Why do we so love the stories in which Everyman saves the day? Recalling a previous post, the Everyman – or in my stories, Everywoman – is a character who is ordinary enough to be relatable to the average reader.
It goes back to The Summoning of Everyman in which an Average Joe is called to the faith, using allegorical characters to challenge or guide Everyman to salvation. John Bunyan’s 1678 Christian novel The Pilgrim’s Progress does the same. Dante pulls a similarly trick with his alter-ego ‘Dante’ in the Inferno.
And so the tradition builds. Readers and audiences like relatable characters they can root for, people ‘just like us,’ right up to the moment they do something extraordinary. We find it difficult to relate to savants such as Sherlock Holmes and Poirot, but love the spinsterly Miss Marple.
Everymen and Women
A few examples, then. Winston Smith in 1984 is the Everyman to the point of bland and annoying. Bilbo and Frodo Baggins epitomise the genteel midle-class ‘Little Englanders;’ all three-foot six of them. Despite all the epic fantasy around them, it’s down to the little guys to fix the problems of Middle Earth armed only with some rope, some Elven bread and a stiff upper lip. And Sam. Don’t forget Sam, the most Everyman of Everymen, ever.
Literary and some genre fiction makes it easy to portray an Everywoman, from most of Jane Austen’s heroines (Emma Woodehouse of the landed gentry being the exception) to Jane Eyre, to Fifty Shades’ Anastasia Steele. Dickens was good with the Everyman from Oliver Twist to Nicholas Nickleby. Consider Huckleberry Finn, The Famous Five, the Narnia children, Tracey Beaker and Scout Finch. All of them ‘Every-kids.’
It’s difficult in pop-corn culture when the pressure is on to make the protagonist distinctive and extraordinary. Peter Parker is a high-school kid so ordinary he’s almost invisible, until he’s Spiderman. Katnis Everdene is a miner’s daughter so ordinary she isn’t even selected by the Hunger Games lottery, she has to volunteer. Then the hunting skills come to the fore.
We move quickly to the edge cases, by which we mean those of humble backgrounds whose talents or heritage will lift them above the rest. Harry Potter is an ordinary schoolboy, but whose parents were wizards. Ender Wiggin is another ordinary schoolboy, distinguished by prodigious tactical genius. Farm boy Luke Skywalker is the son of a rogue Jedi and strong with the Force. We find Eragon as a farm boy but his father was a dragon rider.
Very quickly, each of these characters must establish their Everyman credentials before they are elevated to questing-hero status.
Not the Everyman
That paragon of morality Superman is so overloaded with powers, he’s in the same League as Gilgamesh and Beowulf. He’s as far from the Everyman as you can possibly get. Which is why Schuster and Siegal hid him behind earnest Clark Kent in order to win our sympathy. Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne are fabulously rich and gifted. No amount of tragic backstory can bring them down to our level, though writers constantly try.
Dune: the lack of an everyman
This brings is to author Dan Wells’ complaint (episode 23 of Intentionally Blank) about the protagonist in Dune.
Paul Atreides is just another teenager. Except he isn’t. He’s a privileged aristocrat, son of a Bene Gesserit priestess and a preeminent Duke in the galactic empire. He’s highly educated, trained in combat and psychic powers to a hyper-competent level. His whiny adolescence is cut mercifully short by the Harkonnen’s treachery. Paul takes on Messiah-status among the Fremen to spearhead a holy war across space. Endless moments of ‘why me?’ introspection and soul-searching can’t drag him back to our level. This is why so many readers struggle to identify with the character. Paul knows he’s no more fit to rule the universe than anyone, its all an accident of birth. Except it isn’t. So, gosh-darnit, he steps up and does it anyway.
Breaking the bounds
How far can you go before breaking the bounds of the Everyman? Ender Wiggin’s innate talent never removes him from his roots. In becoming a Jedi master, Luke Skywalker transforms into an inscrutable action hero, far less interesting and relatable.
The bigger and broader the talent, the further the characters move from the Everyman.
For the same reason, it’s difficult to make posh, upper-class people (Emma Woodehouse and Paul Atreides) into the Everyman at all. They’re too privileged. Austen gets away with it through her writing skill. The Atreides kid becomes an icon in Frank Herbert’s epic political sci-fi.
The transforming effect of the hero’s journey, or a substantially transformative character arc, tends to shift our protagonists away from Everyman status. It’s why modern superheroes have messy personal lives and why all contemporary detectives have a quirk or flaw – and messy personal lives. It drags them back to our level while they go off and do extraordinary things in their professions.
How Everyman saves the day
Larger-than-life heroes with superpowers, skills and heritage on their side, from Aragorn to Elric to Geralt of Rivia characterise the fantasy genre. Thinking about my protagonists, who do I have? No super-heroes, super-witches or Witchers in my stories.
Jovanka is the daughter of an upstart tanner’s son who worked through the ranks of the Emperor’s army. Her mother was from the stateless and persecuted Roamer people. Jovanka’s extraordinary second sight is a latent power she struggles to control.
Varla is a common soldier’s son, dragged off the farm into a war. It doesn’t get much more Everyman – or, seen another way, cliched, than that. While he has skills, he’s not nearly as competent as legend has it.