1) A peculiar kind of expertise. Want a plot that doesn’t depend on everyone in sight being a mage or a fighter, even a mage or fighter who ‘primarily’ does something else? (This supposed primary career is often dropped without much regret once the adventure begins). You can do a lot worse than to think about plots fitted around those who make the clothes, do the washing, fetch the food, take care of children, and clean the rooms. What kind of plots would suit them? What kind would demand their expertise, and not expertise in magic or sword-swinging?
It may be closer to domestic fiction; it may mean that the plot in a great house would be servant-oriented rather than aristocrat-oriented; it will certainly mean rethinking some of the conventions such as the idea that it doesn’t really matter where the food comes from, because it will always just appear. But making, say, sewing as central to the plot as a kind of magical training often is seems like a nice challenge to me. Perhaps the sewing even leads to the magical training. Or the skill that the main character has is what involves her with the adventurers or the spooky house or the brewing revolution in the first place. It works in two nineteenth-century novels I can think of off the top of my head: Jane Eyre, where one of the major points is that the title character is a governess, and this is used to bring her in contact with the people who change her life; and Mary Barton, where the conditions of the factory workers’ lives encourage them to rise up against the owners, and one secondary character, by necessity, spends so much time on sewing that she begins to go blind, which is a major subplot.
2) Warning signs. So you wouldn’t ordinarily write about the character coughing, because who cares? Well, if the coughing is the first sign of tuberculosis, I think people might care.
Letting small details build up over a long period of time like this is something I favor because of my prejudice against just letting surprises jump out on the audience, but also because I think it’s easier to accept a life-altering change that many people undergo than the endlessly special and unique. Many characters can get sick, but it will not affect them all in the same way, and depending on setting, the plot point you’re at, when in the story the sickness happens, and dozens of other things, the outcome will also be different. If the character ignores the cough because even she thinks it’s a minor ailment, then you have an opportunity to make the situation worse. Plot often emerges from character torture; that’s a commonplace. The bad thing is that so many sources of character torture are so melodramatic. Give ‘em tuberculosis; it might be good for ‘em. (In the non-health sense, obviously).
3) Irritation without malice. High on the scale of melodrama are those characters who exist in a world where everyone and everything seem designed to persecute them. That might well be deliberate on the author’s part, but reading a story like that without some respite for the character is damn tiring. (I gave up on Kate Elliott’s Crown of Stars series partially because I could not stand the endless, endless angsting of Liath, and I disliked The Bone Doll’s Twin partially for the fact that nothing good ever seemed to happen to Tobin).
If you include all the small things, the world can hurt the character without it seeming to be deliberate, because other people are hurting, too.
His horse throws a shoe? That can make him late and give the enemy running after him time to catch up, but it’s not like an evil god looked down upon him and said, “Lo, Now There Shall Be Throwing Of The Shoe.” He slips in the mud, gets his best clothes all dirty and scrapes the hell out of his face on a stone, and thus gives the wrong impression to the town guards? I kind of doubt his enemies sent the rain, when they’d be much happier to chain and drag him to the dungeons instead. He loses his precious cargo because it gets swept away by a flooded river? His fault for carelessness, perhaps, but it’s not as though his mean older cousin beat him up and took it away.
Some fantasy authors, in the quest for realism, do pay attention to ordinary life and let accidents and misfortunes befall their minor characters, but those conditions miraculously turn into smooth sailing for the main one. Let them harass the protagonist sometimes; it’s far more unrealistic to make everything in his life planned, a matter of destiny. He walks the same roads and breathes the same air and eats the same food as other people. Yes, really, he does.
Besides, when he’s really tired and harassed with the pebble in his boot is the best point to drop a large boulder on his head, because he will not be watching for it.
4) Practice in widening the world. I love those narratives where sympathy plays a part, where the author can present even those people the protagonist hates or disagrees with as having inner lives that he doesn’t divine, or that don’t revolve around him 24/7. The greater challenge still is to make even those people who are distant from him because of class status, or race, or gender, or education/lack thereof, or ordinary life, seem like real people with inner lives, too. And the first step to that is to stop thinking of “ordinary” as an insult, and the people who engage in work or don’t care about the protagonist’s quest of their own free will as somehow “lesser.”
Usually, these people are just stock types. Occasionally, the author does try to extend sympathy, but without granting the person who does the small things a life of his or her own; they end up “different” from other ordinary people because they’re so like the protagonist (this is the province of the mysteriously educated servant or peasant who despises others of her class as much as the protagonist does), or they become the token slave or servant or oppressed person on whom the protagonist can lavish kindness and who follows him around like a puppy. I find that second situation the most uncomfortable and embarrassing, because it has all sorts of implications I don’t think the authors even realize they’re writing in.
So try thinking from an ordinary person’s point of view. Make them come to life in the brief appearances they might put in the story as much as the characters not engaged in work or small things do. I’ve heard the argument that there’s no way to render these people alive because they’re so often secondary or tertiary characters—and yet, the secondary characters like the protagonist’s wife’s mother seem to be more alive, at least as long as she’s a noblewoman or a mage or a fighter. Why’s that? Once again, the idea seems to be that work cuts off all sympathy, and that people can never be alive unless they have glamorous occupations or lots of power. That might be the protagonist’s point-of-view, but I hope to hell the author doesn’t actually think that, say, celebrities in our world have more inherent importance and a deeper inner life than the person working in the market down the street.
5) Good framing devices are often small things swollen. A war, a revolution, a famine, a plague—all can start small, with one skirmish over food, or a drought, or a bout of sickness in a village. But if they swell large enough, they can take over a fantasy world. And the great thing? They can do it without being the result of a Dark Lord’s planning, or without being completely under the control of the protagonists.
Worlds in chaos are great fun to write in. You have the opportunity of working with flexible, breaking-down, or resistant power structures. You have people who are not perfectly in control of the situation, which can lessen the feeling that the author’s just shepherding or puppetting the protagonists through the story. You have plots and plans that can change in an instant. You have a great deal of freedom along with the chaos; your characters may be moved to do things they’d never do in a calm situation or world, and usually immutable social barriers can smash.
It’s not an easy situation to write, much of the time (which I think is one reason disasters are so often domesticated and turned into an evil plot or a distraction for the protagonists). But why should it be easy?
6) Plot twists coming from the small things may seem less contrived. The first example that comes to me for this one is Terry Pratchett’s The Truth, where the protagonist, William de Worde, can’t find support among the powerful of the city for his new newspaper (because the powerful of the city don’t really like it). He goes to Piss Harry instead, a man who’s made his fortune from collecting shit and waste. Because of his money’s ignominious origins, the aristocrats despise him even more than they do the newspaper. When William offers to cover his daughter’s wedding in the same fashion he would an aristocratic one, and give it lots of attention, Piss Harry agrees to help him. It’s certainly a more original twist than having one of the powerful people change his mind out of the blue, or having a hidden friend of William’s decide to help (if he had this hidden friend with lots of money, why didn’t he intervene before now?)
Start interrogating the small things. There’s power hidden in food and labor that might easily show up in your story.
Unquestioning obedience to any dictate of writing can result in stale conventionality, and I think that’s what often happens when authors just assume that, “Well, there’s no way to make an interesting story out of work/food/cleaning/servants’ lives/domesticity.” It’s true that certain individual situations won’t work; on the other hand, parties, magic, destinies, swordplay, and royals’ lives are not a guaranteed success either. Working with these materials might force an author to stretch her wings a bit.