We like stories about extraordinary people. Why do you think we have superheroes? We like to see impossible people do impossible things. It’s exciting, because we know we could never do that. But you know what’s more exciting than that? Watching people just like us do extraordinary things.
Superheroes have a lot going for them, but they are missing one key element: they’re not relatable, because they aren’t ordinary. People like to read stories about people just like them. Why? Because ordinary people want to be heroes.
Think about the ordinary folks we read about in books who end up doing extraordinary things. Frodo Baggins comes to mind instantly. (Naturally, I would think of the hobbit.) Frodo is frankly the last person we’d expect to take on such a hazardous, physically demanding, and emotionally taxing journey. He’s small, he’s not that strong, he’s quiet, and unassuming. When we look at him (and hobbits in general), we see the epitome of ordinary.
And yet, hidden within, we see at the same time the epitome of extraordinary. In fact, I believe that Frodo is more extraordinary than any Marvel hero. There are several reasons for this, and today I want to discuss how you can make your simple, ordinary protagonists absolutely extraordinary.
1. Give Them Desire
In The Lord of the Rings, Frodo’s desire is to simply keep peace. To avoid war. He wants to protect the Shire—whatever the cost. His desire is not to destroy the Ring. It’s to do what’s right. It is because of his desire that he chooses to destroy the Ring. Ordinary people are prompted to do extraordinary things through deep, unwavering desire. And often, that desire is not linked directly to the story goal, like we see with Frodo. Instead, the story goal is a means of fulfilling that desire. Ordinary heroes press on because they believe in something bigger than themselves.
2. Give Them Determination
Frodo had many chances to turn back, but he didn’t. He thought about it. He wanted to. But he didn’t. This is one of his most extraordinary characteristics. He kept going, even when death seemed imminent. Why? Because he believed in something. He had a desire. Ordinary heroes become extraordinary when they keep plowing on, no matter what the story throws at them. There are several moments in The Lord of the Rings that just make you go wow. Your hero might be an average, ordinary person, but when he keeps going and keeps fighting, he becomes extraordinary.
3. Give Them Fears
People who are fearless never really strike me as that extraordinary. Real people aren’t like that. Everybody is afraid of something, and a character who must overcome fear to finish his quest is one of the most extraordinary of all, because not only his he fighting his external enemies, but he’s fighting with himself. Frodo wasn’t fearless. In fact, he was anything but. Throughout the entire story, he’s terrified. He knows this won’t be easy. But there’s a secret here. Many people think that bravery is an absence of fear, but that is not what I’ve found. True bravery is standing up in the face of fear and saying, “I will take the Ring to Mordor” anyway. In fact, it is at that moment that we begin to glimpse the extraordinary character of Frodo, who’s willing to risk everything in spite of fear. By giving your characters fears, you give them a chance to display their extraordinary selves.
4. Give Them Hope
One of the most powerful themes in The Lord of the Rings trilogy is that of hope. In The Hunger Games, President Snow says that the only thing more powerful than fear is hope. Ordinary people become extraordinary when they cling to hope. This isn’t saying that extraordinary heroes never despair; they do. But in the end, there’s always a tiny, golden thread of hope left for them to hold onto. And they’re extraordinary because they find it. Hope can come in many different forms, and in Tolkien’s books, he gives Frodo Sam. Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam. Because Sam is the embodiment of hope. Maybe your character’s hope isn’t manifest in another character, but make sure they have something to cling to.
5. Give Them Weaknesses
Something about ordinary heroes that makes them extraordinary is the fact that they are always pressing on in spite of something else. In spite of fear, in spite of pain, in spite of despair, in spite of weakness. Nothing can stop them. Not because they’re powerful and have great muscles, but because they have strength of character. In Frodo, we see many weaknesses. He’s not physically strong, not abnormally smart, and fairly illiterate of the world outside the Shire. In fact, he’s not really “suited” for the quest at all. But he becomes extraordinary yet again when he steps up to the challenge in spite of all of this. Giving your characters weakness gives them yet another chance to show what they’re really made of.
6. Show Their Strength
Aside from all of his weaknesses, Frodo has one incredible strength. He has the ability to better resist the temptation of the Ring than most of his companions. This comes from his strength of character, though; not some superpower. Ordinary people don’t have superpowers, and yet each of these “normal” heroes has a strength that makes them extraordinary. While Frodo might not appear to be the best person for the job, due to this strength, he’s the only person for the job. In my novel, Project RENO, Colson Wynters is a very average person. Like Frodo, he’s not really suited for his quest on the outside. But his strength can be found in his quick wit and ability to stay rational under pressure. It’s no superpower, but it gets him through the story. Give your characters a strength that they can use to press through their other weaknesses.
As amazing as superheroes are, I’ve come to realize that it is not spectacular powers or great physical strength that truly makes someone extraordinary. What makes a hero extraordinary is the fact that they are ordinary, but they choose not to be. The most incredible heroes are the regular people who see a problem and say, “You know what, I might not be the best person for this job, but I see a need, and I’m gonna be that hero, even if it takes everything I have to do it.” That is extraordinary.
What are some examples of ordinary heroes in books or movies you like? What makes them extraordinary? Leave a comment and share!