Just a couple of hours after my post about taking risks, my daughter and I sat down to watch The Ron Clark Story. On his first day teaching in Inner Harlem, Clark hung two handwritten signs: Dream Big and Take Risks.
Honestly, I'm starting to wonder if there's more going on here than confirmation of what I've always preached to other writers. I'm starting to wonder whether someone is trying to tell ME something.
But that's not what I came here to talk about tonight. No, tonight I want to talk about ordinary people in fiction. This one started nibbling at my brain a few weeks ago, when I visited Regina Doman's website. Regina Doman is a Catholic writer whose books were recommended to me in a comment on my Catholic Blog. She writes grown-up, novel-length stories based on fairy tales, and on her website, she has a quote from G.K. Chesterton:
The old fairy tales endure forever. The old fairy tale makes the hero a normal human boy; it is his adventures that are startling: they startle him because he is normal.
My initial interest in the quote, I must admit, stemmed from the use of a semi-colon and a colon in the same relatively brief sentence. Secondarily, I was personally pleased by the concept because my latest novel-in-progress has as its protagonist a young man who works on an assembly line in central Indiana. But finally (by which I mean, after two minutes or so), I started to think from a writer's perspective, and to think about some of my favorite fiction. Could, for instance, anyone be more ordinary than Nick Adams? Hemingway's Nick Adams stories were among the earliest fiction to dig its hooks into me and really make me think about the art and craft of creating characters, but Nick could have been the boy next door to any of us.
Doman clearly took the words to heart--and I don't say that just because they appear both on her website and in her book. The two heroines of her first book are high school girls living with their widowed nurse mother in an apartment in New York.
Today, Jacquelyn Mitchard referred to the main character in her latest novel, Still Summer, as "the most ordinary of mothers". In fact, she pointed out that most of her characters are "people we already know". That definitely rang true to me, and it got me thinking about some other popular phenomena, too. Seinfeld, for instance...the show that became famous and wildly successful for being "about nothing".
We've all long known that identifiable moments were an important part of drawing in a reader, so it should come as no surprise that identifiable characters work. After all, the people who live lives much like our own, like those we see around us, are the most likely to have experiences that we identify with, to think in ways we'd think, to react in ways that we can understand and empathize with.
On one hand, this isn't much of a surprise--it's common to most of the memorable books I've read, and it's something I've apparently been leaning toward unconsciously myself. Still, I always find that it makes a difference when something has been consciously identified, that examples and opportunities begin to present themselves from all directions when a new consciousness enters the picture. I'm not sure yet how it will affect my writing, but it will be turning over and around in the back of my mind, awaiting its opportunity.