Is it possible to be extremely mediocre? Or is that an oxymoron?
There’s a strange charm to book characters who raise ordinariness to an art form. By achieving heroic levels of normalcy, they make us feel like we could be heroes, too.
No character does that better than Arthur Dent in Douglas Adams’ “Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” series. Embodying middle-class male inadequacy, Arthur survives the planet being demolished, thanks to a cosmic hitchhiker whose guidebook says “Don’t Panic” on its cover.
Arthur witnesses the end of the universe; views God’s final message to mankind; answers the question of life, the universe and everything; and even unlocks the secret of flying – throw yourself at the ground and miss. It takes a perfect loser to do it, and Arthur does it.
He learns that the grandeur of the universe conceals a banal, bureaucratic reality. Yet Arthur also finds love, enlightenment, adventure and a bevy of hilarious situations that’ll leave your sides aching from laughter.
In honor of Arthur Dent, here are a few lesser-known book characters whose unremarkableness makes them remarkable.
We first meet him in “The Hero Revealed” by William Boniface. Nicknamed O.B. for short, he’s the only kid in Superopolis who doesn’t have superpowers.
As if that isn’t hard enough, O.B. knows about an evil plot to destroy the city, but all the powered people are too oblivious to stop it. If it wasn’t for O.B. and his misfit friends, where would Superopolis be? No, really – I want to see the place.
This goofy adventure sneaks up on you with a message about being kind to those who are different, believing in yourself when you feel like nothing special, and thinking twice about everything you hear on TV.
‘The Ordinary Princess’
This book by M.M. Kaye proves that fairy tale princesses don’t have to be porcelain-doll pretty, demure and bathed in a glow of royalty. Princess Amy, for example, is just a cheerful, brave, healthy girl.
Freckled, snub-nosed and mousy, she prefers climbing trees over wearing brocade gowns. Afraid of being locked in a tower, Amy flees the palace and its expectations of storybook romance.
Instead, she sets out to live as a commoner, and ends up finding a different, more honest path into the fairy tale – and into a prince’s heart.
‘The Black Tattoo’
In this book by Sam Enthoven, Jack Farrell thinks his life is one endless streak of bad luck. No matter what happens, it takes only one word to fit into his mindset: “Typical.”
Ironically, this attitude helps Jack cope with some seriously freaky stuff. Like being the useless sidekick of a teenage superhero. Like seeing his buddy, Charlie, possessed by a demon and dragged into hell.
Huffing that it’s absolutely typical, Jack follows Charlie down there. He faces God and the devil and isn’t impressed. He meets nasty creatures, fights a death-match, survives on a diet of bat puke, and copes with it pretty well. Well enough to save the world.
It’s a quirky adventure with epic imagery – though, be advised, it’s underlaid by theology that will make many readers uncomfortable.
The first book of Diana Wynne Jones’ Chrestomanci cycle centers on a lovable little boy named Cat, who survives a steamboat accident only because his sister, Gwendolyn, happens to be a witch. Witches can’t drown, you know.
The now orphaned siblings go to live with the Chrestomanci, a powerful enchanter. To Gwendolyn’s frustration, however, the Chrestomanci refuses to teach her magic. In rebellion, she swaps dimensions with a girl from an unmagical world like ours, leaving the seemingly unmagical Cat to patch things up.
It takes nearly the whole book to reveal that Cat is more special than he seems, and to realize how close his sister’s wickedness brings him to utter tragedy. His story is a good place to dive into the rich magical worlds of the late, great DWJ.
Robin Fish is an avid reader who blogs about books and other topics at afortmadeofbooks.blogspot.com. Contact him with questions or suggestions at email@example.com.