Monday, March 8, 2010

What is Ordinary and What is Extraordinary

When I talked about Character Based fiction versus Plot Based fiction, I made the distinction between the two by saying character based fiction involves extraordinary characters in ordinary circumstances and plot based fiction involves ordinary characters in extraordinary circumstances. Allow me to clarify that, if I can. Depending on how you read that, you might be thinking that an extraordinary character is someone like Superman and an ordinary character is someone like Barney Fife. If that’s what you’re thinking, you’re thinking wrong. Barney Fife is also an extraordinary character who plays out a role in a story with ordinary circumstances.

A better way to look at this is to say that every story needs something that connects with the readers and something that is a new experience for the readers. When we write the story, we will either connect with the reader through the characters or through the plot. The new experience will come from either the characters or the plot. When we have what I call ordinary characters, we are connecting with the reader through the characters. The reader looks at these characters and sees himself. There are some differences, but the character handles things about like the reader would. He’s the kind of guy that we wouldn’t think twice about having in our living room. He’s the any-man. He may be rich or poor, strong or weak, but he is like us.

If we connect with the reader through the characters, then we offer a new experience through the plot. As much as we love our friends, we don’t want to listen to them complain about doing something ordinary like laundry all the time. That would get old quickly and hearing an ordinary character talk about laundry would be no different. We want our friends to talk about new stuff, like how they narrowly missed being in an accident or getting home to discover that someone had broken a window. So as we follow our ordinary characters, we want them involved in stuff that doesn’t happen every day. That doesn’t necessarily mean they have to be in some big disaster. It can be small stuff, but it must be unusual.

Extraordinary characters give us a new experience because the characters are inherently interesting. They aren’t like our friends. Take Barney Fife for example. How many people actually have friend with his propensity for shooting himself in the foot? We may see some similarities to ourselves, but he is more of a caricature of people we know. We don’t have friends like that because it would wear us out. His is extraordinary because he stands out as someone unlike us. Or look at Dicey Tillerman. Cynthia Voigt crafted her to be quite different from ordinary. She doesn’t see things quite the same way that most of us see things. At times, she comes across as almost emotionless. We don’t follow her because we connect with her, but because we are curious to see how see will handle things. She’s no Superman, but she is an extraordinary character.

With extraordinary characters we have ordinary events. The Tillermans do one of the most ordinary things in the world, they walk. People do that every day and yet that is what the plot is about. We might find it boring if our ordinary friends told us about how much they walk every day, but when characters as interesting as the Tillermans walk, it’s interesting. But it also gives us a connection. Even though we know the Tillermans are doing things differently than the way we would do it, we can easily see ourselves in that same situation. We can see ourselves out on the road with little money and no transportation and we know how we would react. If we can easily imagine ourselves in a similar situation, the event is ordinary.