Character is destiny, part 6: Never underestimate the Everyman

 This is part of a six-part series on characters that I'm doing. You can find the other parts here:
~Character is destiny, part 1: The Edward/Bella dilemma.
~Character is destiny, part 2: The Character Store
~Character is destiny, part 3: Character Store, cont.
~Character is destiny, part 4: Who gets to be the catalyst? 
~Character is destiny, part 5: Building a villain 
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As I mentioned in the first post of this series, one of the things that started me thinking about character was reading the Midnight Sun excerpt by Stephanie Meyer.

The other one, oddly enough, was re-watching the first season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. (Clearly the key to good characterization is vampires.)  As strange as it may sound, I started thinking more about characters and the roles they play by watching one of the least powerful people in the series, Xander.
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For those of you who hated/never heard of/can't remember the Buffy series, it was basically about a girl born to kill vampires. She's super-strong, super-fast, etc. Her friends are witches, ex-demons, werewolves, and even a couple of vampires.   And Xander. 

Xander is one of Buffy's friends in high school, and when I re-watched the show, I was amazed by how truely dislike-able his character is. He's awkward, impulsive, insensitive, arrogant, has a temper, doesn't see his best friend is in love with him, and can't seem to settle down with any one girl without secretly also wanting someone else.  He has no powers, can't win a fight to save his life, isn't super smart or charming and is only occasionally funny.

In short, Xander is the Everyman.  But  he does have one outstanding quality. He's not a coward, and he doesn't abandon his friends. And as a result of that, at the end of season one, Xander saves the world.
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Here's how it goes: Buffy fights this big, mean, mega-vampire and he drowns her. Xander, who has, against all orders, followed her (and brought the requisite "good-yet-tortured-vampire" with him) shows up, pulls her out of the water and gives her CPR. He's the only one around who can do this, since vampires don't breathe.

Buffy revives, kills the master and stops Armageddon.

Because of Xander.
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Terry Brooks, in his book Sometimes the Magic Works, talks about the strongest similarity that he sees between his Shannara books and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy. I don't have the exact quote because I loaned the book out, but it goes something like this:

"In all this discussion, no one ever mentions the similarity that I think is the clearest....My characters.. are written in the same vein as Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee. It was Tolkien's genius to make the hero of his story neither king nor wizard, but just an ordinary man trying to do the right thing."

Orson Scott Card says something along the same lines in his book How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy:

"Remember, you look for characters with both the power AND the freedom to act... Kings and queens and dukes and duchesses--they can be extravagantly powerful, yes, but too often they aren't free at all... The lives of commanders and kings are generally going to be above the most interesting action. The really neat stuff is going to be happening to the people on the cutting edge, frontline troops, scouts, etc."

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For writers, especially those of us in fantasy and other genre fiction, I think the temptation is to veer away from ordinary people as main characters. We want special, we want magical, we want powerful wizards and chosen ones and princesses and people with grand destinies already laid out before them.

And that's okay, to an extent. But if you're having trouble making your story compelling, if you can't find the emotional center of the book, try adding an Everyman. Write about the princess's servant, like Shannon Hale did in The Book of a Thousand Days. Write about the wizard's assistant, or the king's food-taster, or even just give your hero an ordinary best friend, like Harry and Ron in the Harry Potter books.

Give your readers someone to really identify with. Write about people like you and me.
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Any thoughts? Do you have a favorite Everyman character?

10 comments:

  1. We were big Buffy fans here, loved that show. I think that making a hero an everyman also makes the character more relatable to the readers. It forms a connection that they might not have with the wizards and princesses. And that connection is so important.

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  2. Great post, Miriam! I love seeing the common guy become the hero. Maybe that's why I loved LOTR so much.

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  3. This a super interesting post. You made great points! I've never seen Buffy, but I understand what you mean about the character Xander anyway.

    I don't know that I have a favorite Everyman character... but since you mentioned it, I do love Ron Weasley!

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  4. This was a really good lesson. Thanks. I like the idea that an everyday man can be the hero's friend.

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  5. Joanne- I agree with you, the connection is important. After all, most of us aren't powerful chosen ones, and we'd still like to believe that we, too, can be heroes.

    PJ- Yah for LOTR! Brooks said he was surprised that more fantasy writers didn't go that route, but I do think fantasy kidlit's pretty good at it.

    Laura- Oh good, I was hoping the idea would be clear to someone who'd never seen the series.

    After I posted this, I thought of another great Harry Potter Everyman, Neville. Neville's excruciatingly awkward and ordinary, yet he plays almost as big a role in Voldemort's downfall as Harry does. Go, J.K. Rowling!

    Jaycee- You're welcome! I think the ordinary friend option is a nice compromise between Chosen One and Everyman-as-hero. And it gives room for the ordinary friend to be heroic too.

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  6. Great post. I've never seen Buffy, but you explained it really well. Also gave me things to think about in developing future characters.

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  7. Excellent post and great reminder of the Everyman. Thanks.

    Helen
    Straight From Hel

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  8. I think one of the best examples of this is "I am Legend." The book is such a haunting tale because he is an Everyman character. The movie lost this idea, and the story's strength, by turning Will Smith into a super scientist whose blood will save the world.

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  9. Thanks! A thoughtful series of posts.

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  10. Natalie- Thank you. I'm glad this was food for thought for you. That was kind of what I was hoping for, to make people think about characters and characterization in a new way.

    Helen- You're welcome, of course! It was fun to do, and I do love a good Everyman.

    Erika- Hey, that is a good one! I haven't read the book, but I could totally see that working. I'd ask you how the book ends, but that might spoil it for everyone else. :)

    Kate- You're very welcome. I'm glad you enjoyed them.

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