From The Odyssey to Star Wars to Toy Story, the Hero’s Journey is the foundation of millennia of storytelling. But before any hero can embark on their journey, they must start in the ordinary world.
How can you leverage this world and the hero’s journey in your own writing?
In storytelling, the hero’s journey has to do with the stages of the hero as researched by Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler. Decades ago, these two storytelling experts identified several common trends that appear in great works from every generation and every culture.
One of those trends is structure.
Thankfully this structure has a proven track record of success. This successful record is so long, in fact, that we don’t know when it started.
And it all begins with a person living an ordinary life.
What Is the Hero’s Journey?
The Hero’s Journey is a timeless combination of characters, events, and symbols frequently structured as a sequence of twelve steps. It is a storytelling structure that anyone can study and utilize to tell a story that readers will love.
You can learn all about the twelve steps that make up the universal structure of great stories in this article. Today, I’d like to take you even further into the first of those steps.
Let’s take a look at the beginning: The Ordinary World.
Hero’s Journey Step #1: Start Ordinary
We have Hollywood screenwriter and executive Christopher Vogler to thank for our condensed version of the Hero’s Journey. If you’re curious, his most notable credit is a film that makes explicit use of the Hero’s Journey: The Lion King.
In Vogler’s simplification of Campbell’s theory, there are twelve steps to the Hero’s Journey (I cover each one in-depth in a detailed Hero’s Journey blog series, this article being one of those special articles).
The first step of the Hero’s Journey involves establishing your hero’s day-to-day ordinary life, all so it can be disrupted by the impending Inciting Incident. This is the Ordinary World.
There are five common features that happen in the ordinary world.
5 Common Features of the Ordinary World
Let’s take a look at the elements of the Ordinary World. Some of these are essentials, while others aren’t necessarily essential, but are common in the vast majority of Hero’s Journey stories you’ll encounter.
When your story includes these five features, it’s likely that your reader will connect with your story’s hero, and understand why they are extraordinarily challenged after being forced to depart from this world.
1. Your Hero, the Average Joe
Every story begins with an “Average Joe.” They are someone you could be, or could have a close relationship with. He or she isn’t a hero at first because nothing heroic has been required…yet.
Think about how simple or average Harry Potter and Katniss Everdeen are—at least at first. Yes, they both have something interesting about them (Harry’s scar, Katniss’s hunting skill), but neither of these things are earth-shattering. Yet.
Start your storyline with a protagonist with simple wants and relatable needs. It’s the perfect beginning to a heroic story.
Why? Because it gives the reader good reason to imagine themselves in the hero’s shoes.
It makes the reader care about the hero, before that hero is sent on their long journey.
2. No Parents
Another notable trope of this step is a lack of proper parents. Think about it: How many heroes do you know of whose parents are either missing, dead, or nonexistent? Orphans abound in heroic journeys.
Harry Potter is an orphan, and Katniss has to play the parental role to her own mother. Moses’s father is a mystery and he is given up as an orphan.
Luke Skywalker’s parents are . . . well, you know. And Rey, in the newer Star Wars movies, is obsessed with finding out the truth of her family.
To put your hero at a disadvantage, remove one of life’s most common advantages: A solid set of parents, traditionally one’s first allies.
Doing this will instill your story with readymade conflict from page one.
3. A Principled but Boring Life
Many elements of the Ordinary World are obvious. Your hero’s life is simple, mundane, even boring. He or she is often from the countryside, or lives as a stranger in the crowded, soulless metropolitan bustle.
However, they are also a principled person. The Ordinary World of the hero’s journey is the perfect place to establish your story’s core value.
A story’s core value is the major moral ideal that is under assult. In most stories, these core values take one or more of the following forms:
- Life vs. Death
- Life vs. A Fate Worse Than Death
- Love vs. Hate
- Accomplishment vs. Failure
- Maturity vs. Naivete
- Good vs. Evil
Your hero’s ordinary day-to-day life ought to be a boring exercise in upholding a value, like going to work, making small sacrifices for a neighbor, standing up to a bully, and so on.
It’s only when the story’s forces of darkness arrive and threaten all of this that your hero must rise and take a bolder stand.
Not sure what core value in your story? You can learn more about the core values and the ten types of stories in this article.
4. Low Expectations
In addition to your hero starting as a relative nobody, structure your ordinary world so that no one expects much of the hero. He or she is assumed to probably amount to nothing, much in the way the Dursleys dismiss the relevance of their nephew, Harry Potter.
However, a lone voice in the wilderness supporting your hero should emerge a little later. That character is the Mentor, who will recognize the hero’s potential heroism and talent and coach him or her into that role.
Of course this can’t happen until later, after the Inciting Incident, but it’s wise to plant seeds of this relationship early in the story.
It is this humble beginning that makes the full arc of the Hero’s Journey satisfying. Much later, after the Crisis and Climax, your hero will take the Road Back to their Ordinary World and Return with the Elixir, or the bounty of goods, peace, and safety that is lost during the story.
However all of these triumphs achieved by the end will lack meaning if readers don’t understand how far the hero has come since the Ordinary World.
Hero’s journeys are redemption arcs, often of the hero themself, and of the community, which loses its core value and must depend on the hero to restore it. These scenes are crucial, but can’t achieve true cathartic impact without the humble beginnings a hero needs.
5. A False Sense of Security
Just as the Ordinary World is a place where your story’s core value is either supported or established, it also comes with a false sense of security. Everything should seem, at least on the surface, peaceful and well. But in the underbelly of this world—or lingering outside its boundaries—conflict and injustice rages.
The writer’s journey is all about building suspense and paying it off. In your book’s opening pages, the origins of conflict must be laid down in the form of expectations and hope.
In George Lucas’s 1977 classic Star Wars, the film quickly identifies that the galaxy is being terrorized by the Evil Empire. However, it briefly departs this epic conflict and introduces the viewer to Luke Skywalker, a moisture farmer who longs to join the rebellion against the empire.
On his home planet, Tattoine, little is wrong. Farmers have to work hard and bargain with greedy jawas to buy droids that help with the harvest. Luke’s greatest complaint is that his uncle won’t let him “waste time with his friends.” For a brief time, there is a false sense of security and that Luke’s world will remain small.
This false sense of security is shattered when Luke returns home to find his aunt and uncle murdered by agents of the Empire. His core values, Life and Good, has been devastated by the arrival of Death and Evil.
What follows is a Refusal of the Call, in which the hero tries to avoid their fateful high stakes, and the mentor steps in to help the hero rise to the challenge.
None of these moments are possible with that quiet before the storm, the false sense of security at the story’s outset.
3 Ways to Create Your Ordinary World
How does this apply to the stories you’re telling? Include these three elements of the Ordinary World into your Hero’s Journey in order to bring your hero low before they begin the climb to greatness.
1. Upset the parent structure
To keep things fresh, don’t just “kill them off.” Maybe one is missing. Maybe the parents are divorced and mom/dad remarried, while the other is off on some adventure.
A great example of innovation within this element is Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2, where Peter Quill’s journey (as an orphan, mind you) takes him back to his father with plenty of twists along the way.
Another example is The Hunger Games. As I mentioned above, Katniss has to play the parental role while her mother seems lost in a deep depression after the death of her husband and Katniss’ father. While Katniss’s mother is not dead, she is functionally dead and not filling the mentor role normally handled by parents.
Again, the reason this archetype works so well is because so many of us have parents who are absent in body, mind, or both. So many of us have struggled on our own Hero’s Journey of responsibility because one or both of our parents dropped the ball.
We know just how disadvantageous inadequate or absent parents can be.
When a character has both characters in place and those parents are supportive, gracious, loving, and most importantly, present, what disadvantage do they have?
But you’ll need to make it clear that supportive parents are ill-equipped to tackle the conflict in the story. Make sure you know where your character stands when it comes to support vs. alienation, as this directly ties into your story’s stakes!
2. Lower the expectations
In the beginning, no one can know how heroic your protagonist will be. Don’t fall victim to cheesy irony or heavy-handed foreshadowing. Keep your hero low, and bury them in the judgment of the community.
If you’ve ever lived in a small town, you know exactly what I’m talking about. The same can be said for the community, or “World,” itself. Often a community will expect nothing of itself because no one expects anything of it. It is its own special world where the rules are different, but not in a favorable way.
Think about that town you grew up near that was “trash.” Maybe it was your town. What effect does that have on its people?
Remember: Luke comes from Tattoine, a desolate rock floating in the outer regions of space. He’s a nobody.
Katniss Everdeen hails from District 12, the armpit of Panem. Its claim to fame is coal mining, the career that killed Katniss’ father. She, too, is a nobody.
Find unique ways to make your hero a nobody. Then surround them with allies, partners, bandmates who are also nobodies.
Readers love an underdog story, and to tell one you’ve got to make sure you create a clear idea in the reader’s mind what “under” truly means.
3. Create a false sense of security
As the writer, you know conflict is coming. It has to come, either from within or without.
But the community, and possibly your hero, can’t know it yet. Everything needs to seem happy and fine.
Remember that the effect of this false sense of security is suspense, a priceless effect you want to provide your readers whenever possible. Then, when comforts come undone and the world as we know it is destroyed, you’ll unlock the dramatic potential of your story’s core value.
If you want that huge payoff when your hero returns victorious at the story’s end, then you’ll need to build the suspense and sketch that arc starting at the very beginning.
Let’s Get Ordinary
It’s time to start spicing and seasoning your storytelling with elements of this timeless and beloved story structure. I know you want to tell a great story. I know you want your tales to be the talk of Barnes and Noble, Amazon.com, and IMDB. You’re in the right place to do exactly that!
So think about it: What are you working on now that could benefit from some of these archetypal elements? Why not try adding some elements to your current work-in-progress, or to a finished draft you’re struggling to revise?
Keep in mind, even if your world is unique in the beginning, it still needs to start out as ordinary to your hero. Like Tattoine. Or the Shire.
Every world in the beginning of the book should be ordinary for the hero who is about to accept a Call to Adventure that pulls them away from it.
And after you’ve mastered the Ordinary World, you can learn more about Step Two of the Hero’s Journey, the Call to Adventure, in this article.
Along with more writing tips on how to structure this important step into your story!
What Ordinary Worlds can you think of in stories you’ve read and watched? Let us know in the comments.
Put the Hero’s Journey into action by writing your own story using the Hero’s Journey framework.
Over the next few weeks, I’m going to break down all twelve steps of the journey and give you writing exercises to draft each one.
Today, create your own Ordinary World! Get started with these questions:
- Where are your character’s parents? (Hint: they’re probably not home creating a happy, secure family)
- Why are people’s expectations for your character so low? (Maybe they’re a farmhand, or a servant, or a short-order cook at Waffle House, or an average but not exceptional student)
- What is the story’s core value? How does the hero pursue it in boring everyday life? (Bonus points if there’s a hidden threat to this core value your protagonist doesn’t yet know about)
Take fifteen minutes to answer one or more of the questions above. If you have extra time, start writing the beginning of your story.
When you’re done, share your ordinary world in the comments below. Don’t forget to support your fellow writers by commenting on someone else’s work, too!