Everyone who knows me well knows that I’m not a fan of heroes.
They’re all the same damn person. White-bread moral paragons of virtue who all follow in the footsteps of Luke Skywalker, pacing through the Hero’s Journey like it’s a track ride at Disneyland. Yes, they have quirks and quandaries that make them their own person, but overall they fit a stereotype. Even well-rounded, well-formed heroes just seem to pale in comparison to their surrounding cast.
I’m just not a fan.
I’m not just hating on heroes to be edgy, I promise. This is grounded in proper literary analysis. Namely, the white-bread moral paragons of virtue are a subset of what I hope is a fading literary trend: The Everyman.
This is how to avoid falling into that trap.
Definition: Make Them Boys Go Loco
The Everyman is a fairly well-known concept. He’s the reader’s insight into the world of the novel. He’s usually male, usually white, usually of average intelligence. Sometimes he has trouble with girls, to give him some depth. He’s Arthur Dent, Dr. Watson, John Carter, Luke Skywalker. The ultimate Relatable Character: everyone can put themselves in his shoes, because he doesn’t have a foot to stand on. He’s the sense of normalcy in an otherwise-turbulent world. Overwhelmed by the personalities of other characters, sure, but a safe place to retreat to when necessary.
Everymen are rarely gay, rarely female, rarely people of color (notable exception: women’s 19th-century British literature, where they were also frequently women of stature). They’re cis, they’re usually of an ambiguous political or religious party, they aren’t familiar with moral gray areas or mental illness. And frankly, they’ve served a pretty decent historical purpose in Western literature.
They make things accessible.
There’s nothing wrong with that. Accessibility is an essential element of a novel, and an Everyman is great at keeping the impulse of infodumping at bay. But the voice of diversity is getting louder, and we’re finding it’s a lot harder to dump all your readers into one category.
Avoiding the Blank Slate
There’s a fantastic way to avoid this, and I’ve seen it happening more and more: rather than giving readers one character that they’re “supposed” to relate to, give readers a spectrum of characters to choose from. Not in the sense of token minorities (keep your populations realistic and natural) but in the sense of fleshing out everyone. Not just the supporting cast.
People can’t get enough of this right now. I’m in the process of sending out my 2014 NaNoWriMo to agents, and the one thing I’m seeing consistently is a request for diverse characters.
This is the thing.
I’ve never met an ordinary person. Not once in my life. I’ve only ever seen them in books or on television, in this trope, and it is the least-accessible thing on the face of the planet. I don’t want to read about someone who didn’t really exist before the story started–seriously, Arthur Dent? His only bits of backstory have to do with meeting supporting characters!–and I don’t want to read about someone who has the same internal dialogue as every other main character the author’s ever written.
In short: if you want to make your characters relatable, make them unique. If you want to make your characters unique, make them diverse.
This blog post is brought to you by brainstorming for The Violet Realm with the indomitable Erin Casey. If you’re in the Iowa City area, we meet up every 2nd and 4th Tuesday of the month at the Iowa City Public Library and talk about science fiction/fantasy writing! We’re a subcommunity of the Iowa Writers’ House, which is an amazing nonprofit dedicated to connecting writers in Iowa. Check it out and sign up for the newsletter: we do a ton of awesome stuff.