April 24, 2012

Behind the book: True confessions of an ordinary person

Behind the Book by
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Once, several years ago, I went to listen to a lecture on writing children’s fiction. There I was told that main characters in children’s books should always be more special than those around them. Orphans must be plucky. Protagonists must have secret royal blood, be the long-lost heir to something-or-other, or be half elf, half Greek god or all alien. Even those that might seem rather normal at first must be destined for greatness, or at least have more gumption and be able to overcome greater odds than the average everyday type. They must be heroes ready to answer the call and start on a hero’s journey. Above all else, the main character of a children’s book must never ever ever be ordinary.

The implication of this is simple. Ordinary characters don’t have stories worth telling. And this bothered me for a very simple reason. I’m quite ordinary myself.

I’ve been ordinary ever since I was a short, plain and moderately dorky child. And my ordinariness was made to seem even more ordinary (if this is possible) by the fact that I had two older sisters who are utterly amazing. One (dubbed “the super genius” by my neighbor) speaks four languages fluently, is proficient in several others, and has the uncanny ability to practically absorb everything she’s ever read. I’ve never had any understanding of how she does what she does—and I’ve certainly never had any hope of doing it myself. If she were a main character in a book, she’d be a super spy, a beloved headmistress, or the solver of complex ciphers.

My other sister (dubbed “the supermodel” by the same neighbor) is tall, athletic, photogenic and indescribably cool. Once, when I was a freshman in high school, and she was a senior, she refused to let the student council (which she was a member of, naturally enough) count the votes that might have led to her nomination as prom queen. She didn’t want to be prom queen. She had better things to do with her time. It was in that moment (oh, who am I kidding—it was in that moment and many more just like it) that I realized just how impossible it would be for me to ever live up to the example she’d set. If she were a main character in a book, she’d be a duly elected queen, the leader of a revolution, or the romantic lead.

And then there is me—the ordinary one. I was a middle-of-the-road student who started my non-illustrious academic career by flunking kindergarten.  I was never particularly popular or unpopular. And I was involved in a number of activities (softball, volleyball, band, theater, mock trial and so forth), but I was never a standout at any of them. In short—according to the theories being put forth in that lecture on writing children’s literature—I wasn’t main character material.

But here’s the thing: We are all the protagonists of our own lives. I may have been a deeply mediocre child, but my childhood wasn’t dull, horrible or tragically lacking. It was filled with all of the wonderful elements of everyday drama. There was ordinary joy, heartbreak, frustrations and anticipation.  There was conflict, hope, disappointment and resolution. Ordinary doesn’t equal boring. And as for my sisters—I adore them—but not particularly for their extraordinary qualities. Instead, when I’m thinking of our best times, I think about a millions of ordinary moments I had with them—watching TV together, getting donuts after school, fighting over the bathroom, playing hide-and-seek with the other kids in the neighborhood, and going to the library together.

And I think that ordinariness is actually the element in fiction that is often overlooked and underrated. For example, it’s all well and good that Harry Potter is “the boy who lived,” a wizard and the only one who can save the world from Lord Voldemort, but I don’t think this is what most people love about the story. What makes Harry memorable is all of his ordinary characteristics: his friendship with Ron and Hermione, his frustrations with schoolwork and rules, his interactions with the other students at Hogwarts, his minor triumphs and his embarrassments. In short, it’s all of the ways he seems just like any ordinary kid you might know.

And all of this brings me to how I came to write Remarkable. After leaving the lecture, I decided it was high time someone wrote a story about an ordinary protagonist who doesn’t discover that she is deeply exceptional in some way. Instead, by the end of the story, this protagonist would learn to appreciate her own ordinariness. And since everyone else around her is exceptional (and some of them are struggling mightily with very qualities that make them exceptional), she’d start to realize that that extraordinariness isn’t a necessary quality to having a worthwhile life.

Not every story—real or imagined—has to have a heroic journey. Not every protagonist has to be exceptional. The fiction-writing rules that say otherwise aren’t rules we need to live by. There is enough delight and drama in the ordinary for millions of fantastic tales.


In Lizzie K. Foley's debut novel for young readers, Remarkable, young Jane Doe must find ways to make herself stand out in a town where everyone is extraordinarily talented or extraordinarily gifted. Foley, who holds a master's degree in education from Harvard and taught women's studies at Northeastern University, lives in Montclair, New Jersey.

Lizzie K. Foley

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By Lizzie K. Foley
ISBN 9780803737068

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