In your character’s shoes: give your everyman character a strong presence

Seven thingsSome central characters are intended to be a proxy for the reader – a person who’s thrown into a situation and acts as a conduit for the reader to have the experience.

However, there’s a big pitfall with this kind of character: writers are sometimes reluctant to make them people in their own right. They’re worried about being too specific and instead they create a bland nobody.

These are the symptoms of the nobody everyman:

The character doesn’t react to dramatic situations

– because the writer assumes the reader will apply their own reactions. But readers don’t want to do this. They want to share the character’s reaction. I particularly see this in writers who learn a lot of their storytelling from films and TV. But novels are an internal medium, a landscape of emotion, and the reader needs to be guided more.

In prose, if the character doesn’t react, it looks as though the event made no impression on them. In any case, you can’t guarantee what a reader’s reaction will be, and that it will be the one you want. (Readers certainly aren’t everymen!)

The character has very little history, background or personal preferences

Again, the writer is afraid of making the character unlike the reader, and so they don’t fill in any home background, hobbies or back story. This makes them look curiously empty. Think of when you meet somebody for the first time – there are certain things you want to know about them. What they do; whether they have kids; what hobbies they have. In real life, we need context about people. And so do readers.

They’re passive

Because the writer doesn’t want to presume any reactions, they make their everyman character wait around for the more interesting people to cause adventures. This can make us wonder why we are spending the most time with the dullest person. Even if the viewpoint character is surrounded by troublemakers and simply wants a quiet life, they need to fight back instead of being pushed around. That’s not to say the other characters can’t get them into scrapes; but our main character must also seem to cause some of the situations they find themselves in. If they simply wait to be shepherded, it’s frustrating to read about.

So how do we write an effective everyman character?

Is there even such a thing as an everyman character? We are all different. My reaction to a life dilemma won’t be the same as yours. If our characters are to be convincing, it doesn’t make sense to leave them as empty vessels for the reader to fill.

And besides, if we look at what readers respond to, it’s not as superficial as tastes, social background etc. Readers respond to something that’s deeper down – and that’s emotions that are universal for everyone: fear, difficult choices and dilemmas.

If you evoke those well enough, the reader will put themselves in that character’s shoes regardless of their circumstances or even the era the book was written. Think how many classic novels are still finding new readers because their protagonists strike a chord. A lonely orphan becomes a governess and falls in impossible love with her employer – Jane Eyre. A timid, inhibited girl is overwhelmed by her new position as wife in a grand house – Rebecca. These aren’t everyman characters by any means, but we connect with their stories and experience them vividly. It doesn’t matter at all that they don’t do what we would do, or that their circumstances are not like ours. They have loneliness, dilemmas and fears, which is enough to put us in their shoes.

So don’t make your everyman viewpoint character an undefined nobody. Make them a definite somebody who, deep down, is exactly like us. Let’s discuss some great viewpoint characters in the comments!

nyn2 2014 smlNEWSFLASH This seems a good moment to mention that I’ve got a whole bookful of advice on characters. And the eagle-eyed among you will notice that the title has been tweaked. Why? I realised the original title Bring Characters To Life was rather ho-hum and didn’t explain why you should go to the effort of making characters believable. So it’s now called Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated – which is, of course, what it’s all about. Plus it scores better for SEO, which should work magic in searches (nobody would think to search for Bring Characters To Life unless they already knew about it). The new cover and title will take a few days to percolate through all the sales channels, but if you buy it you’ll get the updated look. Do you think it’s an improvement?

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  1. #1 by Dan Holloway on January 12, 2014 - 7:49 pm

    “no context” characters can, of course, be marvellous – great examples can be found in existentialist pieces such as Camus’ works and of course on a more widely accessed level many of the Clint Eastwood films

    • #2 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on January 12, 2014 - 8:04 pm

      Aha, I knew someone would point out a contrary view. For almost every writing ‘fault’, there’s a situation where you want exactly that effect. Thanks for reminding me, Dan!

  2. #3 by pauladkin on January 12, 2014 - 10:35 pm

    Actually, I think the term “everyman” is the dangerous point here. For a narrator to have character, as you’ve just described, it has to be anything but an “everyman”. The character comes, as you suggested by being an individual. So perhaps the title here should be: “Throw your Everyman out of the window and make your narrator a real person”. The Everyman just doesn’t exist.

    • #4 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on January 13, 2014 - 12:14 am

      You know, Paul, I started to think that way as I was writing the post. I began with a problem I see quite frequently, and the reason for it. The more I thought, the more the everyman idea was evapourating and becoming nonsense – unless it’s done for a special reason as outlined by Dan above. You’re right; your suggestion is the proper headline. But I’ll leave you to take the credit for it.

  3. #5 by Doug on January 13, 2014 - 7:06 pm

    Thanks for this Roz! I stumbled upon it a few days after the same issue arose in a novel class I teach in Denver, CO ( I appreciate your insights and explanations.

  4. #7 by Darla G. Denton, Writer on January 14, 2014 - 4:22 am

    For me, as a newbie writer, I have hard time finding the balance between a character who is easy to relate to but also exciting. I hate reading a book where the character seems to be over dramatic in a scene or towards a certain situation. Finding the happy medium is a hard thing to come by.

    • #8 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on January 14, 2014 - 9:07 am

      Darla, that’s the magic of editing! We can experiment – try playing a scene at maximum drama, try playing it quietly – and eventually work out what will sit best with the rest of the book. And even if you’ve been doing it for years, it’s still tricky. Thanks for commenting!

  5. #10 by Daniel R. Marvello on January 14, 2014 - 11:58 pm

    Fortunately, I don’t see many “everyman” characters in Speculative Fiction, particularly Fantasy. Or if I have seen them, they certainly didn’t leave an impression (proving your point). Lead characters may start as an “average joe” or even some kind of “underdog,” but the story eventually reveals some unexpected ability or legacy that shows the character was special from the beginning. The small hints of that legacy readers get early in the story are part of the fun. I guess that’s one of the things I love most about Fantasy.

    It’s my understanding that readers want an emotional experience. I don’t see how a character with the flaws you mentioned (doesn’t react/no personality/passive) could deliver that critical element.

    In the end, I think you’re right; there’s no such thing as an “everyman” character. If your character represents everyone, then that character really represents no one. Readers want to read a story about *somebody* who *does something.*

    • #11 by rozmorris @NailYourNovel @ByRozMorris on January 15, 2014 - 7:20 am

      Hello, Daniel! This line of yours probably clinches it: ‘if I have seen them, they didn’t leave an impression….’ I certainly don’t remember many from published books, but I see them a lot in books I edit. (And just to reassure those who read the comment by the other Dan, they aren’t intended to make the reader experience a state of blankness, or to pose an intellectual question.)

    • #12 by Wayne on February 21, 2016 - 10:52 am

      I always thought ERB did a great job of using an everyman … he may have had what you call ‘ability,’ but most of his characters had only one real ability.

      The ability to not want to die yet. Almost quoting ‘John Carter.’

      Wayne, Luvsiesous

  6. #13 by raulconde001 on January 15, 2014 - 4:00 am

    I think that building characters is important. Roz, thank you for your great advice. I am doing very well in classes, and am still taking them. I am a writer to become a professional writer. I am patient about it, and know my time will come. I have bought your book Nail Your Novel: Writing Characters. I am learning a lot and working with it. Thanks again for your great advice! Happy Writing! Like we always say in my writing classes. Thank you! 🙂

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