On Breaking Rules: The Normal World

When it comes to writing fiction, I like to know the rules. They provide a scaffold for climbing – or clinging to when things start to fall apart. But I also believe in the common wisdom: learn the rules so you can break them. Johannes Cabal the Necromancer by Jonathan L. Howard breaks the rules. It completely does away with the “normal world” in Act I because the normal world would have been redundant and slowed down the pacing.

The “normal world” in Act I gives the author a chance to introduce us to the protagonists and establish contrast. In the oft-cited Harry Potter, Harry’s normal world is a dreary household where he lives under a staircase and is abused by his horrible relatives who make clear they have no time or patience for him. How different this is from the world of Hogwarts where he excels, finds friends, and gains confidence. In medieval romances, knights begin at court among raucous company, good food, and all the personal failings a knight can muster. Then adventure calls and they charge into the forest, filled with monsters, maidens, and character arcs. The normal world gives us time to slide into the story, get to know the protagonist, and peek into the cupboards before the adventure starts.

Often the protagonist returns to the normal world at the end and the contrast makes the change in our protagonist all the more apparent. When Frodo in The Lord of the Rings returns to the Shire, he’s not the young, carefree hobbit who attended parties and laughed over fireworks anymore. He’s too aware of the ills of the world to find comfort in such simplicity.

But who wants set-up when you could get right to the story!

Many horror films, especially sequels, take this outlook. They’re so excited about the story that we never get to know the characters. I’m certainly not the first to point out that in movies like Alien 2 or Jurassic Park 2 the characters are hardly characters at all but rather a buffet for the monsters and blank avatars for the audience. Although, in the spirit of breaking the rules, I must add that sometimes that’s OK. Sometimes you watch an action flick solely for the action, characters and character arcs be damned. But we like characters here, so let’s leave the damned and talk about Johannes Cabal.

From the dust jacket: “Johannes Cabal sold his soul years ago in order to learn the laws of necromancy. Now he wants it back. Amused and slightly bored, Satan proposes a little wager: Johannes has to persuade one hundred people to sign over their souls or he will be damned forever. Accepting the bargain, Johannes is given one calendar year and a traveling carnival to complete his task.”

There is no normal world in Johannes Cabal the Necromancer. The story begins in hell, where Johannes threatens his way through the nine circles to reach the Devil. When presented with the Devil’s wager, he’s dubious – he’s a man of science after all, not bargains and cheap tricks. Still, he takes the wager and ascends to the world of the living to set up his carnival. So why does this work? First of all, you don’t have to stop establishing your characters simply because the inciting incident came to knock them on the head. In the first few chapters we learn a great deal about Johannes. He’s a man with a plan, and not a very nice plan either. He knew what obstacles he would face in hell and had his threats prepared. He’s an unshakable, cool man, even when faced with the Devil. And as much as he declaims violence, he doesn’t give a lick about humanity or their hurts, unless you’re one of his few favorites.

Second, while the normal world emphasizes the contrast between who the character was and who they’re becoming, in the end all we need is for the character to change. Johannes fights with his brother about morality for the whole book and in the end must come down on a side. Also, even though Johannes Cabal doesn’t have a normal world to serve as a mirror, Howard uses Johannes’ journey into hell to serve a similar purpose. Johannes’ second descent into hell is quite different than the first: instead of ignoring the damned, Johannes gives a damned man some small comfort. Instead of threatening his way through the nine circles, he seems almost jovial, slipping by with a wink and a scattering of mischievous pranks. I won’t give away the final twist, but even without the normal world we can see that this Johannes isn’t quite the same Johannes we met at the beginning.

The normal world is a lovely thing. It allows the world of your novel to unfold and flourish without being trampled by too much plot. But there are reasons to cast it by the wayside. A lot of backstory is expertly woven into Johannes Cabal, so there’s no reason to say it twice or futz around with a normal world that isn’t relevant. Johannes Cabal also careens forward, driven by its plot and a ticking clock. In keeping with the overall tone, better to dive right into hell and spend no time dilly-dallying in the normal world. And perhaps most importantly, I don’t know what a normal world could have possibly added. So for your next novel maybe you don’t need a normal world, just make sure you know why.

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