your story's normal world

Creating Stunning Character Arcs, Pt. 6: The Normal World

Who wants to read about a boring old Normal World? 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.

Creating Character ArcsLast 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 effort to move on with his life (as in George Lucas’s A New Hope or Robert Schwentke’s RED).
  • 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.

Stay Tuned: Next week, we’ll talk about your character’s arc in the First Act.

Previous Posts in This Series:

Part 1: Can You Structure Character?

Part 2: The Lie Your Character Believes

Part 3: The Thing Your Character Wants vs. The Thing Your Character Needs

Part 4: Your Character’s Ghost

Part 5: The Characteristic Moment

Tell me your opinion: What Normal World begins your story?

 your story's normal world copy

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Do you think it would be possible to have an “older post” button on the posts? I’m trying to read back through your back posts and the way the blog is set up that isn’t the easiest thing to do. Or maybe an archive on the side bar? You have a lot of material here and I’d like to go through it but I don’t always know what I’m looking for so just using topical archiving isn’t very helpful to me. Thanks for having such a great blog!

    • I’ll see what I can do! In the mean time, there is a search option up at the top of the right column, if you know what subjects you want to search for.

      • I second that request. When I first found this website, I began reading the older posts from the beginning once or twice a week – in chronological order – in addition to reading the new posts as they came out.

        This is not impossible now, but it was a lot easier to just look on the sidebar and click on the next date. Maybe instead of having it on the sidebar (because I realize it clutters up the design) you could just have a link to a page for the complete chronological archives, which would then be by year, month, etc.

        Of course, maybe you do have it somewhere and I just can’t find it. 😉

  2. Thanks for the post! Looking forward to the next one! =)

  3. Thanks for reading!

  4. Hey! This series has been great so far – I’ve learnt a lot. I was wondering – how would this model of a positive character arc fit with a book series?

    Would there be an overarching character arc/ lie throughout the whole series? Or a different arc/ lie for each book? Or is it a mixture of the two? The second approach seems too episodic, and the first doesn’t appear to give much of a sense of completion at the end of each book – you would have to read the whole series to get the full effect. Thoughts?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Some series are, of course, episodic by nature. But if you’re telling an expanded story arc over the course of several books, then you’re going to want to preserve a major character (complete with major Lie) over the course of the entire series. Within each book, you’ll see the progression of the character’s arc as he breaks through the layers of the Lie – so, in that sense, he’ll be overcoming smaller lies on his way to overcoming the big Lie.

  5. This is a fabulous idea to help you get to know your characters even better. I discovered two plot points in two different stories with your help!! Thank you!!

  6. Thanks for this series! It came just in time for me personally, and the weeks just can’t go quick enough to get to the next post!

    I was just wondering: is it possible for the normal world to change before the first plot point? Could the character actually launch his “adventure” in the first act, and then meet with a serious setback at the first plot point, or must the first plot point launch the “adventure” with everything which comes before as simply setup?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Yes, definitely. For example, the novel I’m working on right how has the protagonist leaving his sleepy Surrey village halfway through the First Act to visit London, where most of the story will take place. But up until the First Plot Point, the Normal World doesn’t fully relinquish its hold on him. So, even though he’s been able to physically leave the Normal World, it takes him a bit longer to mentally leave it. In my story, he returns to the Normal World *at* the First Plot Point, at which time his ability to return afterwards is destroyed, permanently setting him adrift in the adventure world. The Normal World is more a mindset than anything. It’s just that it’s often helpful to represent it metaphorically through a physical setting as well.

  7. I was waiting for this post to come! This aspect is essential to my protagonist’s arc in the story I’m plotting/researching. Before Mac grows up and witnesses the horrors of the Vietnam War, he grows up in comfortable place that’s quiet and flat (right now I’m thinking Illinois or maybe even Nebraska or Kansas) and has blooming fascination for the military and growing up to fight for his country which is later crushed.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Often, I think people get hung up on the idea that if the story starts in a “Normal World,” then the rest of the story has to get place in someplace fantastical. But this is a great example of how the Normal World and the “adventure world” can be very ordinary, real-world venues.

      • Awesome, thanks for approving! By the way, you live in Nebraska right? Is there anything special you can tell me about it in case I use that for the start setting or somewhere similar? I also read your comment about the novel you’re working on and it sounded interesting. I was wondering if there was a title, thanks.

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

          If you’re looking for a “normal” world, it’s a good place to start. 😉 Mostly, farm country here in the western half of the state. We grow primarily corn and sugar beets. Very laid-back and friendly populace. Not many trees, except around the bodies of water. The eastern half of the state is very flat, but we start rolling into the sandhills here in the west.

          I’m not sure if the book you’re talking about is Storming, which is set here in western Nebraska, or Wayfarer, the historical superhero story I’m working on right now. You can find info about both here.

          • Cool, thanks! It was Wayfarer I was talking about although Storming seems interesting too.

    • Ooh. Did you go with Illinois?? It’s not ALL flat, you know. We have hills. Small lumps, perhaps?

      Srsly. Interested in knowing 🙂

  8. Hi. I just wanted to say thank you for this great series. I’m closing in on the last of my edits of my WIP and this is perfect for me to go back and make sure everything I need is included. I appreciate all your work on this!

  9. Hi there,
    I don’t seem to be able to find the next in this series. Has it been posted yet?
    I am finding the series MOST helpful
    Thanks

  10. Elizabeth Richards says:

    I took the week off to write and I’m glad I found this series–it’s what I need to sort out a mess of 120,000 words that aren’t a novel yet.

    I’m mulling over the many pieces of advice/rules I’ve gathered over the years and one that stands out is the use of flashbacks early in the story. Many say that this is bad because it stops the forward progression just as you are getting started. On the other hand Set Up/the Normal world is all about understanding the MC and her world.

    In my mystery, the MC is stranded in Cripple Creek, trying to get back to England. Her Lie is that there is only one person in the world who values her–and he has gone missing. The conflict is that she can’t get home to find him.

    To understand why she is compelled to go find him, why she believes he is the only person who could love her, etc. is backstory that occurred over a lifetime. At one point I started the novel back in England to show the relationship, etc. and then jumped forward to Cripple Creek but I got the usual advice to start in the middle of the action.

    Any thoughts on how to balance the need to show the Normal world while also starting in the middle of action and moving forward?

    My head is spinning just writing the question.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Every story is different, and, ultimately, only you can know the right answer for yours. But my first instinct on reading your description of your story is that you’ll be better off following the conventional wisdom about flashbacks.

      One of the major pitfalls of using flashbacks to reveal backstory is that it robs the reader the pleasure of discovery – and it robs you of the opportunity to use your backstory as a hook. Readers don’t need to know right away *why* your characters are attached. They just need to know that they *are* and then be given a reason to wonder *why.*

      If you can dole out your backstory, breadcrumb after breadcrumb, your backstory alone can end up being a huge reason readers keep reading – to figure out what happened in the past to make it such an integral key to the character’s present.

  11. Is there any chance you have a book just on character arcs? Because I have so many questions as I go through these posts, they are amazingly detailed but I think my story is just making it a little confusing!
    I’ve managed to work out that the normal world and adventure world in my story are the same place (no location change), this is mostly because my antagonist lures the protagonist to a specific city at the start of the book, and the conflict which occurs at the first plot point has to occur there. In your post you mentioned these two worlds can be the same, but just have slightly different facets (like Boo in Monsters Inc). So far I’ve worked out that the people who surround my protagonist will change during this plot point; before she is surrounded by people who dont need her help, they can get things done on their own; and afterwards she is surrounded by people who desperately need her help and she is the only one in a position to do so (Her lie is that she believes she is powerless, so hopefully this helps to make her uncomfortable with her lie). Would that be a sufficient change? Or would I need something physical, like a literal change in setting?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Funny you should ask about the character arcs book. I actually have the printed version of the first draft sitting in front of me right now! Hoping to see it published by fall–along with a workbook.

      As for your Normal World, as long as your First Plot Point is creating a definite “doorway” between the First and Second Acts, the distinction in the Normal World that you’ve described should be sufficient.

    • My only concern with this (“the people who surround my protagonist will change during this plot point”) is whether you have an adequate cause for so many people to change at the same moment. Does some disaster happen–earthquake, storm, economic disruption?

  12. Also, do you have a non-kindle version of your book ‘structuring your novel’? I may be looking in the wrong place, but I can only find the kindle and audio book versions.

  13. I apologise for hounding you with questions recently but I must ask another. The comments are talking about a literal change in setting (one location to another) but my setting remains the same for most of the novel. What changes is how my MC feels about it. At first, it’s a place she can call home – a place where she feels safe and is surrounded by loved ones. Once the story gets rolling along, it flips completely so the place where she once felt safe is the same place where she feels haunted in. Am I right to say this would be acceptable?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      Very often, the departure from the Normal World of the First Act into the “adventure world” of the Second will be visually dramatized in a literal change in setting. However, this is not a “must-have.” In many stories, the change in “worlds” is metaphorical and has more do with the character’s changing mindset or circumstances than her literal setting.

  14. My intellectual nerd is used to being (unofficially) in charge of everyone, and usually saying what they would say to save time. He is accustomed to arriving at crime scenes (via unconventional transportation), explaining what happened, and making everyone else feel like idiots. When he is undercover, he is alone and in full control of the situation. He lives alone, again with full control.

    His encountering an adversary who can outsmart him, and his relationship with someone who does not simply follow him blindly, challenges his status quo.

  15. Disregard this comment; I forgot to subscribe when posting my previous comment.

  16. In my zombie apocalypse story, the outbreak starts almost immediately at the beginning. However, only at the key event do they realize that the zombies are intelligent. Their story goals change dramatically, and the meat of the story begins.

    It’s a similar approach to Madoka Magica. In the anime, the protagonist is almost immediately introduced to the world of magical girls. At the key event, however, she finally realizes that becoming a magical girl is quite tragic.

    In these stories with an original world, an adventure world, and the actual adventure world, which one is the “normal world”?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says:

      You’re on the right track. In stories that immediately throw the characters into the main conflict, you won’t so much have them enter a new world as you’ll have them experience a “reset” of sorts as the main conflict comes clearly into view and their story goals coalesce.

  17. Kate Johnston says:

    Great post! The Normal World in my story runs along the lines of “pretty lousy, but the protagonist is at least temporarily stuck there against his will,” and at the end, the Normal World and the protagonist both have to change for things to work.

    The first chapter shows the protagonist already in the midst of trying to change the Normal World, but his attempts are thwarted by page ten. Then, at the FPP, he is literally sent packing from his Normal World to his Adventure World. At the end of the story, after he solves a mystery, he comes back to Normal World, and as I said, both NW and protag change.

    Is it okay if the protag is already in the midst of trying to change his life and Normal World during the opening chapter but fails, then tries again at Inciting Incident, which kicks off the FPP and his foray into Adventure World?

  18. Do you think also the key event at the beginning of the story may change the normal world? For example the protagonist’s context and life change, but not his personal aptitude of seeing them.

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