In any case, last week on our working retreat to San Francisco, Alicia and I found ourselves once again talking about ordinary world and some of the concepts and comments we've kicked around here over the years. One concept in particular kept recurring -- that is, the difference between ordinary environment and ordinary character. This kept recurring because of last month's Ask an Editor column at Romance University, where I answered some FAQs about ordinary world. In part, that column mentions an idea advanced by the folklorist Vladimir Propp, namely, that folklore structure begins with an ordinary (pure and virtuous) character in a treacherous or unsettled environment. This is almost the perfect reverse of the ordinary world familiar to students of Campbell and Voegler, in which (in at least some iterations) an extraordinary character is placed into an ordinary environment for safekeeping.
It's Harry Potter versus Cinderella.
In Harry Potter, which tracks the mythic structure almost perfectly, the character is not ordinary. He has special abilities and powers which have been largely dormant or ignored. The special outside world associated with those abilities has been hidden from his view. He has been placed for safekeeping in an "ordinary world" -- in this story, the term is quite literal because nothing non-ordinary or magical can intrude.
Special character, ordinary world.
Cinderella follows fairy tale structure, but whether it follows it perfectly depends on which Cinderella we discuss. There are many versions of this tale, and not all of them include stepsisters. But for those that do, the set-up generally references a few key points:
- Cinderella is an obedient girl with a sweet, unassuming temperament.
- But this virtuous nature is uncoupled with any special powers or attributes.
- Her existing world is threatening or dangerous thanks to the presence of evil people in the home. (Resulting from Propp's "Absentation" -- the death of the mother, which disrupts the existing world.)
Mythic = extraordinary character in an ordinary world
Folkloric = ordinary (heroic) character in a threatening world
From there, the two structures deviate in particular ways even as they reflect each other. For example, in mythic structure, there's a call to action which is initially ignored. In folkloric structure, there's an interdiction which is similarly ignored. But where the myth demands action, the folk tale prohibits it.
In any case, this might be very interesting in an academic sense, but what has it to do with writing actual books? A book is written in scenes. (Please, Gods of Literature, let most books be written in scenes.) Scenes, as we've discussed many times here before, are composed of three elements:
- A character
- In meaningful motion
- Against a background
But probably "ordinary" won't refer to the action. Anyone care to take a stab at explaining why?