Saturday, 9 May 2015

The ordinary and the extraordinary - Anne Rooney

Put on a long fur coat and go for a walk with a spade:
you never know what you might find (Barnum Brown found a T Rex)
Where do you place yourself on the spectrum from ordinary to extraordinary? It's a difficult question. No easier is the question of where you would like to be on that spectrum.

Raised by wolves? Good for you!
Some people want a quiet life and to slip unnoticed through a crowd, while others want to stand out. We all - bar a few psychopaths - have moments of self-doubt, of feeling too different; or, conversely, of feeling we want to stand out more, to be noticed. Perhaps that dichotomy is felt most keenly in childhood. The child wants to be part of a crowd of friends, not the odd one out. Yet  they also want to discover they are really the adopted child of dispossessed royalty, or aliens in disguise on Earth, or were really raised by wolves and then dumped in their home town at the age of three with only a scrap of fur and a note written in wolf that no-one can understand.

It's a fine path we tread as writers to make our subjects extraordinary enough to generate excitement and ordinary enough for identification and empathy. It strikes me that fiction and non-fiction often approach this from different ends. When we write a story, we tend to start with an ordinary character and find in them the extraordinary. The boy who lives under the stairs, crushed by abusive relatives, is really an important figure in an unsuspected realm of the supernatural. The girl who takes her sister's place as tribute in an act of love and anger becomes a hero who, alone, can challenge despotic authority. The reader feels an affinity with the character through their ordinariness, or their put-upon-ness and is lifted, with the character, into the extraordinary. The extraordinary feels accessible and real because of the character whose hand we hold walking into the forest.

Be a spy and a thorn in the side of authority;
abolitionist Harriet Tubman
Non-fiction often starts with the extraordinary achievements of a person. The challenge then is to make that person accessible by finding the ordinary in them. In writing non-fiction - especially for children, who still have all those choices to make about how to spend their lives - it's important to make even the Isaac Newtons and the Marie Curies and the Martin Luther Kings and the Stephen Hawkings appear as real possibilities. OK, it might be more exciting to have been raised by wolves and left with a note written in wolf, but you're more likely to be the one who finds a cure for malaria or evidence of alien life or composes the greatest symphony of the 21st century. For every child who longs to be Harry Potter, there is another who longs to be Barnum Brown and discover the T Rex, or Neil Armstrong and walk on the moon. There is nothing in any of them that couldn't be you. The way we make that possibility real is to show the ways in which extraordinary people are ordinary. Isaac Newton was petulant and prone to massive temper tantrums. Most of us could manage that first step. Einstein did badly at school and failed his university entrance exams.

The combination of ordinary and extraordinary divides, too, along lines of doing and feeling, or happening and response. When extraordinary things happen in a book - true or untrue - we need the characters' emotional responses to be recognisable. If an owl delivered a letter to you, you'd be surprised. If you discovered X-rays, you would do something touchingly personal, such as photograph your wife's hand. When Arno Penzias and Robert Woodrow Wilson found what turned out to be cosmic microwave background radiation, they suspected it was interference caused by pigeon droppings on their equipment and shot the pigeons. Poor pigeons - killed by the Big Bang 13.5 billion years later. We all make mistakes. These are the ways real people respond.

It is the ordinary in the extraordinary that makes these lives possible and livable. We approach great iconic figures through their extraordinariness, but we need those nuggets of ordinary to hang their humanity on, to make them one of us - and to make it possible for us to be one of them.

(Please excuse the bias towards science in the examples - I'm writing about 'flashpoints' in twentieth-century science at the moment, so these are the people camped out in my brain at the moment.) 

Anne Rooney
aka Stroppy Author
A recent book with a nice cover:
Evolution, TickTock (Hachette, 2014)


Nicola Morgan said...

Lovely, grounded piece. V interesting.

Penny Dolan said...

Thanks, Ann. Excellent points about the characters in fiction & non fiction. The science is very welcome!

Sue Purkiss said...

Very interesting - enjoyed this!

Joan Lennon said...

I agree!

Dawn Finch said...

Great post, really enjoyed this.