When you are raised on Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings and Star Wars and other classic hero’s journey stories, it is all too tempting to begin with an ordinary protagonist who is thrown into extraordinary circumstances. It increases the ability to relate to this character, as well as the wish fulfillment in seeing them enter a new world and succeed.
However, telling a story of this kind is much more difficult than you might think. Not only is it incredibly cliché by now, but it is also a difficult starting place for an interesting and engaging story.
Contrast an ordinary protagonist with an extraordinary one—someone with a fascinating history, an unusual identity or ability (who is already aware of these things), and most importantly of all, a clear driving motivation. This last quality is the most essential factor in the development of a story, I’m realizing more and more, and it is incredibly hard to develop it in an ordinary protagonist.
A character’s motivation is what drives the conflict and thus the story. They want something, then something gets in their way, and so they try to overcome that something to get what they want. The more they want something, the more engaged the reader is in seeing them try to get it.
This becomes the challenge with an ordinary protagonist. They are thrust into a new world, a new job, a new ability, etc… but then what? What do they want? And, more importantly, why do they want it? Because you may want the character’s main goal to be to defeat this evil villain, but if their only reason for wanting to defeat her is that she’s evil, the goal will fall flat and so will the story. This is why secret dead parents or murdered mentors are so common; they provide the reason for the goal, and the stronger the reason, the stronger the story.
“Survival” is probably the most common motivation for ordinary protagonists thrust into extraordinary circumstances. The reason this should, in theory, work is that survival is a powerful and universal motivation; no intricate history needed to explain why a character desperately wants to survive. And within a specific scene or sequence, the goal to survive can be gripping and engaging.
The problem is that survival as a primary motivation is difficult to sustain, particularly across an entire narrative. When the threat is not immediate or present, what is the character’s goal? This is why survival needs to be supplemented with some other goal dealing with stopping, defeating, or escaping the larger threat; technically, this second goal is the “plan” to survive, but in and of itself, it is its own goal with its own narrative thrust.
An example that demonstrates this to me is Tony Stark in the first Ironman film. When he is kidnapped by terrorists, his goal is, of course, to survive. But over time that motivation would fall flat. So his secondary goal (or, in a more active sense, his primary goal) is to escape by building the iron suit. That motivation makes the scenes of this sequence that much more engaging because he’s doing something. (Though I wouldn’t necessarily consider him an ‘ordinary’ protagonist; his genius is why he’s able to come up with the plan at all, which is precisely my point.)
Or consider Katniss in The Hunger Games. Primarily, her goal is to survive the experience. But in order to make that survival happen, her goal becomes to find resources, avoid the ‘bad guys,’ find Peeta, destroy the enemy’s stockpile, etc. Each sub-goal is all part of the main goal of survival, but each sub-goal is active and direct.
If Katniss couldn’t shoot a bow, or didn’t know anything about nature, or wasn’t aggressive enough to at least attempt some offensive strategies, then she would just sit around and be killed. She might have enough of a plan to hide, but then what? Her motivations would quickly devolve into passivity, and the story would die around her.
So how does this tie in with an ordinary protagonist? Well, starting with survival as the goal for an ordinary protagonist makes a lot of sense, since a character with no personal connection to the events requires a relatively simple and universal motivation. However, it becomes a problem when they have no means, abilities, or desire to do anything to survive. For my stories, this usually happens because the protagonist has no knowledge of this new world in order to know what to do, and is surrounded by protectors who know what to do and thus are the active parties while my protagonist sits around being in danger.
This is why the protagonist often has to be a bit “special,” seemingly without reason. Take Jake Sully in Avatar as an example. He’s sort of taken on this mission in a passive sense, but his motivation for pursuing this is that they will reward him with surgery for his paralysis; this doesn’t give him any plans for what to do, but it at least gives him a solid reason for doing something. But then, two things happen: he seems to be a natural at using his avatar, and the Na’vi respect him as a warrior. This latter event makes him the primary choice for a special mission to infiltrate the “enemy,” and when a commanding officer he at that point respects offers him the job, he takes it. He now has a clear set of motives and actions to take, with a clear goal (that will shift as his desires change, but that’s another discussion).
Another way to make an ordinary protagonist work is to make him special in an ordinary way—most simply, through a desire to be a hero. This desire is not based in some complex personal history, nor is it directed towards a specific antagonist (who the protagonist has yet to encounter). Instead, it is a more generic inherent quality that everyone likes to believe they have but knows not everyone does, so a character who has it can be simultaneously unique and ordinary.
The perfect example of this is Steve Rogers in Captain America. As the story starts, he is ordinary (perhaps extraordinary in his weakness and small size, but this isn’t portrayed as outside the parameters of human possibility). But his heroism, desire to do what’s right, to stand up for people, etc.—these form his primary motivation, which takes the shape of joining the army. When he gets the serum that makes him Captain America, it is only a new method of performing his primary motivation to be a hero. Thus he has a strong, driving, engaging motivation throughout the story that feels natural because he already had it; it was already personal to him, not awkwardly slapped on after he got his powers.
That’s a problem I’ve frequently encountered in my attempts. I’ll have an ordinary character who suddenly gets a job or an ability or what have you, and now she wants to be a hero. Only she didn’t want to be a hero before the transition, and she doesn’t have any other new reason (such as avenging a friend), so the motivation feels forced and flat. The story loses momentum and dies.
Wanting to be a hero, wanting to be a good person and do what’s right, these motivations can feel natural to an ordinary protagonist—but only if they’re established from the beginning. An alternative is to have these motivations grow throughout the course of the story, as the character changes and learns. However, in that case, the character has to have a different motivation to drive the earlier parts of the story. Or, as a middle ground, a single event can change the character’s goals early enough to drive the story; think of Peter Parker shifting from using his powers to make money wrestling to using them to fight crime after the death of Uncle Ben (I’m thinking of the Tobey Maguire version)—but his initial motivation, to make money, is natural and universal and drives the early part of the story.
This post has gotten a bit long and jumbled, but my primary point is that an ordinary character who undergoes a transition can be difficult to write because of their motivation (or lack thereof). And that’s on top of the difficulty of writing such a character in a new way, given their popularity.
So my latest idea is to attempt to write an extraordinary protagonist, who may be less of a universal everyman hero, but will hopefully be so much more interesting and exciting because of it.
We’ll see how that works.