I feel like this post needs a disclaimer from the get-go. I like Chosen One stories, and tales where something sets the main character apart from everyone else, makes her special in some way (often, let’s be honest, at the cost of relationships or her entire way of life, not always for the better). I could wander over to my bookshelves right now and pull out the books where the main character has a rare or unheard of or forgotten ability, where someone is secretly the long-lost heir to the throne, or where they’re the most powerful X of their age. If I stacked ‘em all up, they’d at least reach the ceiling, maybe even the peak of the roof. My own urban fantasy series is filled with asskickers who are pretty amazing at what they do – so much so that I probably could have called it Five Badasses and a Bookseller, instead of Night Owls.
I’m also a fan of roleplaying games. I’ve played tabletop RPGs since college. The video games I gravitate toward are usually single player fantasy RPGs like Dragon Age and Skyrim. I’ve been playing on the same roleplaying server in World of Warcraft for ten years.
Generally, in these types of games, your character starts out with something special about them: they’re one of the few people who have the potential to become Thing X, or have caught a terrifying glimpse of eldritch evil. The characters are often skilled in a way most of the population isn’t. Which is the point! You’re heroes from the get-go, even at level one.
So, don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of the extraordinary.
But there’s something to be said for characters who are just plain average, too.
What happens when a person who has no advantages beyond their own wits and every day skills finds themselves faced with situations that aren’t in their wheelhouse? It’s sort of the flipside of the Chosen One tale, and I have a bunch of those on my shelves as well. Speaking of, there’s a book coming out soon that I can’t wait to get my paws on, Patrick Ness’ The Rest of Us Just Live Here, which was pitched to me as “imagine Sunnydale from the perspective of everyone who isn’t Buffy’s Scooby Gang.”
Even within one of the most popular Chosen One stories of our recent literary history, those types of characters exist. Let’s hear it for Hermione Granger! While not everyone gets to go to Hogwarts (sorry, Muggles), in the wizarding world, Hermione’s nothing special at the start of the series. She’s just another First Year. Her superpower is that she’s super-smart. That’s it. She gets Harry and Ron out of trouble because she studies her spells and keeps a cool head in the midst of chaos.
In The Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen is just trying to take care of her family, and finds herself up against impossible odds. She doesn’t want to be a participant in the Hunger Games (who does, outside of Districts 1 and 2), or later, a symbol for the revolution, but she takes the skills she has and triumphs. Sure, she’s a hell of a shot with a bow, but that comes from years of going out beyond the fence and hunting, not superhuman ability.
By the by, if you’d like an excellent middle ground type of story, where a teenager finds herself having to balance newfound superpowers with everyday life, might I introduce the new Ms. Marvel, Kamala Khan? She’s fantastic.
In early planning stages of The Fire Children, I considered giving Yulla a supernatural ability tied to her birth during a previous eclipse. It seemed logical enough – born down in the pitch black, away from the sun, I pondered what sorts of advantages she could have. Would she be immune to the Witch Women’s magic? Or able to touch the Fire Children without fear, because Mother Sun didn’t see her take her first breath, and therefore fire wouldn’t hurt her? Could she somehow see down in the caves, despite the absence of light?
But as I wrote, I discarded those ideas. Not because they didn’t work – I can still picture how some scenes and plot arcs might have gone differently. In an alternate universe, another version of me is probably writing an essay about all the shiny things her Yulla can do. But the character I was writing was a regular kid, and regular kids have plenty on their plates to start. Why not see how she’d handle her challenges without a supernatural assist?
And of course, she does have useful tools in her toolbox: Yulla is curious and resourceful. She’s empathetic. She’s brave when she needs to be, but isn’t opposed to fleeing when it’s the smartest move. She uses what she knows about her town and the people in it to help Ember and his siblings.
There’s merit in both types of tales. Some days we want to live vicariously through a character who possesses amazing powers, because we get to piggyback on that able-to-take-on-the-world feeling. How many times have I wished I could just up, up, and away out of a situation? I’ve lost count.
Other times, it’s nice to be reminded that even us ordinary types can have Crowning Moments of Awesome.* I think Yulla’s in pretty good company, and I hope readers will consider her good company, too.
* Do not follow that link unless you have a couple of minutes/hours/weeks to lose. The TV Tropes Spiral is a real thing.
Lauren Roy’s The Fire Children is published by Ravenstone Press, and is out now. Here’s the synopsis:
Fifteen years have passed since Mother Sun last sent her children to walk the world. When the eclipse comes, the people retreat to the caverns beneath the Ramala, passing the days in total darkness while the Fire Children explore their world. It’s death to even look upon them, the stories say.
Despite the warnings, Yulla gives in to her curiosity and ventures to the surface. There she witnesses the Witch Women — who rumors say worship dead Father Sea, rather than Mother Sun — capturing one of the Children and hauling her away. Yulla isn’t the only one who saw the kidnapping; Ember, the last of the Fire Children, reveals himself to Yulla and implores her to help.
Trapped up above and hunted by the witches and the desert wind, Yulla and Ember must find a way free his siblings and put a stop to the Witch Womens’ plans, before they can use the Fire Children to bind Mother Sun herself.