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? If everything sucks, why hasn’t he left yet? 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, literally or metaphorically, 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.
Ordinary Vs. Mundane
Sometimes we’re a little misled by the term ordinary, and we feel like we need to introduce the reader to our character before anything of interest occurs. This is not the case. Remember, this is the Ordinary world, not the Mundane world. We still need something to happen on the page, and we still need tension in those events. This is why so many stories start out with the protagonist down on his luck. Just lost his job, wife left him, etc, etc. These events don’t happen to him every day, of course, but they represent elements of his Ordinary World–a boss who hates him, and an unhappy marriage.
While trying to determine what events will serve you best while introducing your character in his Ordinary World, go back to the character’s arc. What is his starting place? If his starting place is feeling like a loser for being unable to hang onto this job that, admittedly, he didn’t try hard enough to excel at. And he knew his relationship with his life was going downhill. It was just… easier to ignore it, and hope the problem would go away on its own. If part of his arc is overcoming his own apathy and regaining faith in his ability to succeed at something, this is a brilliant starting point, because the Ordinary World isn’t just a physical place. In fact, the most important part of the Ordinary World is the mental space your character occupies at the beginning of the story.
Physical vs. Mental Space
Because of a desire to start books in media res, writers will sometimes skip over the Ordinary World, opening the book after the character has already left that physical space–for instance, opening with your main character in a hotel room, where she’s been forced to flee by a threat from her stalker.
This can definitely work, so long as you remember that the Ordinary World is not simply a physical space, it’s a state of being–the emotional and mental place your character resides in at the beginning of their journey. In the above example, the woman is likely beginning from a state of fear, frustration, and a sense of helplessness that she will theoretically overcome through the course of her story.
In fantasy–particularly epic fantasy–authors tend more often to begin physically in the Ordinary World, because that’s an opportunity for worldbuilding that’s hard to pass up… and in many stories, the physical space is very much connected to the protagonist’s state of mind.
If you’re beginning in the character’s emotional and physical Ordinary World, you can (and often should) begin in media res, just remember that this doesn’t mean you need to start with a fight scene… and in most cases, you probably shouldn’t. You also don’t need to begin with the story’s main conflict, which may push your Hero out of the Ordinary World too quickly for you to do much worldbuilding. Ideally, the conflict should have some passing relevance–you don’t want an alien abduction in the beginning of your Regency Romance that will never be referenced again–but its ultimate purpose isn’t to establish the stakes of the overall plot (that bit comes in a little later), but to establish your character’s personal stakes.