Sep 20, 2012
Hero vs Everyman
Let's say you have a character, Jane, who is having some problems in her marriage. You might have Jane sitting at a cafe, sipping her latte and ruminating over her divorce. At the next table, she overhears a bickering couple. What happens next?
Jane's reaction to the bickering couple will depend on where her character stands on the Hero/Everyman spectrum. Orson Scott Card discusses this in his book on Characters. As readers, we want to identify with a protagonist. The protagonist has to be human enough, ordinary enough, that we can relate to him and his hurdles. At the same time, we want the protagonist to be someone whom we admire, and to whom we can aspire: someone like us but a little bit better than us. A hero.
If Jane is living in a literary novel, she's likely to be as "ordinary" and "real" as possible, which means she probably won't even remark on the couple's conversation. The author will slyly allow the reader to make the connection and comparison to Jane's situation, but Jane herself will be oblivious. It's called subtly or something. (I know this only by rumor, never having tried it myself.)
If Jane is a tad more Hero than Everyman, she will not just overhear the bickering couple, but take action. Possibly, their conflict gives her insight into her own troubles. She'll have an epiphany about her relationship with her late father and make a decision about the divorce. This could still leave her safely in literary territory, but it means she'll have to be a more observant and insightful person, by nature, than our first, rather more self-obsorbed, Jane.
If Jane is a little further on the Hero side of the scale, she won't just listen to the couple. She'll turn to them and say something, something brilliant and insightful, that somehow helps them have an epiphany about their relationship. A true hero helps others.
And if Jane is even more of a Hero, she'll stand up, pull a gun out of her back jeans and start shooting the disgruntled employee who just came in to shoot the couple and everyone else in the cafe. That's right. She may or may not solve their marital disputes--or her own--but she'll SAVE THEIR EFFIN' LIVES.
That's a hero's Hero.
Traditionally, fantasy used to be the bastion of the hero's Hero. That's all changed, though, with the rise of postmodern and literary fantasy. (There's also a whole plethora of anti-heroes, who avoid helping others, just on principle.) Postmodern fantasy prides itself on "realistic" characters, which is usually code for behaving like an ass. Ursula Le Guin's new fantasy series, supposedly Young Adult (because these days even Ursula Le Guin is told to write more like Harry Potter), is not at all heroic. Her characters, though not buttheads, are Everymans to the core.
To determine where a character is on the non-heroic/heroic scale, look for hints and clues:
Mona Gray in An Invisible Sign of My Own? Not heroic.
Hint: She is so frightened of human interaction, she eats soap to avoid dates.
Katness Everdeen in Hunger Games? Heroic.
Hint: She uses a crossbow. On people.
Yeah, yeah. That wasn't even challenging.
Both the Hero and the Everyman are hard to do well. But I'll be honest. It's easier to write a shoddy heroic tale and still get away with it than it is to write a shoddy Everyman tale. That's because when an Everyman is written poorly, all you're left with is a despicable and/or boring character. A Hero might come across as shallow, yet if he is good and brave and blows up a lot of crap, we will forgive him and go along with the story anyway.
There are three reasons for that.
One, we all think we are slightly better than we are. So we have little patience for characters as weak and fearful as ourselves, unless the author can overwhelm our reluctance with exquisite compassion of vision. Only a gifted author can trick us to empathizing with a character who is as deeply flawed as the average human being.
Two, even if, deep down, we suspect we aren't all that heroic personally, we crave heroes. Fiction is not just an exercise of our imaginations, but of our aspirations. Studies have found that pessimistic versus optimistic fiction influences our ability to take control of our own futures. So, all you folks out tempted to write unhappy endings to your novels (you know who you are), just be aware you could cause the downfall of civilization. No pressure.
Three, the authors of successful Everyman characters CHEAT. They build up a world where going on a date and not eating soap becomes...an act of courage. So you end up rooting for the heroine to look at that bar of soap and not stick it in her mouth! And when she finds the ability to do this for herself, you know she's overcome a greater challenge for her, than a yacht full of machine-armed bikini babes would be for James Bond. In a sense, then, you respect her even more than Bond, in this context, because what is easy is not awe-inspiring. If Bond doesn't break a sweat, it really doesn't matter how many bad guys he kills. It can't compare to overcoming your own phobias.
An everyman is who we usually are; an hero is who we aspire to be. Write either one. Just watch out for these pitfalls:
If you are writing a character closer to the Everyman side, remember to build up the everyday obstacles to your character's existence until overcoming them becomes a heroic act. Just don't write an everyman and expect people to aspire to it.
If you are writing a character closwer to the hero's Hero, just remember, even Superman needs his kryptonite. If everything is easy for your Hero, he's not brave anymore, no matter what he does. This is why every Superhero needs a Supervillain Nemesis,
And remember. Heroes are real.