The first stage of the hero’s journey is called The Ordinary World. The idea is that something happens to call the hero to adventure which means he must leave his ordinary world (this need not be a geographical change; it could just be exploring a new emotional territory) and enter into the Special World of the adventure.
There is a trigger, or catalyst for most stories. Something happens to make the protagonist act. This is what Vogler describes as The Call to Adventure. But before the hero answers the call, we may need to get a glimpse of him in his Ordinary World to see why this call is going threaten him, why he is going to have to grow and change to overcome the situation.
In novels a hundred years ago, much more time would have been spent describing the life and background of the hero (I am using the word ‘hero’ to mean the central character, the protagonist of the story, not just the central male character). In modern fiction, we don’t want to spend too long in backstory. We want to get into the action fairly quickly, but it can be helpful to set up a little of the hero’s life before the call to adventure comes.
My kids were watching "Shrek" the other day and I thought it was quite a good story to illustrate this:
At the beginning of the film, as the credits roll, we see Shrek, alone in his swamp and happy. He likes his solitary life and has no desire to change it. It is important to set this up because his desire to return to this life is his motivation for leaving the swamp and going on a quest to save a princess. On a deeper level, it is where he is comfortable emotionally—rejecting the world because it has rejected him—and his journey will take him out of this comfort zone and challenge him severely.
Different stories require different treatments. As I’m reading different stories and watching different films, I’m seeing how flexible this idea can be.
While watching ‘French Kiss’ with Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline the other day, I noticed that at the very start of the film Kate’s (Meg Ryan) call to adventure has already come. Her fiancé is going to Paris on business and she has been invited to go with him. We find Kate in a flight simulator, trying to overcome her fear of flying. She rips the door open and tumbles out, yelling she can’t do it. We see hints of her Ordinary World in the following scenes, but her refusal of the call to adventure (step 3 on the hero’s journey) is a much more important place for this particular story to start. (More on that in a later post.)
Anyway, as I went through Vogler's book, I thought about Josie and Will, the characters in my work in progress and decided there were questions I needed to ask myself about them. It wasn’t always easy, but I came away with a much deeper understanding of my them and their motivations. I had plenty of ideas for secondary characters and possible scenarios floating around my head and answering the questions helped me narrow down my choices and decide which ones were going to be the most helpful in telling this story.
This post is long enough already, so I’ll post my 'Ordinary World' questions tomorrow.