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The Ordinary World: How Much and How Ordinary?

Even if you are not familiar with The Hero’s Journey, there’s a good chance you know that its first step is establishing the Ordinary World.  That, commonly understood, is a baseline view of a protagonist’s life and location.

Establishing the Ordinary World is like playing the first chord in a musical composition: It’s the safe and satisfying sound to which we will long to return during the many variations to come.  Until we know a protagonist’s “normal” we won’t know what order needs to be restored.  We’ll lack the heart and home anchors that make a protagonist both relatable and motivated.  We won’t meet the people who need to be protected and saved.  A protagonist without an Ordinary World will be a hero without a cause, and so we need to spend some time there.

That, anyway, is the common idea; however, that idea is limited if not wrong.  In too many manuscripts it leads to early pages laden with the domestic clatter of the daily routine.  Characters do what they’d do on any ordinary day followed shortly, or so the theory goes, by an interruption that brings the first hint of trouble.

Even stories that begin with trouble—a dead body, say, or a special -ops mission—can retreat quickly to a “normal” atmosphere and tempo, as when a detective in Chapter Two goes home for a shower, or the team returns to base to debrief.  Getting to know protagonists is important, obviously, but pouring cereal or joshing around do not automatically produce tension.  In my experience, they almost never produce tension at all.

My colleague and friend Chris Vogler in The Writer’s Journey, his distillation and interpretation of mythologist Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces for writers, elaborates on the utility and purpose of the Ordinary World.  Chris explains that the purpose of the Ordinary World is multi-fold.  It can create a metaphor for the story world and its problems.  It can set a story’s context, which is to say the framework for coming conflict.  The Ordinary World can feel tame compared to the Special World later on, but the seemingly tranquil base can nevertheless contain the seeds of trouble.  The hero’s problems do not begin elsewhere; they are already present at home.  Pretty obvious when you think about it.

The Ordinary World phase of a novel can also foreshadow the Special World and raise the story’s dramatic questions.  Heroes makes entrances, certainly, yet they can also sweep in along with them all of their baggage and hang-ups.  We want to like heroes, unquestionably, but there is also no reason that heroes’ lacks, flaws, needs, wants, wounds, burdens or yearnings need to wait.  The story’s stakes and theme are likewise in the air already.  How could they not be?  Stakes are always present and any issue worth writing about is already with us now.

Thus, the seemingly placid surface of the Ordinary World is deceptive.  The Ordinary World is anything but settled and safe.  Dangerous currents exist in the water close to shore.  Any life that appears serene is actually loaded with suppressed conflict.  A routine that feels comfortable and easy is in reality a situation in which a protagonist’s weakness is only temporarily tolerated.  Heroes are not yet heroic at home, and if we look closely that is immediately obvious.  Heroes have growing to do.  They need to be tested.  All of that is made plain in the Ordinary World.

Look at in that way, the Ordinary World doesn’t seem so ordinary, does it?  Let’s take a look at some Ordinary Worlds already on the shelves.

S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders (1967) opens with Ponyboy telling us about his world; in particular, the distinction between his social class and another:

We’re poorer than the Socs and the middle class.  I reckon we’re wilder, too.  Not like the Socs, who jump greasers and wreck houses and throw beer blasts for kicks, and get editorials in the paper for being a public disgrace one day and an asset to society the next.  Greasers are almost like hoods; we steal things and drive old souped-up cars and hold up gas stations and have a gang fight once in a while.  I don’t mean I do things like that.  Darry would kill me if I got into trouble with the police.  Since Mom and Dad were killed in an auto wreck, the three of us get to stay together only as long as we behave.  So Soda and I stay out of trouble as much as we can, and we’re careful not to get caught when we can’t.  I only mean that most greasers do things like that, just like we wear our hair long and dress in blue jeans and T-shirts, or leave our shirttails out and wear leather jackets and tennis shoes or boots.  I’m not saying that either Socs or greasers are better; that’s just the way things are.

Note the tensions, not only between Socs and greasers but within Ponyboy himself.  He’s concerned about getting in trouble, of course, but is he happy being a greaser or more resigned to it?  Resigned is not the same feeling as being content.  Ponyboy may identify as a greaser but that doesn’t mean that he is okay with it, or is willing to stay that way forever.  Hinton’s passage, then, presents an Ordinary World that is not trouble-free.  It’s a microcosm; a metaphor for everyone and everywhere.  Ponyboy also may claim to be merely reporting the way things are but he wouldn’t be writing about that if that did not bother him.

Jennifer Weiner’s Fly Away Home (2010) is the story of Sylvie Woodruff, wife of the senior senator from the state of New York.  Married young, she has given her life to her husband’s career.  You would think such a life enviable, and on the surface so it would seem.  Weiner opens by establishing Sylvie’s Ordinary World in its most mundane aspect: breakfast.

Breakfast in five-star hotels was always the same.  This was what Sylvie Serfer Woodruff thought as the elevator descended from the sixth floor and opened onto the gleaming expanse of the lobby of the Four Seasons in Philadelphia.  After thirty-two years of marriage, fourteen of them as the wife of the senior senator from New York, after visits to six continents and some of the major cities of the world, perhaps she should have been able to come up with something more profound about human nature and common ground and the ties that bind us all, but there it was—her very own insight.  Maybe it wasn’t much, but it wasn’t nothing.  If pressed, Sylvie also had some very profound and trenchant observations to make about executive airport lounges.

She took a deep breath, uncomfortably aware of the way the waistband of her skirt dug into her midriff.  Then she slipped her hand into her husband’s and walked beside him, past the reception desk toward the restaurant, thinking that it was a good thing, a reassuring thing, that no matter where you were, London or Los Angeles or Dubai, if you were in a good hotel, a four Seasons or a Ritz-Carlton—and , these days, when she and Richard traveled they were almost always in a Four Seasons or a Ritz-Carlton—your breakfast would never surprise you.

Breakfast.  Always the same.  How much more ordinary can the Ordinary World get?  Yet, look again.  Is Sylive settled in her life?  Yes, too settled.  She is stuck.  Atrophied.  A world traveler whose opinions are confined to breakfast menus and frequent flyer lounges.  She claims to be making the best of it.  She tells herself it’s not so bad.  It was a good thing, a reassuring thing…that your breakfast would never surprise you.  Do you get the feeling that Sylvie’s is a life that needs shaking up?  No question, and shaken it will be.

Perhaps no aspect of the Ordinary World phase is more treacherous than its function of conveying back story.  Oof.  Back story.  It might as well be called quicksand.  Back story can suck an opening down to its death in seconds.  Nevertheless, back story is not doomed merely to flatly set up and explain things.  It can raise mysteries.  It can set expectations for protagonists, and load them with legacies, prophecies, curses and reputations to live up to—or to live down.

Dean Koontz’s The City (2014) is the story of a musical prodigy from a family of musicians.  In its opening pages, Koontz’s narrator rattles on about pretty much everything he thinks we ought to know about his life, location and times (1967) before he starts his story, including a portrait of his Grandpa who played piano in hotels and department stores for money, but who at home only plays for pleasure:

Grandpa was modest, but I won’t be modest on his behalf.  He and Grandma didn’t have much trouble also because they had about them an air or royalty.  She was tall, and he was taller, and they carried themselves with quiet pride.  I used to like to watch them, how they walked, how they moved with such grace, how he helped her into her coat and opened doors for her and how she always thanked him.  They dressed well, too.  Even at home, Grandpa wore suit pants and a white shirt and suspenders, and when he played the piano or sat down for dinner, he always wore a tie.  When I was with them, they were as warm and amusing and loving as any grandparents ever, but I was at all times aware, with each of them, that I was in a Presence.

For all the warmth and affection this narrator feels toward his beloved grandparents, Koontz’s narrator has a lot to live up to.  He starts out with musical talent but in an inferior position, psychologically speaking.  He is not a man with flaws, exactly, but one who has things to prove.  He will soon learn of his destiny in a city of dark forces, but while we linger in his Ordinary World we are already sensing that this hero will have to be tested in order to grow.

What about novels that are already set in worlds that feel different, such as fantasy worlds, royal courts or café society?  When the life and times are already extraordinary, how do you convey a picture of the Ordinary and simultaneously within that also cast a foreshadow, erect a framework for conflict, put in place a protagonist’s shortcomings, and all the rest?

Melanie Benjamin’s The Swans of Fifth Avenue (2016) fictionalizes the life of 1950’s high society light Babe Paley.  Babe swims with the elegant swans such as Gloria Guinness and Pamela Churchill, living a life of exquisite style and taste.  What trouble could possibly roil such smooth waters?

The New York of the plays, the movies, the books; the New York of The New Yorker and Vanity Fair and Vogue. 

It was a beacon, a spire, a beacon on top of a spire.  A light, always glowing from afar, visible even from the cornfields of Iowa, the foothills of the Dakotas, the deserts of California.  The swamps of Louisiana.  Beckoning, always beckoning.  Summoning the discontented, seducing the dreamers.  Those whose blood ran too hot, and too quickly, causing them to look about at their placid families, their staid neighbors, the graves of their slumbering ancestors and say—

I’m different.  I’m special.  I’m more.

They all came to New York.  Nancy Gross—nicknamed “Slim” by her friend the actor William Powell—from California.  Gloria Guinness—“La Guinness’”—born a peasant in a rural village in Mexico.  Barbara Cushing—known as “Babe” from the day she was born, the youngest of three fabulous sisters from Boston.

And Truman.  Truman Streckfus Persons Capote, who showed up one day on William S. and Babe Paley’s private plane, a tag-along guest of their good friends Jennifer Jones and David O. Selznick.  Bill Paley, the chairman and founder of CBS, had gaped at the slender young fawn with the big blue eyes and funny voice; “I thought you meant President Truman,” he’d hissed to David.  “I’ve never heard of this little—fellow.  We have to spend the whole weekend with him?”

Does this Ordinary World strike you as too perfect?  Well, naturally it is and hints of its thin façade and fragile underpinnings pervade this passage.  The glamorous are dreamers, climbers and costumed frauds enchanted by their own fabulousness.  Theirs is a world of privilege, but privilege must pay and the venom is already in the bloodstream of this narration.  Truman Capote will wreak havoc with the life of Babe Paley, in case you haven’t already figured that out, and so a world of glamour becomes, in a way, ordinary after all; which is to say, not at all safe.

Too many manuscripts treat the Ordinary World phase as light stretching before hard exercise.  As we can see, the Ordinary World actually takes a lot of work—and does a lot of work, reflecting the story to come and already cracking open protagonists who have a long way to go if they are going to earn the mantle of Hero.

What’s roiling under the calm surface of your WIP’s Ordinary World?  Share.

About Donald Maass [1]

Donald Maass (he/him) is president of the Donald Maass Literary Agency [2]. He has written several highly acclaimed craft books for novelists including The Breakout Novelist [3], The Fire in Fiction [4], Writing the Breakout Novel [5]and The Career Novelist [6].