The Ordinary World in the Hero's Journey

From Christopher Vogler's "The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure"

Screen shot of Toto being taken from the Wizard of Oz

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The hero's journey begins with the hero in the ordinary world, going about ordinary life, except that something isn't quite right. What he does in the first scenes demonstrates a flaw of some kind, a lacking to be overcome, for either the hero or someone close to him or her.

The Ordinary World

According to Christopher Vogler, author of The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure, we see the hero in his ordinary world so we recognize the difference when he enters the special world of the story. The ordinary world generally conjures a mood, image, or metaphor that suggests a theme and gives the reader a frame of reference for the rest of the story.

The mythological approach to story boils down to using metaphors or comparisons to convey the hero's feelings about life.

The ordinary world is sometimes set in a prologue and often strains credibility to prepare the audience for the special world, Vogler writes. An old rule in secret societies is that disorientation leads to suggestibility. It allows the reader to suspend disbelief.

Writers often foreshadow the special world by creating a microcosm of it in the ordinary world. (e.g., Dorothy’s ordinary life in the Wizard of Oz is depicted in black and white, the events mirroring what she is about to encounter in the technicolor special world.)

Vogler believes that every good story poses both an inner and an outer question for the hero that becomes apparent in the ordinary world. (e.g., Dorothy's outer problem is that Toto has dug up Miss Gulch's flower bed and everyone is too busy preparing for the storm to help her out. Her inner problem is that she has lost her parents and doesn’t feel "at home" anymore; she's incomplete and about to embark on a quest for completion.)

The Importance of the First Action

The hero’s first action usually illustrates his or her characteristic attitude and the future problems or solutions that will result. Stories invite the reader to experience an adventure through the hero's eyes, so the author generally strives to establish a strong bond of sympathy or common interest.

He or she does that by creating a way for the reader to identify with the hero's goals, drives, desires, and needs, which are usually universal. Most heroes are on a journey of completion of one kind or another. Readers abhor the vacuum created by a missing piece in a character, and so are willing to embark on the journey with him or her, according to Vogler.

Many authors show the hero unable to perform a simple task in the ordinary world. By the end of the story, he or she has learned, changed, and can accomplish the task with ease.

The ordinary world also provides backstory embedded in the action. The reader must work a little to figure it all out, like getting pieces of a puzzle one or two at a time. This, too, engages the reader.

While analyzing your hero's ordinary world, remember that much can be revealed by what characters don't say or do.

This article is part of our series on the hero's journey, starting with The Hero's Journey Introduction and The Archetypes of the Hero's Journey.

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Peterson, Deb. "The Ordinary World in the Hero's Journey." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Peterson, Deb. (2020, August 26). The Ordinary World in the Hero's Journey. Retrieved from Peterson, Deb. "The Ordinary World in the Hero's Journey." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).