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: [Read more…]