Man I feel bad for not updating more this week, but on the positive side, my house is almost completely clean. Getting ready to move across the whole country is no small feat, and I can’t be upset I attended to critical matters before less time-sensitive ones.
So. We’ve had the Adventurer, the Idealist, the Emperor, the Scholar, the Animal Companion… I think then it’s time we gave some love to the normal people in stories, especially those who go on to be part of the story even without gaining exceptional powers or the like.
Most of us will relate to the ‘normal’ characters in a story, on account of being normal people ourselves. The world simply doesn’t work without plenty of hard-working people willing to do the jobs that need to be done, rather than every single person becoming a doctor or an astronaut.
On top of that, depending on the type of story, even doctors and astronauts will consider themselves mere ‘normal’ people in the face of superpowers, magic or suitably advanced technological settings.
Which just goes to show the word ‘normal’ is an entirely subjective thing, and mutable, and not nearly as useful or descriptive as it pretends to be.
So. The common man, whoever he may or she may be in the tale, can be a very grounding element to a story, often operating as a window of reference for the reader or the ‘grounded’ character next to the extraordinary heroes and situations. We understand how they feel and react, we can get deeper into a complicated or fantastical world by going in through the eyes of someone just like us. Alternately, maybe we get to see just how awesome or crazy someone or somewhere is by using the ‘normal’ person for contrast.
This makes the average Joe of any story a very versatile and useful tool, but they can also be the focus and lead voice of a story too.
Some time ago, I reviewed one of my all-time favorite books, Dracula. It would be foolish to deny the impact that novel has had on my life, and a large part of that is due to how the book is structured.
It is written from the perspective of a group of ordinary men and women drawn into an extraordinary series of events. While Doctor Van Helsing and Count Dracula himself are both extraordinary in their own ways, and even Renfield is a far from a normal character, the story is very much about the ‘normal’ people, including the presentation.
Dracula broke with the conventions of the day by bringing ancient evils into the modern era, including through the use of current technology of the time (such as the phonograph). Bram Stoker used this to write the story almost as if it were factual, giving us the plot through diaries and records rather than a single line narrative.
It’s incredibly effective and enjoyable and lets us see inside the head of the characters as matters progress. We understand everything happening through the eyes of normal people who were just going about their lives before all this happened.
Other stories of normal people handling crazy things as the leads can be found all over the place. Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy sends the extremely average Arthur Dent into space with some very odd sorts but mostly sticks to his experiences to really highlight the absurdity of it all.
Jingo sees Sam Vimes, cop, try to arrest everyone involved in a war, because it’s his job and he’s fed up.
That’s three books I’ve reviewed because I enjoyed them so much, so I definitely like having the Common Man at the center of my entertainment. This is before I add in:
Pride and Prejudice, The Hobbit, Alice in Wonderland, Romeo and Juliet, The Secret Garden and Don Quixote, all of which are books that have normal people at their center, experiencing or doing extraordinary things… and resting squarely in the top 100 books people like to read.
The Common Man, you see, has something I think we all like. Despite being normal, he or she can be involved in the amazing, and they can make a superpower out of being brave, or determined or maybe simply being a good friend (looking at you Samwise Gamgee). These are superpowers and extraordinary feats every single person alive today has the capacity to display.
An example of a normal person. Consider yourself informed.
Writing the Everyman
A lot of my work focuses on exceptional people, and that’s not something I regret. I like adventure stories and tales of wonder and magic, so following ‘special’ people around has as many merits to it as Joe Average for me.
That said, there are times normal people appear in those books to put matters into perspective or offer a different viewpoint, and there are works I have in progress or in mind that move around ‘unremarkable’ people (insofar as any such thing exists!)
The main work I have in progress with a written character of this type is my gothic novel. Evelyn Stewart, administrator and agency temp, is about as ‘normal’ as they come, and remains so throughout the novel in spite of the underworld she finds herself exposed to. Her role as the central character of the story hinges on both her ability to give human perspective to the events occuring, as well as having her ‘normalness’ spur the plot along in the early book. Her ability to collate files and remember faces is what gets her into trouble in the first place, as does her desire to be a concerned friend to her peer group.
There is a lot of ‘real’ me in her. Whenever I write her more mundane moments with friends and work, it’s my own experiences of the 9-5 grind and the woes of money worries and grocery shopping that steer what she says and does, what worries and concerns her. Similarly, her friends are based on the group I knew when I was younger and their similar worries and how they handled them.
Writers of non-fiction are no doubt already a million times more aware than I am of just how interesting any person in the world can be, especially inside the black space behind our eyes, but I feel that it’s good to see that in fiction as well, and as more than just ‘the third wheel who is there for context’.
Ultimately, I would like one day to take up a recent writing prompt I saw and write a book about a ‘normal’ person who answers the call of adventure when it knocks on his door because it is easier than dealing with Corporate. I think it would be a real joy to write a rip-roaring action story where the main character is unphased by half of the usual difficulties adventurers have, as it is vastly preferable to customer service. (Something akin to ‘Magic Kingdom: For Sale, Sold! but more cynical).
Still. That’s a writing prompt for another day. In the meantime, here’s to the guys filing records, cleaning sewers, taking out the trash and sewing yet another pair of pantaloons. The adventure wouldn’t work without you!