Origin stories run through most popular works: the Bible, super heroes, ancient mythology, fiction, sports, and the list goes on. Pretty much everything has a state of beginning, and many of us want to know the details. It’s human nature to want to know where things come from. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a quote or silly saying and couldn’t stop thinking about it until I Googled, “Where did [insert item] come from?”
When it comes to stories, the origin story is often the account of the Ordinary World. If you’ve been following the blog, I talked about the The Hero’s Journey a while back. Today we will examine the first step in the journey: the Ordinary World.
The Ordinary World is where it all begins.
In Christopher Vogler’s book, The Writer’s Journey, it’s explained that, “If you’re going to show a fish out of his customary element, you first have to show him in that Ordinary World to create a vivid contrast with the strange new world he is about to enter” (p. 19).
When you shape the Ordinary World, and the character who lives in it, you are creating the very first dot of their character arc. This first dot is the point from which they will grow and change through the duration of your epic masterpiece.
You are also introducing the reader to the world they are slipping into. Depending on the genre you write in, this introduction to the Ordinary World can be breathtaking or it can be very average. Whatever it is, it tends to be business as usual for the character who dwells there.
When we consider examples of the Ordinary World, and the origins of the characters who live there, it reads like a dating ad in the newspaper.
- Strapping farm boy wants to shake off the sand and explore the galaxy. Those blue eyes will “Force” you to fall in love all over again. Star Wars.
- Girl with the voice of an angel, and equally angelic heart, dreams of leaving the farm and going somewhere beyond the rainbow. Likes long walks on the yellow brick road and ruby red slippers. Wizard of Oz.
(noticing a farm theme going on here…)
- Don’t let the hairy feet and lack of height bother you, this bachelor is looking to put the “one ring” on your finger. If you like a cozy homebody, and a pantry always brimming with food, then look no further. The Hobbit.
These examples may be silly, but there is a point. A story becomes all the more interesting when we know where the characters come from. What I like about these three different examples is they show three very different worlds: Kansas, Tattooine, and the Shire. Despite the differences, it’s just an Ordinary World to the characters living there.
The Ordinary World provides you some important opportunities. Beyond the scenic descriptions, we begin to grasp what makes the hero/heroine tick. We get a taste of their maturity, motivations, fears, real/perceived conflicts, and a host of other items. I mentioned character arcs before, this is the first plotted point. Unless you do some kind of extended flashback, (potential red flag) the character will likely begin their arc of growth once introduced in the book.
Does the story need to start with the Ordinary World? Do you have to take a chapter to describe the lilies in the field, setting suns, and introduce a complex sprawling scene? That’s completely up to you. Your book may start with your character in the thick of a chaotic situation. You went for shock and awe. It’s how I opened the current book I’m writing. However, for my character, the Ordinary World still exists. It exists in two states: physical and mental.
Despite my character being in a chaotic situation, the world around him is still the Ordinary World. Given my world is post-apocalyptic, there is another Ordinary World trapped in his head. It’s the world that’s gone. For him, it’s a state of being he is trying to return to in a roundabout way.
Both of these Ordinary Worlds are gradually revealed through action, dialogue, and setting information. I developed a sub-plot that ties into the main conflict to reveal more character backstory and offer more of the origin of the character/Ordinary World. I don’t offer a huge amount of backstory on the character because it doesn’t drive THIS particular story. If the book does well, hell, I’ll write a novella to offer a backstory. I’ll probably write it even if the book tanks.
The point I’m driving at is that a story doesn’t have to follow the blueprint of The Hero’s Journey. It doesn’t have to follow any blueprint. I’m sharing the steps of The Hero’s Journey with you because it’s a great tool. For me, the beauty of writing is that you have hundreds of options and tools available to solve problems and capture readers. The Hero’s Journey is just another tool you can break apart, sharpen, and use to carve out your story.
That’s it for today. What’s your take on the Ordinary World? Do you want to love it, leave it, or salvage it for parts? Is this a concept you’ve used yourself? Do you have some examples that worked for you? I’d be happy to talk about it. Until tomorrow, keep reading, keep writing, and as always – stay sharp!