Ordinary People, Extraordinary Worlds

Before I get on with this post, I’d like to recommend the following song to g with it:

Extraordinary Way, by Conjure One. It’s a love song, but it may not necessarily be about a person. It could be a place, or a land – or, well, a special person.


The other day I bumped into a discussion about what kind of perspectives people wanted to see more of in fantasy stories. One of the suggestions that came up, among a host of others, was the idea of writing a story from the perspective of someone completely ordinary and regular.

As you probably know, most characters that have a bit of a role to play in a fantasy story are at least a little bit out of the ordinary. They’re special in some way.

It may be they’re really good at fighting, or they have a talent for magic, or some other exceptional skill. It may also be that they’re destined for greatness in some way. Perhaps they’re mentioned in a prophecy, or they’re a prince of fame and fortune, or perhaps the last of their kind.

They’re special.

The idea I came across went against all that and suggested it’d be interesting to read a fantasy story about a completely regular person, as a bit of a break from all the big great epicness of all the other fantasy stories.

Seeing that suggested made me really happy.

My first novel, Enar’s Vacation, matches that idea almost exactly. It’s a story about a regular guy who goes on vacation. He sees some cool things, and there’s the odd bit of excitement, but overall, he’s just a regular guy on vacation.

He hangs out with the locals, eats good food, does a bit of sightseeing, and gets drunk. There’s also a woman that he falls for – of course.

There’s no fighting. There’s daring escape and no brave last stand.

There’s a little bit of magic, but no more than a regular inhabitant in the world will be familiar with anyway. There’s some strange creatures and weird people, but again: it’s nothing out of the ordinary for an inhabitant.

But, it’s still a fantasy story.

I’ve toyed with this concept for quite a while. My novella Emma’s Story, is based on a similar idea. It’s about a regular countryside girl in a small village in the hills. All she wants is to get married, settle down, and start a family. She’s nothing special.

However, through the course of the story she does experience things that are a bit out of the ordinary even for the people of the world. That’s not the focus of the story though (just the culmination).

So far, my first two longer stories have been about regular people. One of them does mundane and unremarkable things. The other one has a bit of and adventure, but she’s still overall a regular person. She just ends up in a crappy situation and has to do what it takes to deal with it.

How did it end up like this?

When I started out writing I imagined myself writing a grand epic story about magnificent heroes traveling the world, fighting evil, and finding treasure. Technically, I’d still like to do something like that, but it no longer has the same appeal.

Why write about regular people?

I think that one of the things that fascinates me about writing about regular people in a fantasy setting is how it can enhance the sense of wonder in the reader. It allows for more escapism.

When showing the world through the eyes of a regular person you can highlight the differences between the real world and your fantasy world in a whole different way. When the protagonist is a regular person, doing mundane things, the extraordinary aspects of the world stand out much more clearly.

Let’s take the sootkin and use them as an example.

They don’t really play an important role in any of my stories, but they’re mentioned in a few places. Basically, they’re little air spirits that live in underground tunnels. They’re normally quite docile, as there isn’t much wind in underground tunnels, but they get excited when there’s a draft or a wind.

They absolutely love subway trains.

The sootkin play in the air around the trains like dolphins around the prow of a ship. Wherever there’s a subway system, there are little black spirits that race the trains through the tunnels.

If you’re anything like me – which you may or may not be – something like this gets your imagination going. You may wonder what else there may be of a similar kind? Or you may wonder what it’d be like to standing waiting for a train and whenever it shows up it’s always accompanied by a bunch of spirits playing in the air stream.

It’s nothing special for city folk. They’re used to it and they have other things to worry about. You however, you’ve never seen a spirit race a train through a tunnel (okay, maybe in a movie).

So what does this have to do with everyday people? Perhaps not so much, but it’s still a good example. Riding a subway train is a mundane and commonplace thing. A lot of people will have at least an idea of what it’s like to stand on the platform and wait for the train to come in.

I take this idea that “everyone” is familiar with, and then I add something out of the ordinary to it. It gets the mind churning.

Let’s say that instead of trains the tunnels under the city are trafficked by giant slugs. People can catch a ride with the slugs in order to get to wherever they’re going. In practice, the slugs fill the same function as the subway trains.

The difference is that adding sootkin to the slugs doesn’t really do anything. The slugs are weird enough as it is and the sootkin would be just another weird detail. Keeping the trains as trains, which readers are familiar with, means that adding the sootkin has a much bigger impact on the reader’s imagination.

The same thing will go for everyday people doing regular things. Add something that will seem extraordinary to the reader, but portray it as something mundane in the world, and you’ll set your reader’s mind racing.

…at least that’s the theory.

Ordinary People, Extraordinary Worlds

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