Medieval Europe. Modern-day suburbia. Outer space. No matter where your story takes place, it needs to start by establishing your main character and the world he occupies. (And while I’m going with the masculine here, “hero” applies to female protagonists, too.) The Ordinary World, then, is the status quo of your story, the world that your main character is comfortable in.
If we look at creating a story like erecting a building, this is the foundation that everything else will be built upon, so it needs to be solid. A flimsy and careless take on the Ordinary World will make for a story that seems good at first glance, but on closer inspection shows its flaws. To make that structure as sturdy as possible, your Ordinary World needs to be strong and compelling. After all, Harry Potter didn’t start out in Hogwarts right at Chapter One. He grew up in a non-magical house with very normal (if overly cruel) caretakers, which grounded us in realism from the start so that the magic he discovers later on is made that much more impressive.
And that’s the trick – making the Ordinary World real and believable, so that the extraordinary and unbelievable circumstances that follow will have a greater impact. This is true even if your story is set in the distant past or far off future. Even if you’ve created a majestic new world with a setting beyond belief, there needs to be every effort to connect your audience to the tale, to connect them with the story so that your extraordinary circumstances later on will have a greater impact. Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon books establish his ordinary world right from the start – he’s a professor who works for a university, his days spent researching and giving lectures. It’s a pretty normal – Ordinary – life, which gives contrast to the remarkable scenario he is inevitably drawn into. Look at all of your favorite stories, and you’ll find that each one sets up The Ordinary World in its own way.
To illustrate this example, let’s follow the Hero’s Journey of a young man named Rob. His Ordinary World is a routine of work and play, work and play. He gets by in life by working a boring retail job with an overbearing manager that pays him a little better than minimum wage, and that paycheck funds his gaming hobby. After work, Rob gets together with his friends and they play roleplaying games, escaping from the woes of the day into whatever fantasy world they’ve created in their imagination. He has big dreams of being a writer, and even though the short stories he writes for his gaming group are well-received, he doesn’t think he has what it takes to do what he really wants to do – write a novel.
It’s a believable Ordinary World. It could be anyone’s life, maybe even the life that someone you know is living right now. That plausibility connects the reader to the narrative, grounds it in a reality that will be the yard stick that the rest of the story will be measured by. It also establishes the hopes and fears of the main character, setting up the journey ahead.
Once you’ve established the rules of The Ordinary World, it’s time to start breaking them. I’ll discuss The Call To Adventure in my next entry!