Creating Stunning Character Arcs, Pt. 6: The Normal World
Who wants to read about a boring old NormalWorld? The Lost World? Sure! The Exciting, Unusual, Exotic, and Absolutely Thrilling World? You betcha. But the Normal World? Isn’t that a pretty lame way to begin a story? Nope. Not if you want your character’s change arc to make sense, it isn’t.
Last week, we learned about how the Characteristic Moment ties into your story’s Hook by introducing the protagonist, the Lie He Believes, the Thing He Wants, and the Thing He Needs. But the Characteristic Moment is only half of a good character arc’s opening. It gives us character, but it still needs context. The Normal World provides that context.
People are largely defined by the microcosms in which they live. We are inevitably shaped by our surroundings, either because of the ways we fit in or the ways we don’t. Just as inevitably, we are defined by our surroundings because they reflect our choices and limitations. How we came to be someplace, why we choose to remain there, or why we are forced to remain even if we don’t want to—all these factors reveal interesting facets of our personalities, values, strengths, and weaknesses.
In a story, the Normal World will play an important role in the first quarter of your story—the First Act. This entire segment can basically be summarized as “set-up,” and the Normal World plays a vital role in grounding the story in a concrete setting. Even more important, the Normal World creates the standard against which all the personal and plot changes to come will be measured. Without this vivid opening example of what will change in your character’s life, the rest of the arc will lack definition and potency.
The Normal World
At its most basic level, the Normal World is—as its name suggests—a setting. This is the place in which your story opens. It is a place in which your character has found contentment—or at least complacency.
Possible Manifestations of the Normal World
- The Normal World may seem wonderful on the surface (as in Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands or Kurt Wimmer’s Equilibrium), only to have its perfect façade cracked wide open, along with the character’s misconceptions about the world and himself.
- Or the Normal World may be safe but boring, with the protagonist chafing ineffectually against it without making any real
- Or the Normal World may be pretty lousy, but the protagonist is at least temporarily stuck there against his will (as in John Sturges’s The Great Escape or Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan).
- Or the Normal World may be legitimately great, but the protagonist isn’t yet ready to appreciate it or is being temporarily held back by the Normal World’s advantages (as in L. Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz or Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life).
- Or the Normal World may present one set of challenges, which the protagonist finds himself unequipped to deal with until after he’s experienced life beyond the Normal World (as in Pete Docter and Bob Peterson’s Up and Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee’s Frozen).
The Symbolism of the Normal World
The point is that the Normal World is a place the protagonist either doesn’t want to leave or can’t leave. It’s the staging ground for his grand adventure. Most of the time he will take the Normal World for granted and feel it’s going to go on and on forever, but sometimes he’ll start the story knowing the Normal World is just a temporary stopover (as in James Cameron’s Avatar).
Think of the Normal World as a symbolic representation of your character’s inner world. The Normal World needs to dramatize the Lie the Character Believes. It needs to empower the character in that Lie, so he has no reason to look beyond it. Only when the Normal World is challenged or abandoned at the First Plot Point is the protagonist’s belief in that Lie shaken.
How to Create Your Story’s Normal World
In creating your story’s Normal World, first ask yourself what kind of world will provide the most logical backstory for why your character believes the Lie. Then consider how to enhance the Normal World by making it the comfiest place ever for that Lie to keep living. Note, however, this does not mean it necessarily has to be a comfy place for your protagonist. Sometimes it will seem to be outwardly comfy, but, deep down, the Lie is making him miserable.
Next, ask yourself how you can create a Normal World that will best contrast the “adventure world” to follow in the next two acts. Sometimes your protagonist will remain in the physical setting of the Normal World throughout the story (as in Pete Docter’s Monsters, Inc.), with only facets of the world changing (as when Boo’s arrival throws Monstropolis into chaos). Either way, you want to strive for the most dramatic contrast possible between the worlds, in order to provide your character with as much incentive as possible to enact his change.
The Normal World is important because it visibly proves to readers (it shows them) your protagonist’s “before” state. Either he’s going to have to change enough to move out of this destructive place, or he’s going to have to change enough to fit in and take advantage of this healthy place.
What is the Normal World?
Your story’s Normal World could be:
- A peaceful and prosperous planet—which is enabling his prideful misconceptions. (Thor)
- A stark and loveless childhood, first at her aunt’s, then at a boarding school for girls—which reinforces her belief in her unloveableness. (Jane Eyre)
- An archeological dig in perpetual need of funding—which doesn’t tie into his Lie but does prompt his acceptance of an otherwise unacceptable proposal, which advances the plot. (Jurassic Park)
- A rundown farm with two antisocial great-uncles—which at first reinforces his general fear of everything. (Secondhand Lions)
- Andy’s room, where he’s the boss—which reinforces his belief in the Lie. (Toy Story)
- The closing days of the Gulf War—which reinforces the devaluation of people and the disillusionment in industrialized war. (Three Kings)
- An American university—which reinforces his Lie by allowing him to be unjustly accused and expelled. (Green Street Hooligans)
- New York City—which reinforces the general neuroticism of the protagonist and contrasts with the motif of “taking a vacation from your problems.” (What About Bob?)
We have a great assortment of Normal Worlds here—everything from Thor’s awesome but personally unchallenging world, to the horrible world in which Jane Eyre is trapped until she finally escapes, to Secondhand Lions‘ seemingly awful Normal World, which, by the First Plot Point, begins to morph into something pretty wonderful.
Further Examples of the Normal World
A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens: Scrooge’s Normal World is introduced via his frigid counting house, where he would rather suffer through the cold than spend a few extra shillings on a bigger fire. His cold, money-driven world is further illustrated through his perception of London and the revelation of his equally cold and loveless home. It’s a visibly horrible world, in which Scrooge has convinced himself to be content in order to maintain his Lie and his pursuit of the Thing He Wants. The setting is a magnificently symbolic representation of Scrooge’s inner world—dark, cold, and lonely. Dickens’s time-travel element allows him to beautifully contrast the Normal World of the present with both brighter possibilities and even more horrific ones.
Cars directed by John Lasseter: At first glance, Lightning McQueen’s world seems pretty great—all glitter and glamour. He’s racing in the Piston Cup, the most important car race in the world, and it’s a delightful place of euphoric fans, raw adrenaline, and shining possibilities. It will stand in stark contrast to the slow and rusty world of Radiator Springs. But, for now, it seems to represent everything Lightning wants, even as it feeds his Lie and traps him in a downward spiral of selfishness and isolation.
Questions to Ask About the Normal World
1. What setting will open your story?
2. How will this setting change at the First Plot Point?
3. How can you contrast the Normal World with the “adventure world” to follow?
4. How does the Normal World dramatize or symbolize your character’s enslavement to the Lie?
5. How is the Normal World causing or empowering the Lie?
6. Why is your character in the Normal World?
7. If your character doesn’t want to leave the Normal World, what is helping him mask the discomfort caused by his Lie?
8. If your character wants to leave, what’s stopping him?
9. Will the character return to the Normal World at the end of the story?
10. If the Normal World is a legitimately good place, how will the protagonist need to change in order to appreciate it?
The Normal World presents you with the valuable opportunity to visually dramatize your character’s Lie. Take full advantage of your story’s Normal World and create an opening segment that will explode into readers’ minds and perfectly set up the adventure to follow.