“The (Everyman) character has experiences and emotions that are like those of any ordinary person.” (Collins).
The Everyman is an explicit archetype that goes back to the Morality Plays of the Medieval period. It’s identifiable in literature going much farther back than that.
Why? Readers want to see characters they can relate to. For most readers, that’s folk who are (initially) ordinary. Regardless of their journey and end-point, unless we identify with them, there’s no connection and little reason to stick with their story for an entire book.
Classic and popular fiction is filled with Everyman archetypes. Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Bennett is a solidly middle-class gal mixing it in high society. Harry Potter is an unsuspecting school-boy wizard living in a cupboard under the stairs, not a million miles from Dickens’ Oliver Twist. It’s why Jim Hawkins, The Railway Children, The Famous Five, Becky Sharp, Jane Eyre and Miss Marple all work.
Peter Parker is an ordinary high school kid handed great power and great responsibility, as are Potter and Luke Skywalker. They ascend to hyper-competance from Everyman status and, hopefully, keep us rooting for them. It’s why so many fictional heroes are farm boys – Luke, Rand, Eragon Bromsson – or blacksmith’s boys – Pip in Great Expectations. Humble sons of toil, farmers, tradesfolk, Everyman to their core.
Becky Sharp isn’t all that likeable, nor is Moll Flanders. But they are deliciously scheming underdogs, aiming to improve their lot. We can identify with that. Even to the extreme of Tom Ripley, where we’re prepared to overlook murder.
You can probably think of less controversial underdogs; Mr. Chips, Nicholas Nickleby, Andrew Manson (The Citadel). Armed with humble backgrounds, humility and a large cache of moral values, they buck the system and in single-handed defiance.
Hyper-competence diminishes Relatability
Things become more difficult with characters who are hyper-competent. James Bond, Hercule Poirot and Sherlock Holmes provide the thrill of adventure, they don’t attract a lot of sympathy or empathy. In movies and TV, adaptations have to give them family traumas, tragic backstory, or in the case of Marvel’s Thor (literally a god-figure), a goofy comedic twist. In the current incarnation, Thor refuses his throne in a spurious attempt to demote himself to Everyman. It doesn’t really work.
None of these are traditional Everyman figures.
Other protagonists have to go on a redemption journey. Austen’s spoilt rich girl Emma and Marvel’s Tony Stark have it all, but make horrific mistakes and have to start over to make things right, like Ebenezer Scrooge. Their fall from ‘grace’ and the drive to reinvent themselves as better people brings them closer to Everyman ideals. It’s the execution of their character arcs that makes them interesting.
Stories need the Everyman to connect to as many readers as possible. The more god-like, competent or privileged the characters, the harder it is to make the readers care. We want them dragged down to our everyday level of ineptitude, embarrassment and failure so we can watch them rise up and overcome.
Applying the Everyman or Everywoman
So what do I have? In Book One, I have two protagonists. Jo is an outcast, half-blood Seer of no social status. Broken, flawed and variously competent, think of her as an ‘elevated’ Everywoman. Varla is essentially a farm boy, the son of a retired soldier. Of low social class but allegedly high-end competent, he is the Everyman thrust into extraordinary circumstances.
In writing these two, I tread a fine line between keeping them ‘real,’ with relatable emotions and experiences, while making them remarkably talented to take on the challenges in the plot.
This is why stories need the everyman.