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Ordinary People

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Svrtnsse, May 11, 2016.

  1. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    This reminds me of the MIW discussion. If we interpret "worse" as the most extreme piling-on of All-Suffering and Absolute Devastation, then MIW might be horrible advice. Similarly, no one is talking about "nothing" happening to a nice guy. And "something" may not mean explosions, dead babies and wife and dog, and Galactus beginning to eat the planet–although I do think that type of extreme is being implied in the way the word is being used.

    Put another way, "nothing happening" to a character, let's say someone named Bob, would be written like this:


    That might be the entirety of Chapter One.

    But let's be generous and give something for Bob to do for Chapter Two; still, nothing happening to him:

    Bob smiled.​

    The moment we introduce another character interacting with Bob, a bit of rain falling on Bob, a bill arriving in the mail that Bob needs to pay, then something is happening to him. So every novel has something happening to the character, at least every novel I've ever read and every novel I can imagine that will actually be published.

    Geo's examples were:

    1. Ordinary person having something extraordinary happening to him (or around him, requiring his reaction/interaction)
    2. Extraordinary person having something ordinary happening, or doing ordinary things.

    #1 was fine, but #2 was not.

    I don't know, but I think that a super-powerful wizard who receives a jury summons might be kind of funny and interesting–maybe not if that were the entire plot, but only one in a series of very ordinary events. But maybe comedy/farce is being excluded from consideration? Either #1 or #2 will depend on execution, in any case.

    I agree.

    This describes every novel ever written. This describes any theoretical novel about an ordinary person doing ordinary things, an extraordinary person doing ordinary things, an ordinary person involved in extraordinary events, an extraordinary person involved in extraordinary events. Pretty much every possible configuration.
  2. Reaver

    Reaver Kwisatz Haderach Moderator

    Don't feel too bad Svrt... D&D has been using Hobbit knock-offs that they call halflings since their first edition in 1974.
  3. Geo

    Geo Troubadour

    First, I need to say that you may have missed my references to conflict, because by no means I think conflict is solely represented by explosions or otherwise by blowing things up in any way.

    Conflict can be external or internal, huge or small, obvious or subtle. A character may struggle with a change in circumstances, from loosing a parent to getting lost in the woods, or may struggle with his/hers internal monologue and principles, e.g., should I tell that my friend cheated on her magic examinations, should I go and be a warrior as my father or a monk as I want, should I choose to be a pirate or a sailor... conflict takes as many forms as stories exist but without conflict there is not story (I have extreme trouble even finding an example a story of everyday/ordinary things that are not interrupted by some kind of conflict). And because of conflict, ordinary life suddenly becomes out-of-the-ordinary, and by reacting to this, ordinary characters also become a bit extraordinary themselves.

    For me, it's only when the everyday is interrupted by conflict that our stories grow, and it's then that we get to fully develop our characters.

    Knowing what a character does in his everyday life does not make us care for that character. A long description of any character features, position/abilities, or everyday's activities may help a bit to tell me who he is, but how that character faces the conflict that come to his life, what he thinks about whatever that event it's, how he reacts to its consequences, that helps me see the character in all his facets and engage with him and with the story.

    When writing, it's my characters reaction to the conflict they are facing (which of course I'm providing) what reveals who they are.

    For example, I can tell you that Dann is a great climber and the best guide you can have to travel across the Ridge and you may say that's cool, and I can tell you in great detail what he does everyday and you may find that interesting (or not), but I have little chances of you engaging with that character until he faces a conflict (which may be that despite being a great guide he would have to stop traveling because his mother is sick, or because the routes to the Ridge have being taken by the King's people, or because his village has been taken over by orcs, or because he comes to discover that he's the lost prince of the kingdom). Why? Because it's in facing the conflict that you get to fully know who Dann is (and when I get to truly develop that character, i.e., when we get to tell/show what he really thinks, what it's truly important in his life, how he reacts...).

    So to answer your question I think that readers come to care about characters when they get to know them, but a reader can only get to know a character when the character faces a conflict. Now, the event represented that represents the conflict can be explosive and dramatic or more mundane, that's up to the story.

    It's my believe that most readers will not care -engage- with a character if we only present that character in his everyday life, doing everyday things as he had always done and without anything changing. You don't truly care for Aladdin because what he do before meeting the Sorcerer found him, knowing that he was a poor rob-to-live guy may have picked your curiosity, but you truly start caring about Aladdin after he meets the Sorcerer and he accepts to go into the cave. We care because we want to know what it's going to happen, but above all because we want to know what it's he going to do when whatever it's coming comes.
    Last edited: May 13, 2016
  4. Geo

    Geo Troubadour

    However, unless the wizard it's constantly receiving jury summons, this event means that he had to do something out of the ordinary -HIS ORDINARY. Under this logic, receiving the summons it's an extraordinary event in his life, hence a source of conflict, or at least conflict as I see it.

    Now, imaging a whole story in which you are going to recall a whole day in the life of this Wizard with him doing exactly what he does everyday... absolutely nothing out of the ordinary (his ordinary) happening. Hence, absolutely no conflict. Would that be interesting? May be, on a very technical way (as world/character building work, probably) but I have real trouble thinking it would make for a very compelling story.
    Last edited: May 13, 2016
  5. FifthView

    FifthView Istar


    I agree that conflict of some sort is necessary, and I think that's an important point to be made within this conversation about ordinariness re: storytelling, but I somewhat disagree with the fine hair you are splitting.

    So three levels have been addressed:

    • Ordinary for our real world.
    • Ordinary for the fantasy world.
    • Ordinary for the character.

    I think you've added that third one; the other two had already been raised as considerations.

    I believe these areas introduce interesting questions:

    Can a character and/or situation that is "ordinary" within the fictional world but non-ordinary for our real world be sufficiently engaging for a reader? E.g., the inn stable boy who tends unicorns and gryphons, which are common to his world, but who has no special powers, is not of an elite social class, etc.

    Must a character and/or situation be non-ordinary, or extraordinary, within that fictional world before it can be engaging for a reader? E.g., the stable boy mentioned above who also happens to be the prophesied savior of the land, possessing great magical ability.

    The third one is your addition–ordinary for the character–and I don't think it's particularly good for determining ordinariness, for this reason: "HIS ORDINARY" presupposes a life that is uniformly the same from day to day to day to day. But I don't think such a thing is possible–in our world at least, and probably not even for fictional characters in a fantasy world unless some preexisting magical condition has caused such uniform sameness. (At precisely 2pm every day, Bob sneezes and Jane tells him to cover his mouth with his hand.) A mental experiment: Ask yourself if you can remember any two days that were identical. Or any two hours. I know it's common to feel as if every day is the same; but, they are not. And so when a jury summons arrives, something that may well be common for that fictional world, it may not be typical for a character to receive a jury summons, but this doesn't make him an extraordinary person, any more than having a bird drop its business on the windshield in front of the passenger seat would make him an extraordinary person. He might not ordinarily have to wash that side of the windshield at 8:59 am; his washing it doesn't make him extraordinary.

    And so I think this would be a failure to draw a realistic picture. Well yes, a writer might well write one chapter and copy-paste it so that every following chapter is identical to it, the character is always doing the same things at precisely the same time. That's an exaggerated example, of course. A writer might indeed tell a story in which every sentence could theoretically have the phrase, "as he always did" appended to it. And yes, it would probably be exceptionally boring. I don't think anyone's suggesting otherwise? But the failure would be in a) not choosing to mention any of the peculiarities that normal people experience every single day, and yes, b) in not choosing points of conflict–or, the character not noticing any of those peculiarities.

    So I think your point is a good one to keep in mind, but it seems to me as if you are going to the other extreme. On one side, it's unending explosions; on the other, a character is being described going about doing all the things he always does and never noticing, or having to react to, any peculiarities in his day.

    I think it could be said that "ordinary" human life, "ordinary" days on Earth, are filled with variation. Everything changes but change itself, eh? And, that situation, of the river always moving and our never being able to touch the same river twice, is ordinary.
  6. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    Hmmmm, I've had to think about this a little bit today.

    So, for me character is King. Plot, twists, etc all come after character. I'll try to explain this the best I can...

    For me it is how the character sees his world, thinks about his world, explores his world that is interesting.

    For example, Margaret Atwood is my favorite author. She has many collections of short stories, including one called Scarlet Ibis (linked below for anyone who is interested). This is a story about a woman who has travelled to Trinidad on vacation to help her husband relieve some stress and she decides to take him and her young daughter on a tour to see the Scarlet Ibis (a rare bird). The story itself is very mundane. But it is how she views the experience and how it changes her that makes it so interesting and compelling.

    As exercises in University we would be given a mundane sentence and we had to make it a 'climax' or an emotional ending for a story. So something like:

    He tied his shoes. Is obviously not as exciting as He thrust his sword through the dragon.

    But, giving the right set up it could be. IF the man in the first story suffered from agoraphobia and had never ventured out his door step and he was only now venturing forth into the street, or if he was in an accident that left him wheel chair bound and he was just now learning to walk, or if was a homeless man and had never owned a pair of shoes and was now trying on a pair for the first time in ten years, then the first story could be very emotional and compelling. Equal to that of a man killing a dragon.

    So for me, a lady visiting some rare birds, or a man laying in the street, or a couple drinking beers in a bar can be compelling, so long as they are making some sort of choice, or they have a unique observation I've never thought of before, or they are giving a unique perspective and life lesson etc.

    Last edited: May 13, 2016
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  7. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    @Helio: That reminds me of this, from Witchcraft by Charles Williams:

    "One is aware that a phenomenon, being wholly itself, is laden with universal meaning. A hand lighting a cigarette is the explanation of everything; a foot stepping from a train is the rock of all existence....Two light dancing steps by a girl may...appear to be what all the Schoolmen were trying to express...but two quiet steps by an old man may seem like the very speech of hell. Or the other way around."​

    The poet Auden, in his essay Making, Knowing, and Judging, quoted that from Charles Williams and then added this:

    The response of the imagination to such a presence or significance is a passion of awe. This awe may vary greatly in intensity and range in tone from joyous wonder to panic dread. A sacred being may be attractive or repulsive—a swan or an octopus—beautiful or ugly—a toothless hag or a fair young child—good or evil—a Beatrice or a Belle Dame Sans Merci—historical fact or fiction—a person met on the road or an image encountered in a story or a dream—it may be noble or something unmentionable in a drawing room, it may be anything it likes on condition, but this condition is absolute, that it arouse awe. ​

    I think that maybe this whole discussion is skirting this issue: What arouses awe?

    Auden continued by listing four groupings of "Sacred beings" —

    • Universal Sacred Beings: "Some sacred beings seem to be sacred to all imaginations at all times." He mentioned as examples "The Moon...Fire, Snakes and those four important beings which can only be defined in terms of nonbeing: Darkness, Silence, Nothing, Death." So, in our discussion we've already had children, wife, dog being killed or needing rescuing. The World, facing destruction, may be a "sacred being" in our common imagination.

    • Cultural Sacred Beings: "Some, like kings, are only sacred to all within a certain culture."

    • Social Group Sacred Beings: "...some only to members of a social group—the Latin language among humanists."

    • Individuals' Sacred Beings: "...some are only sacred to a single imagination."

    So...I think that using those from the first grouping may often be an easier approach than trying to build, for the readers, a common appreciation for those in the other three groupings—although, now that I think more about it, this list may have a descending level of easiness, or grow more difficult as one moves from the universal class to the individual class. E.g., one might write for an American audience, which would fall under the second type, cultural sacred beings, although some things might be lost in translation for readers from other cultures. One might aim to appeal to a social group, e.g., readers of fantasy fiction—or, of a subgenre of fantasy fiction—and so use tropes that they expect and enjoy, but not appeal to readers who don't read much fantasy fiction (or that subgenre of fantasy fiction.)

    Your example of He tied his shoes. —It might be an utterly ordinary sentence in most circumstances, but making that an act laden with meaning and significance is possible. This might possibly fall under the last category, although whatever the shoe-tying signifies might tap into something from the first three.

    If we are trying to engage through the character, then we have a new set of levels for the last three types of sacred being. The culture may be the fictional culture of his milieu, the social group may be his fictional social group, and the individual may be that character—what is important to him. If the reader has already come to identify with that character, then that character's "sacred beings" might become the reader's, as well, for the duration of that story.
    Last edited: May 14, 2016
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  8. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team


    I like to read tarot cards for fun, and tarot cards are designed like this. You have very obvious universal symbols upfront in the Major Arcana, death, the hanged man, the pregnant empress, the fool, the world, the wheel of fortune, etc. These cards use universal symbols like you have described, fire, snakes, birth, etc.

    Then you have the minor arcana, and these are geared more towards cultural symbols, kings, queens, knights, pages, swords, staffs, golden cups, etc.

    But within each card are also symbols that are totally up to interpretation. I try to explain it to my customers that it is like a rorchach (ink blot) test. The symbols in the backgrounds of the card (water, blood, darkness, sunshine, certain flowers and plants, castles, etc) are totally personal. The true meaning of the cards come from what my client sees in them. One client may see a family travelling in a small boat over water and think it is about their upcoming move to another town. Another may see that the family in the image have their backs turned and may read into it that all their friends keep deserting them. Totally different meanings for the same card.

    I think that when developing characters and scenes, the closer you can get to that last level of individualism the more meaningful the story will be. So someone can write a broad epic, only focussing on the first level (Transformers comes to mind), and another can write a highly emotional character driven piece using the last level (Most Oscar winners or Nobel Prize winners).

    Probably most genre fictions falls somewhere in the first two-three levels, while most literary fiction falls into the deeply personal last two levels. I think that for all writers, however, practicing all levels in your fiction is probably a good idea. I do find that because the first level is the easiest most new writers tend to hover there, instead of delving into the nitty gritty details and giving other things meaning.
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  9. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

    I have also been thinking about this deep personalization as a way of avoiding "on the nose" narrative, like we spoke of before.

    So, for example, in my Top Scribe story I struggled to show the woman's shame at the deformity of her son. After reading Atwood, I realized how deeply personal she gets. Even though her character's struggle is totally individual to him, that individuality almost feels more real and universal because of it's uniqueness... that is confusing... here is an example:

    So what I did was I took a page from Atwood's tool box and gave my character a totally unique experience with her own personal meaning:

    When Antonia was a child her father had taken her to Laguardia, inland of her home in Basque, to see a miniature war: A checked board where two opponents could sit across from each other and battle with tiny knights and kings without any bloodshed. To her father, this invention was sure to generate more peace than his Holiness the Pope himself, but young Antonia was distracted by a desperate need to pee. Unable to drag her father from his turn at the game she emptied herself in the square, and, mortified, tried to cover the evidence with her shawl.

    Antonia felt much like that now. Like she had urinated in public, and no matter how she tried to cover it the smell remained. The puddle remained beneath her feet. The child slept at the back of the house more out of a sense of obligation to disguise the smell than to keep the boy a secret. Everyone already knew.

    And what I found was that the pure individuality of her experience... giving it her own personal meaning and symbolism, actually made it more relatable on a broad spectrum. The opposite of what you would expect.
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  10. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    Right, so this got very philosophical, but your points are well made after all. ;)

    I'm looking at the definitions of the sacred beings and I'm thinking that for any of the three lower levels, chances are that the above level's sacred being is also included. It doesn't have to be, but there's a good chance.
    If a in individual's sacred being is A, then chances are that the social circle that the individual is a member of also has A as one of their sacred beings, etc. Again, it's not necessary, but it's more likely than not.

    That wasn't what I meant to post about though.

    I sat musing on this and it struck me that every now and then I find it interesting to read articles about people from different cultures or different parts of the world - if I'm in the mood. It can be interesting to learn about what life is like for them wherever it is they live, or whatever it is they do.
    It might be equally interesting to read such an article about a fictional person in a fantasy world. It won't be the same as reading a story, but it might still be interesting. I say might, because I'm not sure. It could be that part of the appeal of reading about people in the real world is that I know they're real people. Chances are it'll be difficult to get that feeling to transfer over to fictional characters.

    Difficult, but not impossible. If the article isn't too long - say a few thousand words - it should be doable. The person may be an average Joe in the fictional world, but seeing the world from their perspective may still be novel and interesting for someone not familiar with the world.

    Another idea I've toyed with, and which is actually on the table for something I plan to do later on, is a fantasy travelogue. Travel books, where the author tells about the places they visit, and their experiences there, are bought and read by people. There are those who find them interesting. It's not unthinkable that there may be some kind of overlap between people who likes to read travelogues and people who like to read fantasy. It may be a small overlap, but it probably exist.
    After all, it's not completely unheard of that people in fantasy stories travel to places to do things. ;)
  11. Sheilawisz

    Sheilawisz Queen of Titania Moderator

    I think that it all depends on the story that you are telling.

    In case that your story is about a character that is extraordinary, then said character must be very special in his or her own world directly and not only from the point of view of our world. Think of Spiderman: What makes the character extraordinary is that he has those cool and useful powers, but what would happen to Spiderman if he lived in a world in which everybody has exactly the same capabilities?

    In that case he would still be extraordinary from the point of view of our world and yet completely ordinary in his own, so the coolness factor of being special would be lost.

    In the other hand, we have characters that are ordinary in their own world and yet the story makes them special in different ways.

    One of my favorite moments in the entire Lord of the Rings film trilogy is when the Rohan armies arrive at the siege of Minas Tirith, and Merry is at first shocked to witness how large and powerful Sauron's army actually is... Then Eowyn says "Courage, Merry! Courage for our friends!".

    Merry was just a Hobbit, but he was brave and loyal and this made a huge difference in the battle when he helped Eowyn take down the Witch King of Angmar.

    As much as I love stories about special protagonists, I really love it when the ordinary folks do something like that =)
  12. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

    @Helio: That is the sort of writing that I absolutely love, the kind of writing that can grab me and keep me glued throughout a book.

    I think that your first comment in this thread, particularly your link to the Writing Excuses podcast, ties into this: the familiar + the original.

    While Antonia's specific memories and past experience might be unique to her (the original), the passage taps into something that is probably universal, familiar to everyone. Not only have we, all of us, embarrassed ourselves in the past, when children, but we continue to feel that same sort of social shame from time to time as adults. It is probably this sort of disjunction between the individual & society that makes the passage seem so familiar despite its peculiar individual dimension.

    @Svrtnsse: I, also, am often fascinated by other cultures, whether those in the present or past cultures around the world. I wonder if this has something to do with what I wrote above to Helio: Seeing the familiar in the original/different. And I think that, once we develop a sense of the familiar-in-the-strange, we might sometimes begin to wonder whether whatever is strange might be a latent possibility for our own world/lives: If they could be such-and-such a way and do such-and-such a thing, what about us?

    Anyway...isn't fantasy that is set in a fictional world almost always a type of travelogue? At this very moment, I'm remembering that Star Trek movie in which they traveled to a different planet and had their own observers hidden by invisibility shields, so they could observe the people of that planet without interfering. This is similar to what happens when a reader comes to a fantasy world.
  13. Helen

    Helen Inkling

    It's almost classical.

    Jesus is a carpenter (Ordinary Man).

    Classically, an Ordinary Man is turned by Extraordinary Events.

    It's the basis of the Two Worlds.
  14. Phin Scardaw

    Phin Scardaw Troubadour

    I would TOTALLY go see a movie about alien vampires!!!
  15. Bekka King

    Bekka King Scribe

    J.K. Rowling did this in the Harry Potter series by including muggles in the stories. She did a great job of showing the wizarding and muggle worlds side by side.
  16. Addison

    Addison Auror

    I just took a cursory look at my book shelf. It's loaded with fantasy, with a sprinkling of thriller, horror and a few sic-fi. But all the fantasies do have a common element. Most of the time the hero is someone who starts off ordinary and becomes extraordinary in their world. Whether it's a power that grows, their being a Chosen One, who knows. There's only a few on my shelf where the hero is a normal person who has no special powers, or abilities, but succeeds by their own determination and one unique and normal skill or specific knowledge.

    Great now I'm thinking of re-writing my main character. Well I'll re-write my whole cast as a fun exercise. :)
  17. Svrtnsse

    Svrtnsse Staff Article Team

    Last edited: Jun 3, 2016

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