When Ordinary Is Depressing

“Life is a beach” T-shirts did not become popular because our lives are so uplifting. We read books to escape our daily regimen of gruel. Yet authors may feel that they should be writing about real life. That’s what all the great novelists do. Why should I strive for any less? runs this view.

Lack of talent is the obvious answer, but lack of depth is the real culprit. Let’s look at what most authors can achieve in order to point out why striving for strange and extraordinary is usually the better objective. We’ll start with a character’s comments on the quotidian. As we all know, our lives are filled with encounters with people we consider stupid. Such meetings provide the fodder for many a dinnertime anecdote. So why don’t they work as well in novels?

In short, they are so ordinary. While readers may realize that they have experienced a similar fate, that recognition also brings about a feeling of disappointment that the author has not supplied a more entertaining experience. Compounding this problem is the addition of other comments about jerks, pages upon pages of them. That’s what real life is like, right? All of them suckers. As these add up, the feeling of negativity grows as well, weighing down the novel.

A second feature of narration that covers the surface of daily life encompasses the many details that bring these encounters to fuller life. While these may be precisely drawn, resulting in true insights—hey, I’ve done that—the results remain on the level of illuminating the ordinary. The reader may think: that incident in a big-box store has happened to me too, but then I promptly forgot it because it wasn’t worth remembering.

Worst of all is the lack of imagination the lead character shows when surrounded by banality. A middle-aged manager may keep condemning his ogling office buddy, but his own marriage is so boring, he barely has sex. A bank clerk may disparage a colleague that wears gobs of makeup, but she still can’t find a man who is attracted to her mousy looks. Why do I need to know more about these people?

What an exploration of malls and backyard barbeques fails to realize is what makes a novel great in the first place: the narrator’s point of view. Good writers know life sucks, and that’s why they create protagonists that are themselves extraordinary and grotesque. Only from that bizarre viewpoint can life be examined. The interest in reading such a book is what the character takes away from experiences that would typically produce ennui. Better yet, how the character intervenes embarrassingly into an event, upsetting the expected tedium.

Exercise: Use the ordinary as a jumping-off point. Your job as a writer is to take readers where they haven’t been before. Set up the cardinal points that govern the protagonist’s life—and then devise how to set them on their ear. This process can consist of action and/or thoughts, but above all, be original.

“I would never write about anyone who is not at the end of his rope.”
—Stanley Elkin

Copyright @ 2019, John Paine

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