Ordinary People

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“I wonder if its possible, to write a ripping good yarn with a hero, or heroine, who was ordinary in every way.”

A reader emailed and asked me this question a few days ago. It’s a good question. Why do fantasy novels tend to be about unusually skilled people in extraordinary circumstances? Why do they have tortured pasts? Why are they always better-than-average looking? What about middle-aged Jim Johnson, the married car salesman who lives on the corner? Why can’t he be a fantasy hero?

When I read a book, I want to be transported. I want to enter a world I can’t possibly find by driving my SUV across town. I want to share the experiences of people I could never, ever be. Heroes who discover they can perform magic, or are related to a fabled line of martial artists, or cause the weather to change just by staring at clouds long enough…those people are interesting. I want to be near them. I want to be along for the ride as they learn what they’re capable of, and overcome the dilemmas facing them. I want to root for them, and I want to turn the last page with a satisfied sigh that once again, the good guys succeeded in the face of overwhelming odds.

Does this mean I want to read stories about characters who are so magnificent they can do it all? Naah. That’s boring. An invincible hero is certainly nice to have around, but after he’s saved the busload of orphans from falling over the cliff and stopped the asteroid from smashing the town, I’ll probably wander off to find something else to do. He can’t be beaten, so why should I bother paying attention? That’s where that tortured past thing comes into play. We’re all slaves to the mistakes of our pasts, and a book’s characters shouldn’t be any different. An unbeatable character is dull, but a hero who’s afraid of snakes is fascinating. What if he has to wade through a snake pit to save his friend from certain death? Will he? The sword- warrior who can’t sleep because she has nightmares about the father who beat her will have to make a decision when he turns out to be the evil duke she’s been hired to guard. We want to read about their worries and triumphs, because in a way, they are ours as well.

I just finished reading a very good book called World’s End, by Mark Chadbourn. The main characters are ordinary people, living lives not unlike any of ours, when they are swept into the events that drive the story. Church is grieving a lost love, Ruth is worrying that she might lose her job. But when the ancient gods of Celtic myth start chasing them through the countryside, they have to become more than they are. They have to become heroes.

So there’s your answer. Even when a story begins with someone going about his boring old life, he has to change, to transform into someone who can solve the mystery, find the magic, save the world. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be a story anyone would want to read.

And if they’re good-looking, too…well that just makes it more fun to imagine while I’m writing. 😀

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8 comments to Ordinary People

  • >>…they have to become more than they are. They have to become heroes.<<

    Yes, that's my favorite kind of story. One of the things that made The Hobbit so effective the first time I read it so many, many years ago, was the fact that Bilbo was utterly ordinary. Not particularly brave, not strong, small and quick, but no more so than any other hobbit. But as the story unfolds and he's forced into his adventure, he has to become more than he was, more than his neighbors back in the Shire would like him to be. I love that.

    Neil Gaiman excels at this kind of character — check out Neverwhere, or Ananzi Boys, or even American Gods. He handles the ordinary hero beautifully.

  • I like when ordinary people have to do the extraordinary or find that they are much more than they at first thought. They can be bout anything by the end, but it’s fun to see the growth of the character, both mentally and physically as they go from Joe/Josephine Average to hero/heroine. Got a story I started a while ago that’s got a character that doesn’t know her potential and has to grow throughout the story to save her world.

    I think seeing the characters grow and change through the story brings you closer to that character and helps you understand their issues.

  • This desire to see people and life beyond our ordinary experience is a core element in storytelling going all the way back to the first recorded stories. There are many, many reasons — some already discussed in the post and comments above — but tons more abound. It makes me think of the Oedipus question — which is more interesting? To see the great, arrogant Oedipus fall big time for a truly bizarre, extraordinary reason, or to see what Oedipus’s stable boy had for breakfast? There’s not that much thrilling in the ordinary.

  • I think our idea of an “ordinary” person is a gross under-estimate. How often do you really know what’s under the surface?

    But a lot of “heroes” tend to be very similar to the surface idea(l). They are superficial. It seems authors are less afraid to delve into what goes on underneath the surface of an “ordinary” person, and so–from a practical standpoint–I tend to prefer “ordinary” heroes.

  • Robin

    Not be be down on “ordinary” people in general, but I think the term “ordinary heroes” could be an oxymoron. There’s nothing ordinary about heroes. Heroes do extraordinary things, which enable the ordinary people to cower in the corner until it’s over. Ordinary people can become heroes, but only by first becoming extraordinary.

    I tried to write a heroine who was essentially ordinary. I based her on myself and how I imagined I’d react to various stimuli. The girl wouldn’t do a thing about the big scary stuff unless she was forced to do it. I kept having to kidnap her and cart her around to get her where she needed to go. Ordinary people don’t like confronting nightmares. Most heroes don’t like it, either, but they at least acknowlege that the big bad won’t go away if you ignore it long enough.

  • Ordinary gets my vote (says the girl currently writing about a skinwalker and a stone-mage/battle mage.) Okay, I lied a litle. When I write mystery/thrillers, I like ordinary people forced to evolve strengths by the conflict of the plotline. When I write fantasy, I like the odd, quirky, got-a-few-tricks-in-his/her-bag character. And I’m not even a gemini!

  • I vote for ordinary too (though anyone who has read Act of Will would know that already). It’s actions that make heroes, and if the people who do them start off ordinary then doing those heroic deeds is harder, more interesting, more…well…heroic :) I never cared for Superman. If you have invent alien minerals to give him a weakness, there’s something wrong. I like my heroes fallible and vulnerable.

  • Everybody’s extraordinary in some way. My dad likes looking at orchestra performers and then imagining them on the street, just walking along in regular clothes, and you’d never know that guy was a trombone virtuoso, or whatever. So I think most people have something in them that they’re extraordinarily good at. Those things are frequently the basis for character careers, in my books–Margrit in the Negotiator trilogy, for example, is a Very Good Lawyer.

    But Margrit’s also very grounded in the real world. Her ambitions and goals are very concrete, unlike Joanne in the Walker Papers, who really essentially wants a quiet, unambitious life working on cars, because it’s what she loves. So when Margrit’s pulled into the extraordinary world of the Old Races, she behaves very differently than when Jo discovers she’s a shaman. They’re both heroes, but they come into it in completely different ways.