Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Making the Ordinary Extraordinary

Leopard--late 19th century Nigeria My husband’s sister and her husband live in Africa where they work as translators. My sister-in-law speaks French fluently and perfectly accented. Her husband speaks 5 or 6 languages, including Swahili.

For years they lived in Nairobi, Kenya. Life there; apart from election violence over a year ago, living in a guarded housing compound, and occasional run-ins with police (who aren’t like our police); was pretty tame compared to life in their current home in Bunia, Congo. Congo hasn’t historically been the calmest place on the globe to live.

Their day to day life is an adventure: for fresh water, reliable utilities, and even a safe place to live. Their country is exotic…the plants and wildlife are different, the language and customs are different.

In many ways, it’s the perfect place to write. But they’re not writers.

In contrast, I look at my life in suburban America. My adventures are pretty tame in comparison. Will I find my daughter’s missing library book before it becomes overdue? Will I make my deadline? Why is the washing machine making that strange noise?

Some of us write fantasy and sci-fi and the appeal there is completely clear—it’s the escape from reality for readers.

But what about those of us who write using everyday settings about everyday people? What’s the appeal there?

I think it must be that our readers can imagine themselves in the same circumstances. That we’ve made a connection with the ordinary reader. That we’ve either 1) created people like themselves who are suddenly facing extraordinary circumstances (they’re accused of murder, won the lottery, gotten lost in a snowstorm), or 2) we’ve created extraordinary people that our readers wish they could be, but aren’t.

My two protagonists both fall under the first category, I think…ordinary people who have been put in extraordinary situations.

What about you? Do your characters fall into either category? Both? Or do you write a genre where the extraordinary part is the escape from reality?

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