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View Full Version : Everyman characters: What makes a good one, what makes a bad one?



themindstream
09-28-2016, 07:16 PM
See title. Discuss.

I'm writing a portal fantasy with a very everyman-ish MC. There aren't specific problems I'm having right now I'm basically fishing for other perspectives as I'm trying to get deeper into her head.

Ari Meermans
09-28-2016, 07:22 PM
What are your thoughts on what makes a character an everyman? Give us your own perspective to ponder and discuss or build on.

Twick
09-28-2016, 07:28 PM
The main problem with an "everyman (or woman)" is that taken to its extreme he or she has no personality. Personality makes her a particularwoman, so to speak.

This isn't necessary. For example, Harry Potter has a certain "everyman" quality in the first book, as he, like us, is exposed to the magical world for the first time. Our own wonder and bewilderment comes through his eyes. But Harry has lots of personality all the same. He doesn't react the way "anyone" would, he reacts the way Harry Potter would.

ElaineA
09-28-2016, 07:46 PM
I didn't know what an "everyman" character was so to TVTropes I went. AND I MADE IT OUT IN UNDER 5 MINUTES! (Thank you, I'll accept my award later.) Their definition:


A character who is mostly a blank state stand in for the audience, made to be empathetic to all. They won't be exceptional; in fact, they will be decidedly average. If you try to pin down the character traits of any one of them, you'll probably come up blank. They are usually popular by association, in that they tend to interact and be friends with a large group of more interesting supporting characters.

The Everyman has no distinct personality, except what is defined by others' interactions with them.


When I read that, the first character I thought of was the MC of Hitchhiker's Guide (the movie. I haven't read the book.) They mentioned Ron Weasley as the Everyman in the HP world. He's "ordinary" within his circle. They also cited John MacClane. I don't happen to agree he is. His storyline presents him as just a dude trying to get his wife back, but he does possess extraordinary skills from the outset. He's already in trouble for being a cowboy.

It's certainly possible to make an Everyman interesting but it does require the surrounding characters to steal the show from them to expose what makes them interesting. It seems like a pretty advanced tightrope walk, and I'm not sure what's gained. I'd love to hear why that trope is important for the OP's character. It would make for some interesting consideration.

Cobalt Jade
09-28-2016, 07:49 PM
I would say Bilbo Baggins is the prototypical Everyman for a fantasy book.

themindstream
09-28-2016, 07:52 PM
What are your thoughts on what makes a character an everyman? Give us your own perspective to ponder and discuss or build on.

Someone who doesn't have a particularly dramatic/intreresting/complicated/unusual life before the point the story happens to them. Someone who hits a lot of points for being statistically average (who is likely about to be thrown into extraordinary situations and have to do extraordinary things.)


The main problem with an "everyman (or woman)" is that taken to its extreme he or she has no personality. Personality makes her a particularwoman, so to speak.

This isn't necessary. For example, Harry Potter has a certain "everyman" quality in the first book, as he, like us, is exposed to the magical world for the first time. Our own wonder and bewilderment comes through his eyes. But Harry has lots of personality all the same. He doesn't react the way "anyone" would, he reacts the way Harry Potter would.

I think/hope I've got that at least. :)

Maze Runner
09-28-2016, 07:56 PM
When I think 'everyman', I think your average schmuck, someone a bit rundown by life. Quiet, unassuming, passive, drawing no attention to themselves. And someone who at least by appearances leads a simple, unremarkable life.

But, the thing is, passive, quiet, modest, still waters and all that, can be quite interesting. In a way, more interesting, because everything is left to the reader's imagination, as far as what's really going on with this person. And how that is subtly indicated can be very effective.

I *think* it's about their environment, the setting, and what happens around this everyman to bring out something surprising, some kind of power that now that we see it manifested we realize was always there.

Ari Meermans
09-28-2016, 07:57 PM
The main appeal, I think, of an everyman character lies in their ability to make your reader more easily identify with the character. It's the MC's story, but it's a story that could be anyone's under the right circumstances. No special birthright required, so to speak.

I think we all can recognize an everyman character; what are the characteristics that establish the character as an everyman, though, and how are they shown to best effect?

ETA: Cross-posted with Maze Runner.

Twick
09-28-2016, 08:04 PM
I think that if you look at most of the examples above, while most are "ordinary" (at least in their own circle), they're not really "blank slates." They have their own distinct personalities. Arthur Dent is nervous, neurotic and yet kind-hearted. Bilbo has his slow-burning hobbit courage, and unexpected cleverness. Ron Weasley struggles with his very ordinariness, which gives him a deep insecurity.

In many stories, it's appropriate to start off with the character appearing "a typical earthman/hobbit/last-born son" and yet giving them their own personality. Otherwise, many readers won't insert themselves into the character, they'll simply get bored and close the book. (Note the polarizing effect of a commonly-cited "blank slate" character, Bella Swann).

themindstream
09-28-2016, 08:53 PM
In my case, the way it manifests is that right now is that my MC (Tara) has no backstory worth more than background allusions. The story starts with her having just fallen through the portal. She's young (college age), stable middle class suburban family. There's a brief bit where she gets back to her own Earth briefly and has to call her family to let them know she's going to be gone for about a week "helping a friend with an emergency" and I ended up cutting the father's side of the dialog because it pretty much wrote itself and didn't add anything. She does have a few areas she's above average in; she's athletic and her biggest hobby is outdoor sports. If the story didn't happen to her I could see her becoming something like a park ranger or adventure guide, though right now she's undecided and unfocused. If there's been any significant childhood events that inform her current behavior she hasn't told me about them yet.

On the other hand, I don't necessarily want to focus on her backstory. It exists in kind of shorthand, "stereotypical unless otherwise mentioned", in order to focus on the events happening to her now (told mainly through her POV). And they are doozys. I'm pretty confidant in her thought processes in how she reacts to them and rises to them.

What I'm trying to drill down on right now is a relationship she's been forming with the person who is essentially the other main protagonist character in the story, one who does have a turbulent backstory and captial-I Issues. Said person and the decision to back her are the inciting incidents for the final act of the story. The feeling I want to convey is that of worrying for a friend who you realize is in pain but don't really know how to help them. I'm getting nervous about my ability to bring that about naturally and wondering if I need to give Tara some sort of past reference to build on.

ElaineA
09-29-2016, 12:59 AM
What I'm trying to drill down on right now is a relationship she's been forming with the person who is essentially the other main protagonist character in the story, one who does have a turbulent backstory and captial-I Issues. Said person and the decision to back her are the inciting incidents for the final act of the story. The feeling I want to convey is that of worrying for a friend who you realize is in pain but don't really know how to help them. I'm getting nervous about my ability to bring that about naturally and wondering if I need to give Tara some sort of past reference to build on.

Based on this, I'm not sure I'm seeing it as necessarily relating to the "everyman" aspect. I know there are a lot of things that have happened to me in my life I had almost no preparation for (having kids, for one. I'm an only child and had nil experience with babies.) It seems to me you can work out Tara's way of dealing with helping the other MC through the processes of the story. If she steps wrong occasionally, all the better. Insta-conflict. She can learn as she goes, no? I understand you're uneasy about your ability to do this, but I'm not sure resorting to giving Tara more backstory is going to get you much bang for the buck. It actually strikes me as sort of a crutch. "Here, reader, here is this history with which you can make the leap to understanding why Tara is doing what she's doing." As a reader, I'd rather watch it play out. IF, I'm understanding you correctly. (Entirely possible I'm not. :))

If John MacClane is an Everyman, the whole plot of Die Hard is watching him learn what he needs to to defeat Hans Gruber. His backstory serves as the driver toward his actions (protect his wife) but not the process of actually doing so.

nossmf
09-29-2016, 06:08 AM
I see a huge difference between characters who START as everyman and those who REMAIN everyman. Bilbo Baggins starts as a typical hobbit, but when exposed to extreme circumstances he discovers parts of himself he didn't know existed. Douglas Quaid of Total Recall started as a typical construction worker who dreamed of something more; he got his wish and then some. Young Anakin Skywalker thought of himself as little more than a slave who could drive really fast; he grew up to change the entire galaxy.

I could give you a hundred examples of characters who begin the book believing they're nobody special. But during the course of their respective stories they achieve the remarkable, either because of something revealed or by learning a trait they thought nothing about was actually the KEY TO EVERYTHING.

blacbird
09-29-2016, 06:10 AM
I'm having right now I'm basically fishing for other perspectives as I'm trying to get deeper into her head.

Don't get too wrapped up in getting "deeper into her head." Let her do stuff that develops her personality.

And just write the story without worrying about this kind of thing.

caw

Mary Love
09-29-2016, 06:19 AM
Nobody is ordinary once you get to know them.

kuwisdelu
09-29-2016, 06:31 AM
They don't exist.

Ari Meermans
09-29-2016, 06:56 AM
A gentle reminder: Our room description is "Honing our craft and sharing what we've learned."

Keeping the above in mind, themindstream's topic is an important and timely one for beginning the exploration of character types. Your character's type not only determines how your character views and inhabits her world, it also informs her approach to the initial challenges she faces in the story.

So, let's continue with what we know and understand about the Everyman character type.

Langadune
09-29-2016, 07:09 AM
It's seems to me that the Everyman is a generic character type that stays generic, like a cookie cutter character with no significant qualities. I lean more toward the ordinary person character. This character isn't former special forces or black belt or a doctor of physics. He's an average person thrust into an unordinary situation; then the fun is watching him grow beyond his normal stature. An example (real life) is Band of Brothers and Citizens Soldiers both by Stephen E. Ambrose. These books are full of ordinary men to did extraordinary things because they needed to be done.

frimble3
09-29-2016, 07:26 AM
Nobody is ordinary once you get to know them.
Seconding this. To rephrase: "Everyone is the star of their own life".

jjdebenedictis
09-29-2016, 07:30 AM
To me, an everyman is just a character that a lot of people can empathize with fairly easily. He or she has strengths and flaws that are pretty relatable, and he or she deals with situations roughly the way a lot of people could see (or hope) themselves dealing with those situations.

And this is important: An everyman is a statistical entity. He or she appeals to a lot of people, NOT all people. He or she lives inside the bell curve.

Polenth
09-29-2016, 09:26 AM
I'd say a bad everyperson is when the author is trying too hard to appeal to everyone. I'm not a fan of the blank slate idea. Give her a personality. Give her preferences. Give her a life before this one happened. That doesn't mean you need to show that life and plot it out in great detail, but she would have done things before the story. They'll shape how she reacts in the present.

Assuming her life was stereotypical is potentially an issue, because stereotypes are shallow in a way real life isn't. I've had a number of friends who come from middle class families, with two parents, one or two children, owning their own house... but beyond those surface details, their families and relationships were very different. Looking at people you know can give you ideas to add more depth.

Augustine Raine
12-27-2016, 08:31 PM
The problem with most failed everyman characters is the unrealistic way things seem to unfold. If you can keep things from getting too ridiculous or ex machina things around, you should be good.

Chris P
12-27-2016, 08:54 PM
Great discussion above, all. I'm surprised there are so few examples cited; the romance, mainstream, and historical genres seem to be full of them.

My challenge in writing them has been to make them active in their lives versus being defined by the negative space around them. One criticism I've gotten, especially in my earlier writings, is that my main characters were the least interesting characters. I thought I was writing everyperson characters when i was actually writing Milquetoasts and Mary Sues. What made my intersting characters interesting is that they made their own decisions and acted on their own initiatives in the situations they found themsevles in. When I can do this in interesting but realistics ways people respond to my writing much more favorably.

Curlz
12-28-2016, 01:33 AM
Great discussion above, all. I'm surprised there are so few examples cited
...
My challenge in writing them has been to make them active in their lives versus being defined by the negative space around them.


There is an Everyman in every bit of fiction Stephen King has written, and they come out very realistic at that. That will give you a count of couple of hundred Everymans ;) They all are great characters. It's just a regular person in an extraordinary situation.

Imagine a story where Joe Everyman is having a lazy morning at home, frying some eggs for breakfast. The reader doesn't really care about their backstory, their favourite color, or whether they prefer cats or dogs. The author can still make the reader care about the character though, if that author can portray them realistically. Describe an interesting image and the reader will listen. Make them smell the wonderful fragrance of fresh eggs! Make them disgusted by the bird poop on the window sill.

The Everyman may be bland as a person and maybe they weren't very popular in school, but their characterisation is not bland. They have thoughts and feelings, even if those are very unremarkable thoughts and feelings. The point is, the author is not bothering the reader with the uninteresting stuff! Instead, we see how the Everyman solves a difficult problem. A dragon lands in Joe Everyman's garden! The author's job there is to tell the reader about what Joe Everyman sees, how they feel about it. Make the dragon sound real and the reader will be as scared as our Joe. Joe slaps the dragon on the nose with the pan! That's the interesting part. Not the "oh what shall I have for dinner today", or "hey, I'm so booooored this afternoon" part. Then the reader becomes interested in what the Everyman would do next. Everyman does a gread job fighting dragons and that makes the reader like Everyman, regardless of all the other boring bits in Everyman's life (he can go back to frying eggs now).

Roxxsmom
12-28-2016, 02:05 AM
With modern storytelling, I don't think everymen are necessarily supposed to be bland and generic or devoid of personality. Generally, the trope is about a person with no special abilities or experience who ends up in an unusual situation.

Arthur Dent in the Hitchhiker books comes to mind when I think of an everyman character in a SF context. Though I think he was supposed to be a humorous or satirical take on the concept. As I remember them, everyman characters in classic works would include people like Willie Loman in Death of a Salesman or Nick in The Great Gatsby.

These people all had personalities, but there was nothing exceptional about them in terms of their background, skills, knowledge or heroism. I wouldn't classify Harry Potter as an everyman, since it quickly becomes clear that he's special (has wizardly powers and is the only person ever to survive an adavra kadavra curse) and he's the subject of a prophecy. A character needn't be an everyman to be relatable to readers, but these characters do generally fit society's general stereotypes of unremarkable ordinariness. They likely won't be a brilliant scientist or outstanding soldier or speak several foreign languages etc. Though what comes off as ordinary will depend on context too.

With portal fantasies, it's pretty common for a character who starts out as ordinary to gradually change and find their inner hero or inner talents, of course. I don't think the four children in The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe were unusual in any way before they got sucked into Narnia.

veinglory
12-28-2016, 02:20 AM
I think the idea if an everyman character is innately archaic and obsolete. It suggests there is some kind of generic or default type of character and deviations from it are "specific" and "deviant" and not to be easily identified with by "normal" readers.

Other than a "character" about whom nothing is defined, or a book only for a narrowly defined readership, there is not type of character the readership will all effortlessly identify with.

The everyman character I know of old sci fi/lit fic etc used to be a middle class, middle aged, white collar, white male from a developed nation not because we all identified with him but because that was the only audience anyone cared about and generally similar to who was authoring the works as well. Even as a kid I thought those characters were putzes and wondered why the alien damsels/exotic spy women were so impressed by them.

Simone.Garick
12-29-2016, 12:13 AM
The whole purpose of an everyperson MC is to give a POV on events similar to that of the reader. So in short, the Everyperson embodies the general ideals, experiences and knowledge set of your readers. As for what makes a bad everyperson. Well if they only ever act as a window.

See it's pretty much a standard trope when writing about the fantastic and amazing to have at least one character be amazed and a gog at all the strange things. One well done everyman was Bilbo Baggins. Yeah the hobbit was an everyman, especially when you realize that adults were not the primary audience. Here the author gave a view point character that would see the world in a similar vein as a small child. That he was the sort of person who never took a step beyond his little county was an excuse for him not knowing and thusly capturing the sense of amazement and dread.

The everyperson allows the reader tof eel in a sense that amazing things can happen to anyone and that anyone can accomplish amazing things.

A good everyperson of course must have flaws and must actually be a character., fully fleshed out with goals, motives and negative traits.

A bad everyperson comes up when the author tries to combine it with 'Destined hero' in which case you undercut yourself and your story.
Another warning is decide if your everyperson reflects the truth, the self-perceptions or the asporations of your readers. Knowing which they start as and which they become at the end is pivotal. STart as one and end as another.

PaulieS
01-04-2017, 11:51 PM
Like any character you're developing, cliche is it's biggest enemy. Forced sentimentality when it just doesn't fit, that's what a lot of writers, including myself, end up doing when trying to envoke particular characters that matter. Dialogue is essential to pulling off the every day man. Stick to slang you know.

Jamesaritchie
01-10-2017, 02:08 PM
My idea of great fiction is when an everyman and an everywomen are placed in a position where they must do extraordinary things.