serves as a structure shared by many works of literature. In each discipline, it can potentially be used as a basis for critique and analysis.
Using archetypes for a psychoanalytic critique of a piece would be difficult and a bit impractical. The function of psychoanalytic critique is to look into the mind of a character, the reader, or the author to find something unique to analyze. Using archetypes for this kind of critique wouldn't show much about the mentalities of any of the above, and essentially would only serve to show that the author and reader are, on some conscious or unconscious level, aware of the tropes.
Archetypes' strengths as structures, however, are that they are the base units, the elements of the literary periodic table; ideally, every story and myth should contain one or more of these archetype-atoms formed together into a unique story-molecule, interconnecting different tropes into the plot in different combinations to avoid creating the same mundane story every time. The archetype of the hero is often crossed, for example, with the archetype of the temptress, who lures the hero away from his quest and from fidelity to his love interest. Archetypes are easy, universal structures to be found in all of world literature and mythology, which makes using them for structural analysis especially practical as they can tie together works from so many cultures and genres.
Campbell's book stretches the archetype of the hero's journey out into many distinct steps, each containing a successive sub-element of the journey. The book mostly serves to provide mythical examples of the sub-steps he delineates, conveying the meaning through example, rather than through explicit description. These steps are usually boiled down into a series of nine of the most important steps on the journey. All stories that fit the archetype of the hero's journey must fulfill the majority of these steps in some order.
The first step is an unusual birth circumstance; the hero's birth must be strange in some way. Frequently, this is a virgin birth. Other variants include a death plot in infancy or that the child be born into royalty. Often these elements are merged, and stories emerge like that of Jesus who is born to a virgin and also faces a death plot early on when King Harrod decrees that all of the boys under the age of two in Bethlehem must be slain.
The second step entails that the hero must leave his land and family to live with others. Sometimes, this is to avoid the death threat presented by the first step. Other times, it can be due to the deaths of the hero's parents, when the hero is sent to live with relatives as surrogate parents, like Harry Potter being sent to the Dursleys or Frodo living with Bilbo in Lord of the Rings. The hero will sometimes receive training while living with these others and frequently comes out of his time among them a much stronger and more heroic person.
The third step involves some event that sets off the hero's quest. Often, this is a traumatic event such as the death of a loved one or an attack by the dark powers that demands justice. Other times, the character simply comes of age and is sent off to make their own way in the world. In modern fiction, this step often takes the form of a magical or otherwise supernatural accident that draws the hero into a fantasy world.
The fourth step requires the hero to acquire a special weapon that no other person can wield. Famous iterations of this step include King Arthur and Excalibur, a sword none but Arthur could wield and Moses and his blessed staff which he used to perform miracles before Pharaoh and part the Red Sea to free his people. In some instances, the weapon can also simply be something that everyone acquires at some point, such as a wand in the Harry Potter series, which works best for the wizard of its choosing.
The fifth step calls for supernatural aid for the hero. In modern literature, this frequently takes the form of the wise wizard who guides the hero on his quest, like Gandalf for Bilbo and Frodo in Lord of the Rings and Dumbledore for Harry Potter. In religion and mythology, the supernatural aid often comes directly from the deities themselves, Hermes helping Odysseus and God helping Moses for example.
The sixth step is the repeated proving of the hero. They must face many trials and defeat many enemies before their final showdown with the big bad. Video game iterations of the archetype are probably most notorious for this, as the player works through level after level and dungeon after dungeon before finally reaching the final boss.
The seventh step is a descent into a hell-like place, either physically or mentally, where the hero earns some unhealable wound. Sometimes, the wound is physical, Luke Skywalker losing his hand fighting Darth Vader. Other times, it is more metaphorical, such as a character's past mistakes haunting them.
In the eighth step, the hero atones for the debts and mistakes of his father or a close family member. Sometimes, this is simply repaying of a father's debts, such as fighting for someone to whom the hero's father owed a debt as Beowulf does. Other times, it can involve avenging the father's death or making amends for the father's mistakes.
The final step involves the spiritual reward that follows the hero's death. Frodo gets the privilege to go with the elves into the Undying Lands in the west, a heaven-like place where the elves sail when their time in Middle Earth is through. Sometimes the heroes are promised to return again should their country and people need them. Jesus is one such figure, for example, whose return is prophesied to bring the end of the Earth.
These nine steps provide a well-rounded story with enough room for variation that has and will likely continue to provide thousands of years of stories and mythology to cultures worldwide. It is by far one of the most popular archetypes to work with judging by the frequency with which books and movies like Harry Potter and Star Wars gain widespread fame and spawn imitations. It can be used to appeal to both those who want an everyman character like Harry to rise up and succeed and, at the same time, can appeal to those who want strong, legendary heroes like Beowulf or Superman.
One of the main drawbacks of the hero's quest and any other archetype is that, when poorly handled, the use of a trope can do more harm than good. Following the structure step by step with no variance, will make the piece lack dimension. The best examples of the trope combine elements from multiple archetypes and may even include duplicates of hero's quest archetype itself.
Andrew Hussie's web-comic Homestuck does just this. One of the main goals for Homestuck is as a mythology-developing entity, and it relies heavily on the use of tropes to achieve that end. The basic premise is that Homestuck is the story of four, 13-year-old kids, John, Dave, Rose, and Jade, who begin playing a video game together called Sburb. The game seems simple enough at first, but when meteors start falling from the sky and threatening their lives, they discover that there is more to the game than originally thought. Each of the kids must "enter" the game through a series of small tasks before their homes are destroyed by falling meteors.
Upon entering the game, each of the kids finds him or herself on a different planet in a region of space called the Incipisphere. These planets are tailored by the game to challenge them as they work to build up their houses to reach gates, portals in space that lead to a central planet called Skaia upon which the final battle between the dark forces of the planet Derse and the light forces of the planet Prospit engage in a final, chess-like battle, where the light is always fated to lose.
The game, in and of itself, is a method of universe and mythology creation. As the kids play the game, they are harassed over the internet by a group of mysterious trolls, horned, gray-skinned members of an alien race who had played a previous iteration of the game and only barely failed. The trolls, by playing through their session of the game, created our universe, and, by playing the game themselves, the kids will create the next universe. Should the players win, they are allowed to enter the new universe as gods and shape that universe into whatever they would like. Even before the game is completed, the residents of Derse and Prospit, even the kings and queens treat the kids with reverence.
The plot of Homestuck is full of iterations of the hero's quest archetype, with the kids and trolls all playing out the trope in their own ways. However, with twelve trolls and four kids, a full catalogue of this would be impractical, so the leaders' quests in each session, that of John for the human session and of Karkat for the troll session, will be looked into.
As the leaders of their respective sessions, both John and Karkat are put in charge of handling the first step of the archetype: the unusual birth. Through a highly confusing process known as ectobiology, both boys are in charge of creating themselves, their friends, and their guardians using cloned imprints of their guardians as adults. John's grandmother and Jade's grandfather are combined to form John and Jade, and Dave's Bro and Rose's mom are combined to form the Dave and Rose. Karkat uses the imprints of the ancestors of each of his teammates to create direct clones, as troll reproduction, in and of itself, is bizarre by human standards and having the trolls be direct clones of their ancestors is a simpler alternative.
The bizarre troll family structure lends itself well to the second step of the archetype: where the hero is raised away from their parents and trained. A young troll never meets his or her parents and is instead reared by a wild beast known as a lusus. Lusii can take on many different forms, such as a large, two-mouthed cat, a massive troll-eating spider, or even an eldritch tentacle monster, and each young troll gets one. They serve to train young trolls to become strong warriors as adults.
Each of the kids as well has a strange family structure that fulfills the second step. They are each raised as only children by a single adult, though Jade's guardian is actually a large magical dog as her grandpa died when she was young. Each of the guardians seem to antagonize their kids, much the same way as lusii do, subtly training their children to become strong fighters.
The third step for both sessions, the action that sets the heroes' out on their quests is the arrival of their video games. John receives his copy of Sburb in the mail on his birthday and is the first of the kids to begin playing. Karkat receives his copy of Sgrub, the trolls' equivalent, from his friend Sollux, a programer who created the game based on information found in an ancient ruin. By starting the games, the players start themselves on their own quests.
For the fourth step, the unique weapons, the characters each use different battle styles and receive at some point during their quest an extremely powerful weapon of the variety they use. John fights with a hammer and gets the Fear No Anvil, a powerful hammer that belonged to Hephaestus. Karkat fights with a sickle, but, at this point, it's unknown if Karkat will receive anything comparable in terms of rarity.
The fulfillment of step five, supernatural aid, comes in the form of kernelsprites. At the beginning of each player's game, they are given a kernelsprite as a guide. The sprites can be prototyped with different objects which change the shape of the ultimate opponents the kids must face. The sprites tend to be drawn to dead matter, so Karkat's is prototyped with "Crab-dad," his dead crustacean lusus, and John's is prototyped into Nannasprite, using his grandmother's ashes and a harlequin doll.
Step six, the repeated testing of the hero, comes in the form of the trials the kids must go through as they play the game, each gate getting progressively harder to reach. The players cycle through each other's planets as they pass through the gates and have to work their way back to their own planets of origin to get to the next gate.
The seventh step behaves differently for each of the leaders. John's descent into the hell-equivalent comes when Jack Noir, the main antagonist in the kid's session, lights the oil seas of John's planet on fire. John has to tap into "The Windy Thing," his special skill granted to him by the game, to put the fires out. His unhealable wound comes shortly thereafter when John goes to sleep on his Quest Bed, a game element best described with step nine, and is stabbed in his sleep by Jack in cold-blood.
Karkat's descent into hell comes during the most recent updates. After the trolls fail their session, several of the trolls go slowly crazy and begin killing off their teammates. Karkat had to watch Eridan, an upper-class troll, kill two other trolls and blind Sollux. At the present moment, one of Karkat's particular friends, Gamzee, has also gone insane and has killed two other trolls. So at the present moment, Karkat is in a metaphorical hell, surrounded by friends and teammates slowly losing their minds and going on murderous rampages. Having failed at leading his team through a successful session, Karkat is apparently doomed to spend his last hours among slowly maddening friends and teammates, emotionally scarred by both his own failure and the fear induced by his situation.
The eighth step regarding atonement for the father's sins doesn't particularly apply to either Karkat or John at the moment, though some of the other trolls are working through this particular step. The troll concept of ancestors, mentioned during the explanation of the first step, exists to provide young trolls with a model to emulate. Two trolls, Vriska and Terezi, are both extremely fond of their legacies and are currently working through a rivalry their ancestors began. Due to the ongoing nature of the comic, it is unknown how exactly the present showdown will work out with regard to the idea of atonement.
The ninth and final step ties back to John's unhealable wound. The Quest Bed John is stabbed on serves as a medium for ascension. Every player gets a dreamself that they inhabit while asleep. It can also be used as an extra life; should the player die, they can be revived into their dreamself, but only if they are kissed by another player, and their dreamself is a still alive. Should a high-leveled player die on their Quest Bed, their consciousness will be transferred permanently to their dreamself, and they will ascend to the god-tier, earning more powers than the average player. Because John dies on his Quest Bed, he gains these powers and ascends, gaining the spiritual reward that follows the hero's death.
By being so true to the hero's quest archetype in such a unique way, Andrew Hussie's work embodies the best of what can be done with archetypes. He melds this simple, age-old trope into a longer, extremely complicated, and original piece of fiction. The size of the fan-following Homestuck has is a testament to just how attractive the hero's quest archetype can be when handled well.
As humans, we like our heroes, and the archetype and others like it have always given them to us. The modifications that can be made to the structure in terms of character and setting allow for whatever kind of hero we as readers want to see. The structure still exists because artists and writers have molded and manipulated it, keeping their stories new and fresh for their audiences by creating engaging heroes, no matter how repetitive the underlying trope.