The Definition Of Normal.

You can get used to anything. Well, almost anything. I doubt anyone really gets used to toothache or having their fingernails pulled out. But dog-owners soon become inured to slobber. Cat-owners become accustomed to picking cat-hair off and out of everything, including their dinner (and their mouths if they forget to check their dinner). Parents get used to sleep deprivation and being randomly peed on by another human being. I’m hard of hearing, and am more or less accustomed to not being able to watch TV in a food-court and routinely having to ask people to repeat themselves.

And it really, really bothers me when a writer (or artist, or movie director, or whatever) fails to grasp that their protagonist is used to their life. Okay, sure, candles are pretty dim compared to electric lights. But if your story is set in pre-electricity times, your protagonist shouldn’t spend three pages bemoaning how dim candle-light is. Candle-light is what he or she is accustomed to. Unless there’s a specific reason (trying to sew up a wound by the light of a single candle, say), this shouldn’t be something they comment on. Unless they’re used to oil or kerosene lamps, in which they can complain like fun because kerosene sheds a way better light than candles. We didn’t have electricity when I was a kid, I know this for a fact.

But you know what? I didn’t spend a ton of time thinking about how hard it is to read by the light of one bedside candle. My eyes adjusted to the light-levels. I was used to it.

People who haul water up the hill from the river every day for drinking and washing? Get used to it. I’ve done that too.

People who bathe once a week or once a month or once a year and maybe swab down in between times with a wet cloth? Get used to it. (And if you were hauling all your water up from the bottom of the hill, you would too. Fast.)

Writers need to separate themselves from their protagonists. What frightens you will not necessarily frighten your protagonist, and what interests you, ditto. Someone peeing on your face may horrify you. Believe me, a mother of several children, especially in a story set before the invention of the reliable disposable nappy, will be pretty thoroughly hardened to urine. It won’t come as a terrible shock. Unpleasant, sure, but not terrifying.

I’ve read several rants from people who would know better than I on the subject of freaking able-bodied people assuming that people in a wheelchair spend every day silently bemoaning the fact that they can’t walk, as if being a wheelchair is the worst thing that could EVER HAPPEN. Seriously. I don’t get up every morning and think ‘Oh, I wish my hearing was normal, I am so sad’. My two-year-old, when she finds out that she only has one kidney, probably will not find that it preys on her mind on a daily basis.

My extremely long-winded point (what can I say, my kid gave me another chance to be used to sleep deprivation this morning) is that unless something unusual has happened, never ever start your story with your protagonist bemoaning the terrible travails that are her completely normal life. Not only is it boring and annoying, it makes the protagonist sound like a complete idiot. Seriously, if she’s lived in a post-apocalyptic wasteland her entire life, her first thought will not be ‘oh, woe, once upon a time there was leisure and plenty and fast internet connections’. It will be ‘where should I seek food today’, or something of that nature.

Obviously if you’re opening on a protagonist about to be executed or watching a tornado coming right for her, some bemoaning is fine. Presumably those don’t happen every day.

Incidentally, if your protagonist spends any time hauling water? It won’t be in one bucket. Carrying water in one bucket is hard – it pulls you sideways and makes your shoulder hurt. They’ll be carrying two buckets with approximately the same weight on each side. It’s a lot easier that way. Someone who does this a lot, say professionally, should have a shoulder yoke or some other attachment to take the pressure off their hands. The only time someone will choose to carry a single vessel for this is is if she’s mastered balancing it on her head. Spine straight, weight balanced, that’s the trick.

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5 thoughts on “The Definition Of Normal.

  1. Some cultures wouldn’t even see urine as unpleasant – some cultures have used it for mouthwash or during the manufacture of cloth.

    Churchill’s comment on the Blitz was “Learn to get used to it: eels get used to skinning” and most people did get used to being bombed.

    • Yes, exactly! You get used to your own definition of normal. And unless you’re actually being freshly ground under the heel of a rising a oppressor, you probably don’t think much about how things just are. Even if you *are* being ground under the heel, the gardening still needs to get done.

  2. Yeah, I think it’s a failure of empathy on the part of the writer when they have a character demoaning their ‘normal’ life. Sure, sometimes a character will strive for something better than they have right now, but you’re right; most of that stuff they wouldn’t even think to mention. Give them a really good reason, or just suck it up, cupcake! 😉

    • Yes, exactly! I abandoned a story I was reading on those grounds just recently – I liked the idea, but the author just could not get past the idea that not having a hot bath every day was a hardship! And meat meals every day! Dude, have you even read other fantasy stories?

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