In my first post on The Hero’s Journey, I talked about why this story structure can often result in rote, formulaic stories–but also why, if you understand the dramatic intent behind each step, they can add strength and impact to your stories, whatever you’re writing. Read that post HERE.
Step 1 – The Ordinary World
This is the first step in our Hero’s Journey, his or her life as the present story begins. This is where we learn who the character is at the beginning of their character arc. This is incredibly important, because we need to have a metric by which to measure how far they have come, in the end.
Establishing our Hero & what is lacking (The Sucking chest wound)
The Ordinary World, used properly, will help us identify with our hero and invest in his well-being. It will also demonstrate what is lacking in the hero’s life that will eventually be addressed in their arc. If everything is fantastic already, why change anything? The lack can be a deep inner conflict, loneliness, guilt over some past tragedy, or simply the desire for adventure. While it doesn’t need to be a sucking chest wound, metaphorically speaking, remember that the more keenly we feel this lack, the more invested we will feel in seeing the character fill it.
As a side note regarding investment… when dealing with Change Characters, writers can often stumble over establishing a basis for the character’s arc without making them insufferable. Often, writers feel that, because the character needs room to grow, they should begin at the very rock-bottom.
The only problem is that a character that is at utter rock-bottom in all respects (self-pitying, amoral, talentless, passive, unmotivated, etc) is not one the reader has any desire to spend time with. So, they likely won’t. This doesn’t mean your character has to be at the top of his game, only that he needs to have some redeeming qualities, and therefore the promise of growth.
For more about creating a compelling character while still giving them room for growth, and without necessarily making them likeable, check out my blog post here.
The Sacrifice for change
Another essential aspect of the Ordinary World contrasts beautifully against What is Lacking, by demonstrating the sacrifice that the Journey itself will demand of our hero. The most powerful journeys in literature demand that the hero sacrifice something of worth for a more worthy goal. Both Bilbo and Frodo abandon the comfort and security of the Shire to pursue their goals. Luke Skywalker is forced to abandon a family who cares for him, and the only home he’s ever known.
But what if my character doesn’t leave on a journey?
The quest storyline is pretty popular in fiction in general, especially in sci-fi and fantasy, but it’s not the only way to tell a story. The Ordinary World can simply be your character’s way of life, or frame of mind, prior to whatever change in circumstance sends the story hurtling off to its eventual conclusion. Stories are about conflict, and the change that conflict compels. To give the change meaning, we need to understand what the character must exchange for that progression.
Even when our characters begin in a very dark and unwelcoming Ordinary World, they must lose something by leaving it (or having it taken from them), be it security–even if only an illusion of security, or perhaps a security from the unknown–a friend, or some unrealized hope or ambition.
If The Ordinary World cannot demonstrate some convincing reason why our character has not left it before this point, we are unmoved by their eventual decision. I must, even if it costs me, will always be more powerful than Why not?
The journeys that mean the most to us begin and end with sacrifice.