The Extraordinary and the Commonplace

People read books for a lot of different reasons. My wife very rarely will read a work of fiction. On the other hand, her side of our library is filled with self-help books. That’s her thing. I, on the other hand, read fiction–a lot of it. I also like to read historical fiction and non-fiction.

When people look for stories, they are usually looking for some sort of entertainment. That’s pretty obvious. And regardless of what genre we are reading, we get a lot of that entertainment by reading about the extraordinary. People who read romance novels are looking for stuff that doesn’t usually happen in their own lives, just as the action-adventure junkie, the western reader and the steampunk enthusiast does. We are all looking to escape from our mundane lives for a little while, because you have to admit, 99 percent of life is pretty mundane.

indiana_jones_1That’s how I got started in writing in the first place. I had so many interests that I realized I couldn’t be a fireman, and a brain surgeon, and a war correspondent. There’s not enough time in one life. But if you’re a writer, you can live all of these lives–and more–by writing about them. And the more vivid and realistic your portrayal of these people are, the more interesting your escape is going to be.

And that is where the commonplace is called for. As much as we long for the extraordinary, we need the commonplace as well.

Think about superheroes. Who is more interesting to you: Batman or Superman? Batman has his gadgets, his money, his prestige. But he also is just a man. When he fights, he gets hurt. When he falls, sometimes he breaks something. When he fails, he has self doubt. Superman, on the other hand, is not human. He doesn’t get hurt, he never breaks, although occasionally he has self doubt. If there is any redeeming quality for Superman, it is his weaknesses. And what are his weaknesses? Kryptonite, and the fact that he cares about people. What’s fascinating is that kryptonite didn’t enter into the Superman story until several years later. The authors realized that he had to have some weaknesses for people to identify with.

Do you want to know who my favorite superhero is? Indiana Jones. Especially in his first movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, I truly admired his tenacity. He got beat up, trampled by horses, dragged by a truck, stabbed, etc. etc. And he looked the part. But he never gave up. That shows both his weakness (“the spirit is willing, but the body is weak”) and what we admire most about him.

The running rule for writing is this: If you are writing about extraordinary circumstances, use commonplace people. If you are writing about a commonplace circumstance, use extraordinary people. We need both. We want to both be excited and grounded. We want to feel that it is us that is flying through the air, being dragged behind a truck, or beating up bad guys. But we know our own weaknesses. And we suspect any character that doesn’t have weaknesses as well.


On the home front, NaNoWriMo is down, but not out. Real life has caused it to take a back seat for a few days. I spent yesterday afternoon and evening pulling kitchen cabinets loose and readjusting them to please the people who have been hired to put in new countertops. They came Monday and said they wouldn’t install them because our cabinets weren’t level. I have tomorrow morning to get it all taken care of. I am presently about 3/4 of the way done, and plan on working on it some more this afternoon. Once that’s taken care of, I can realistically think about writing. Sigh.

In any case, I’ll keep you posted on my misadventures. Have a great day.


2 thoughts on “The Extraordinary and the Commonplace

  1. Being a writer because it allows you to “do” everything that interests you, reminds me of what one of my favorite writers said about majoring in English. “It’s like majoring in everything” (Patricia Hampl).

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