Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Define "Ordinary"

We periodically get interested around here in the concept of ordinary world in the mythic quest structure. I don't know why this happens. I don't know why this is a hot button topic for so many writers. Do you?

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:
  1. Cinderella is an obedient girl with a sweet, unassuming temperament.
  2. But this virtuous nature is uncoupled with any special powers or attributes.
  3. 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.)
The question we often hear asked of Cinderella is, "How does she manage to remain so pure in that house?" Because, let's be honest, sooner or later many of us would snap and pummel the stepsisters with that damn broom. But Cinderella never does, and that purity of virtue is precisely what constitutes the "ordinariness" of this character type. In other words, one of the central tenets of this type of wonder tale is that goodness is an ordinary quality for a hero or heroine, that even in an impure world, a heroic character remains pure. It's their nature.

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:
  1. A character
  2. In meaningful motion
  3. Against a background
The nature of the three elements varies somewhat depending on the scene itself, but that's the basic recipe. Character, action, setting. And depending on the story form you're incorporating, your "ordinary world" might not refer to the world/setting at all, but to the character. Think about the source of ordinariness before the story kicks into gear -- don't merely think about how much ordinary world you need, or how to transition out of it, but think about what is ordinary and what changes.

But probably "ordinary" won't refer to the action. Anyone care to take a stab at explaining why?



Leona said...

I will try a teeny bit. The idea is glimmering in my brain, so let's try.

Ordinary is how I think of as "the standard" whether it is in the world around the H/h, or in the people themselves, h/h or secondary characters, or in their actions.

The action in our stories need to be extra-ordinary. There needs to be a reason, something MORE than the ordinary.

Are they acting out of character? If so, why? Are they having to overcome something in their nature, "the ordinary," in order to succeed? Examples of things they may need to overcome is fear, possible disapproval, stepping outside their comfort zones, and the like.

For me, it is what is changing, how the character is growing because of X. Therefore the action cannot be ordinary...

So, did that help muddy the waters any? :P

Jessica Lei said...

Ordinary action is boring. No one wants to read about that :) But that's the simple answer (my brain doesn't want to work now that it's officially Christmas break).

The really weird part is that I subconsciously tried BOTH structures for the beginning of my WiP. Now I've moved away from both, although some elements are still there.

Insightful post :) Now I'm going to pay attention to whether my character is in an ordinary world or a threatening world...

Basically, since Harry Potter moved out of his ordinary world, does that mean he was put into a threatening world or just the world in which he 'belonged'?

Edittorrent said...

Yeah, I think you guys are onto it. Ordinary action will bore the reader, but ordinary world or character won't because we understand change will come.

Or something like that.

Anyone care to argue that ordinary action is a good thing? I'm open to ideas here.


Jami Gold said...

Man, I've missed you guys... I hate being so busy that I don't get over here. *grumble* Stupid busy life.

Anyway, yes, no one wants to read about someone brushing their teeth, so the action within a scene must always reflect some sense of the extraordinary, some sense that even if the situation is currently ordinary, it won't remain so for long. I found this post fascinating because it explains why I need a prologue for my story. My character doesn't know she's extraordinary (she resembles someone important) and doesn't know she's in a threatening world when the story opens. So I had to do a prologue from the villain's POV to kick off the tension.

Yep, that's me, always being difficult. :)

Mystery Robin said...

Also, I think an ordinary character won't bore the reader as you've described it, because in today's world that type of ordinary is extraordinary. It really is almost a super power to remain kind in a challenging environment.

As for ordinary action - we need some of it to ground the reader. Take Lost for example. For every "oh my gosh it's a polar bear!" scene, there's a scene about deciding who's going to look for water or Kate trying to keep Jack and Sawyer from bickering. The viewer/reader needs a hook. So, a "yes of course the character is brushing their teeth before bed. I'm right there with them thinking about how much I hate it when I accidentally use the kids toothpaste and *then* they hear that knock at the door, and wonder who it could be at this time of night..."

Edittorrent said...

I'm always amazed at what are hot-button issues for writers. (Let's not say the word "prologue!")

I think of the Ordinary World rather as "the before picture", showing what life is like for this character before the events of the plot change everything. That can be setting, but is as much this person and what conflicts she/he has before the events start. A point of comparison, I guess.

green_knight said...

I'm missing characters who are orginary for their world from the listing. Depending on the genre, the world _can_ be scary... but not necessarily (when the focus is on the character's internal journey).

The more accessible the ordinary world is, the less you need to show of it in order to give readers an idea of what it's like. If it's corporate America, a couple of sentences about 'another day at the office' is probably enough. If your protagonist is an ultra-marathon runner, there's more need for the ordinary.

Also, in a lot of stories - at least initially - the protagonist wants to restore the safe, comfortable, ordinary world, so it's important for readers to understand what the protagonist is homesick for, what they are defending, or - if it's a call to adventure - what they stand to lose by taking up a challenge.

(Having just started the Wizard of Oz, I really don't understand why Dorothy would want to go back to Kansas.)