Writing the Origin: The Ordinary World

batman.pngOrigin 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.

hobbit holeThe 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.

flying carpet

Everyone has a magic carpet here…sigh…I wish I could go to a place where they are used for wiping feet.

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.

newspaper.jpgWhen 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.

wizard of oz.jpgThe 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.

subliminalDespite 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.

No-Blueprint.jpgThe 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!

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38 responses

  1. Pingback: The Hero’s Journey: For Writing & Life « Quintessential Editor

  2. Pingback: Writing the Origin: The Ordinary World — Quintessential Editor – I Suck at Writing

  3. Love that you used the Batman graphic. He is my all time favorite hero precisely because of the way his past life shaped the hero he became. The way he struggles appeals to me much more than Superman or Captain America’s certainty about which means are questionable regardless of the ends.

    I also like that you included the Bible in your list. There are some amazing back stories there as well. King David was the first one who sprang to mind when I noted the reference.

    Liked by 3 people

    • I’m glad some of the characters and examples resonated with you. Mission accomplished! I try to use references people are going to be familiar with instead of delving into the very obscure (which leads to me using many of the same references over and over again).

      I agree with you about the Bible. Whatever religion you prescribe to, even if it’s none at all, there is value in reading the stories contained in most religious texts. Many of those religious accounts reflect the subliminal thoughts, feelings, and morals of the people who find solace in them. This is a powerful tool to tap into when crafting fiction. Especially if it can be done covertly (i.e. you don’t beat people about the head and neck with religious doctrine and offend a portion of your readers).

      Thanks so much for taking the time to read and leave some thoughts! Good luck with your writing.

      Liked by 3 people

  4. I find your posts to be invaluable. I find myself reading and re-reading your blog, like a student preparing for an examination for which you provide the most extensive reference material. Your posts are the best! I’m a regular visitor, stalking you, almost! 😀

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you so much for taking the time to read as often as you do. I can’t tell you how happy it makes me knowing these daily rantings are helping you. They are helping me too! Now that I’m starting to get a bank of information written I don’t have to spend as much time in reference books, I can quickly get to it on here 🙂 My goal is to continue building the page and focus on creative writing.

      Don’t worry about the stalking 🙂 I’ve got your page bookmarked so it’s mutual. I try to swing in as often as I can and read your well-crafted pieces. Thank you so much for these glowing words. Your comments are always inspiring.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Interesting thoughts. I guess I’m boring, but I like being grounded and then see what happens. Give me a little about the character before throwing them into the fire so I care about them.

    I also worry a little about starting in the action. As close as possible, but make me care a little about them before you send them off to thwart the evil empire or whatever.

    I’m invested in characters. Michael Bay might be able to get away with nothing but explosions, but I don’t think that translates well to the written page.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I don’t think you’re boring at all. I’m also a character first, action second, kind of reader. All I’m suggesting is that there are different ways of shaping a story. If a certain method appeals to you – run with it. Don’t let some expert, or preconceived notion, confine your creativity into a neatly structured outline.

      Just as there are benefits to creating an Ordinary World and taking the time to introduce the character, I do think there is merit in starting with a conflict as well. A conflict, even a minor one, can tell the reader volumes about the character and the world they live in.

      When it comes down to it, it’s all about execution. There isn’t a perfect recipe to work from, but there are lots of ingredients to try out. This post was just another spice to toss into the pot and see what happens.

      Thanks for taking the time to read and leave this great comment. It’s a joy to read about how people view writing.

      Liked by 2 people

    • Elizabeth, what you’re sort of dismissing is the sort of “O” shape (Chuck Palahniuk’s term) of storytelling that is pretty popular and done to good effect with a lot of fiction in the last 100 years, both literary and genre. The idea is to start as close to the end as possible, drop into flashback until you arrive back to that moment toward the end. Once you know you’re ending, I think this is a pretty good way to keep tension going.

      But, as always, endings and tension don’t mean anything if your characters aren’t developed. In that, I one thousand percent agree with you.

      Like

  6. I love Haruki Murakami’s take the most; he rounds his characters beautifully using a real world style setting but veers off slightly every time. Absolutely superb author, very character based and surprisingly minimalistic on external details compared to say, Hardy at the other end of the spectrum. Proust revolves around emotion and sense; his writing can appear less than coherent at times, comparatively.

    Milan Kundera often develops characters from a single quality; in Immortality, he develops an entire character, family and story line from a simple gesture he witnesses (a child-like wave from an older lady). He generally keeps them tied down to the ordinary world, but he’s more concerned with interaction and relationships. Virtually no descriptive prose beyond people’s individual appearance.

    Thanks for another cracking article!

    Like

  7. I think an important thing to keep in mind — and you’ve made it clear in this post, with the examples you used — is that the characters ordinary world is not necessarily the reader’s ordinary world. Bilbo’s cozy and uneventful life in the Shire may look a little bit familiar to readers who’ve experienced cozy, uneventful lives in some rural setting, but it’s still not the reader’s world at all. For the READER the departure from the ordinary has already started before Bilbo has any “call to adventure” in his arc.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I agree, the second the reader steps into the hobbit-hole they have stepped into a different world. Everything in a hobbit-hole, cleverly enough, is described in way that also describes hobbits. I think Tolkien used “comfort” as the theme there in the first couple pages. While this hole in the ground was quiet normal for a hobbit, to me as a kid, it was a magic gateway. I was hooked.

      I like The Hobbit as an example because Tolkien manages to give you the setting, the main character, and dump Gandalf into your lap in just a couple pages.

      You could almost say Tolkein’s account of the hobbit’s ordinary world was MY call to adventure as the reader.

      Thanks for the added perspective and for taking the time to give the post a read. Good luck with your editing and cyber-fish assaults.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Origin stories can be tons of fun. Still, I generally like to start with a bang and then go back here and there. I can’t help it. I do agree though that starting out in the standard world (whatever it be) helps when things go crazy.

    When starting out with a bang, usually you have to make things even bigger and crazier. Usually I do this if starting out with a bang (outside horror) because by that point I usually want an adrenaline fueled insanity fest!

    That being said, I will take time between the Michael Bay explosion moments to actually develop characters too so you actually care about what’s happening and what’s at stake. ^_^

    Sometimes it’s easy to forget that when you start off big! ^_^

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t think characters always need a gigantic backstory. At least not an info-dumped backstory. Many authors gradually sprinkle backstory throughout the duration of the book. I like this method because it replicates real life. You don’t just meet someone and they hand you a piece of paper with all their stats on it (unless you are LARPing or something). You gradually get to know them and build an understanding.

      People complain about Michael Bay a lot. But complaints aside, his style of non-stop action sells. The high-brows may waggle their fingers and say it’s not refined, but hey, not all readers/viewers are refined.

      Where do I stand? I can go either way. Sometimes I don’t want to wade through allegory. Sometimes I just want to watch things blow up for two hours. I read the same way. As long as the story is interesting, I’ll read it.

      I guess what I’m saying is if you want to blow stuff up, I’ll read about it. If you want to create an insanity fueled rage fest, I’ll read it. If you want to develop complex worlds, races, cultures, and universes – I’ll read that too.

      Speaking of reading, thanks for stopping in today and giving the post a glance. I need to catch up on your work I missed yesterday!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I agree, as long as the story can entertain me and pull me in, I’ll read it regardless of genre or style. I actually love a lot of Michael Bays films because he isn’t afraid to go crazy with the explosions or the action. I like that.

        I also like Zach Snyder and his work even though he doesn’t write well, he sure as hell can tell a story visually like no other. Take your time. I’m going to be heading to my buddy’s tonight for football, BBQ, and responsible late week drinking before working tomorrow.

        You feel free to read when you wish to read or not at all if you don’t feel it. I will be back tomorrow after work. In the mean time have a great night and thanks for sharing your thoughts.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. Never really gave it any thought, but I guess this one boils down to how you define the ‘ordinary world?’ If the story takes place in some ‘other’ universe, just throw me in the deep in so I can sink or swim on the merit of your world building.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s just another style option to play about with. Like you said, it forces us to address the ordinary world. It also makes you decide how to address the ordinary world.

      Thanks for stopping in and reading today.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. A problem that I have when writing is not putting the origin story in the story. It’s all in my head, I know my characters backstory, I know what motivates them, but I forget that my readers aren’t actually mind readers. I guess that’s why we write, edit, repeat 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Knowing nothing about your work, I won’t be recommending anything. However, I would encourage you to ask yourself if you even need an origins story for the character. I’ve seen plenty of examples where I have bit off on a character, love flow/pacing of the book, and then the author pumps the brakes and goes into a backstory dissertation.

      I’m not saying one way is better than the other, I’m just recommending to examine whether backstory will help or hurt the story.

      Thanks for taking the time to read today and for leaving some thoughts. Good luck in your continuing work!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t enjoy a backstory dissertation as you put it when I read the majority of the time either. It’s a matter of seeding the backstory through the current story to me, leaving breadcrumbs so that the reader doesn’t have any ‘what?!’ type moments. Your tip in an earlier post about leaving your story for a few weeks then rereading works well here. If I’m wondering what’s going on during that reread, I haven’t left enough crumbs.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I’m with you on this. A good example is First Blood, written by David Morrell (which was adapted into the Rambo series). The book starts with John Rambo wandering about. He comes into a small town, gets escorted out by the local police, and decides to come back. You know he’s a veteran because of the clothes and bag he carries, but you don’t really know any of his real backstory. Around chapter 3 (maybe 4) he has a flashback. It’s only a couple paragraphs long. But when you pair this small snippet together with description about the character, what he has said in dialogue, and the minor conflicts he has faced (being escorted out of town), you already have a great grasp of who Rambo is and what he is about.

        Like you alluded to perfectly: leave breadcrumbs not bakeries. Maybe my next post will examine back story a little? Who knows where the blogging gods will send me…

        On a purely self serving note: I was happy to see a prior post helped you out. Things like that keep me motivated! Best of luck to you in your writing.

        Liked by 1 person

  11. The Wizard of Oz seems to be the classic example. I’m pretty sure Joseph Campbell (The Hero With a Thousand Faces) and Christopher Vogler (The Writer’s Journey) both use it as the reference. I agree with you; it’s a great example.

    Thanks for recommending Sin Nombre to me! I just watched the trailer you linked and I’m pumped to see this now. Maybe a popcorn movie night with the wife!

    Like

  12. Your examples were so good. I like that your posts get the brain pumping with the theory of writing. Typically with any of the stories I have written I show the world as quiet and mundane so that when the rising action starts it has a sharp contrast from where the story started. But this new story that I am working on, the zombie raptors, I decided to shake it up and jump right into the chaotic world. Thanks for another great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t know…it might be jarring for the reader to jump right into it with the zombie raptors. You might want to start the story with the zombie raptors in their ordinary world as they brew tea, read books, and crochet. Their cold-blooded bodies wrapped comfortably in a Snuggie while all of this happens. Then it happens. One zombie raptor says, “I hate crocheting and this green tea is tasteless. I desire the brains of primitive man!” Hah! I’m being ridiculous of course.

      Glad you are finding some decent material here. Thanks for giving the post a read and for leaving some thoughts. Even if you never write a story about zombie raptors, I will forever imagine them crocheting and sipping tea.

      Like

  13. I did this in my novel without thinking about it, but now that you write it all out, it makes perfect sense. I guess when I open a story the thing that I find most important is that the reader should become immersed in the setting and the character, the first chapter is a door, you need to make the other side as compelling and detailed as possible in the fewest amount of words… quite a magic trick right?
    I know most people put the burden of that on the first sentence, but I think as long as the first sentence hooks your reader you have the entire first chapter to set up.

    Meno

    Liked by 1 person

    • It’s awesome you instinctively did this in your work. Many writers do, some don’t, and some don’t need to. It’s all about finding the solution that best fits the individual story/writer.

      I think I’ve done a post somewhere about the “originality” of a first sentence. I rather agree with you. An agent may care about a first sentence, but as a reader, I’m more concerned with the whole first chapter. I go into books expecting to be happy. I’m not a “critical” reader looking to tear into a new story (in my personal reading). With that being said, my outlook is always more optimistic when the first chapter grabs me by the collar and pulls me in.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this and reading. I know this kind of collaboration and sharing of methods helps other aspiring writers find the words to tell their stories.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I remember your article about the originality of the first sentence, was thinking about it when I was typing hehe funny enough.
        Thank you for sharing all of your insights : D it is truly a pleasure following your blog!!!!

        Meno

        Liked by 1 person

  14. This post gave me a lot to think about! I mostly like writing stories that start, to some extent, in media res. I like how you tackled that here: sure, start in the middle of the action, but use other tools in your writing box to show us that normal world your character is missing so much. Great stuff. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for giving it a read! I’m glad you found some use in the ramblings.

      I’m anxiously awaiting the next tarot card offering on your page! I’m really enjoying your stories and content 🙂

      Like

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