I want you to take a minute right now and think about a time when you had an adventure. Maybe you took a trip or had a whirlwind romance or got caught up in some traumatic event. It can be something that was over in an hour or something that lasted years.
Here’s an example from my life. When I was fourteen, I spent several weeks in Costa Rica with my best friend, Belerma. We stayed with her mother, who lived in a little town called Puntarenas.
Now–think about what your life was like just before your adventure.
I had just moved from my mother’s house to my father’s house, which was a heart wrenching decision and was still raw and painful. We all lived in Southern California and at that time I’d say that my family was middle class. I was in the summer before eighth grade, so I was only one year removed from a miserable elementary school experience. I was quiet and studious, I read close to a book a day and I spent a lot of time practicing with my swim team. A lot of the time, I isolated myself in a story or under the water. I was also nursing a baby eating disorder.
That last paragraph? That was my ordinary world. Every protagonist has an ordinary world. Of course, ordinary for your Main Character might not be ordinary for you or your reader. Your MC might be a cop or a serial killer, a nun or an astronaut. Who ever they are, the next part of this course involves figuring out where they come from.
This lesson has one assignment.
You’ll want to read the chapter called “The Ordinary World” in Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey to prepare for this week’s assignment.
The Starting Point
Your first task is to read the chapter in The Writer’s Journey called “The Ordinary World.” At the end of the chapter, there are some questions. They are all useful. I’ve come up with a few below that are based on the book, but if you can, work Vogler’s questions in as well.
Some of them ask you to think about stories from your own life or favorite movies and books, rather than directly working on the book you’re planning. If you’re having trouble understanding the concept of The Ordinary World, his questions will help.
Okay. In a minute, I’m going to give you my list of questions. Unlike when we were working on character and setting sketches and you used the questions to guide your free writing, I want you to actually answer each of these.
First, let’s talk about story structure a little bit.
One of the things that makes a story a story is change. The MC starts out in their life the way it always is, something happens to call them into the special world of the story, they go into the story, and they come back out on the other side in a new normal that will stick around until the next adventure changes them again.
A classic story arc looks something like this:
Right now we’re focused on the little flat part on the left. You’re going to answer some questions that will give you a little more insight into your story itself, how you want to open it, and where your MC is coming from.
If you’re writing a story with two main characters–a romance, for instance–you can ask these questions for both.
Ready? Open to a new page of your notebook, title it The Ordinary World, and answer these questions.
- Title. Here’s my confession. I suck at titles. I always have. It relieves my title-writing anxiety to know that I can just come up with a placeholder working title. Sometimes that’s just the name of the main character. If you have a good title, write it down. If you don’t, just pick something for now.
- Opening Image. Do you have an idea in your mind of how you want your story to start? If you have any movies on your inspiration list, Google around and see if you can find the opening scenes for them. Watch them and notice how they draw you in. I bet they make you want to watch the movies again. Opening scenes in a book can be as cinematic as opening scenes in a film. Describe your opening image.
- Will your book have a prologue? Go ahead and write a few lines about it and why it’s important.
- What does your MC want? This is the external motivation for your character. It can be something physical or something emotional. Think about how what your character wants can direct whether or not they enter the special world of the story.
- What does your MC need? This is the internal motivation for your character, and again it can be physical or emotional. This need might be what drives your character forward, even when going back seems like the safer choice.
- Does your novel have a theme? This might sound like a platitude, but it can help center your story planning. Harry Potter’s theme might be that heroes come from unexpected places. The Wizard of Oz’s theme is repeated over and over: There’s no place like home. One theme for my novel Viral Nation is ‘family is where you find it.’
- What are the stakes for your MC? What do they stand to lose if their ordinary world is upset? To choose Hogwarts, Harry had to risk making his only family and his caretakers hate him even more. In my book, the MC had to upset her ordinary world in order to save her brother’s life.
- How is your MC broken? Stories almost always happen because the MC is broken in some way. They are missing something and that missing something leads to the adventure that’s about to happen to them. How is your MC broken? How have they been dealing with that brokeness so far?
- Christopher Vogler asks you to think about your story’s dramatic question. Will Harry be victorious over Voldemort? Will Dorothy get home? Think about the overarching question that your MC needs to answer.
Once you’ve answered all of those questions, sit down and think about the things that have built your MC’s ordinary world. Most of this list will be things that happened off the page, before your story starts.
This list for my novel Viral Nation looked something like this:
- Reno is surrounded by a wall, built before the MC was born to keep the people who survived a terrible virus healthy.
- That virus killed nearly every human being on Earth when the MC was an infant.
- The MC’s mother died of the virus. Her father and brother survived, although each is scarred in his own way.
- The MC has autism. She has a service dog and her older brother is her main support.
- Everyone in Reno needs a daily vaccination to keep the virus from coming back.
- The vaccination was brought back from the future by a scientist who found a time portal deep in Lake Tahoe. A submarine brings those who can travel back and forth with news from the future.
- The US government is defunct and the world is run by the company that makes the vaccine.
- The MC’s father is an executioner.
Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone might have a list like this:
- Harry was dropped on his aunt and uncle’s front stoop when he was an infant.
- His aunt and uncle are muggles who hate magic and are afraid (rightfully so) that Harry might have some. Their son is horrible as well.
- Harry’s parents died mysteriously.
- A wizard and a witch brought Harry to his aunt and uncle in the hopes that they’d take care of him and keep him safe from the man who tried to kill him, and did kill his parents.
- Harry is completely unaware of is own power.
- People in the wizarding world know who he is. He’s a legend there.
I think you get the idea. You’re going to learn a lot about your protagonist during this assignment. You need to know where they’re coming from before they move into the special world of the story.
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