Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Everyman & Everywoman in Fiction

While critiquing the latest chapter of my book-in-progress, Sunlight, our writing group got into an interesting conversation (at least I thought so) about my character Laura. Laura’s a secondary character, and in the timeline of my story she’s only been around for about 24 hours. The general consensus of the group seemed to be that although Laura seems like an average/nice/likeable character, certainly with her real life problems—so far something is missing about her: Her AWESOMENESS. I tend to agree—but her lack of awesome may be OK—at least for now.

In this early draft of my book, I’m still getting to know my characters (like Laura), and I know things in her back-story that are awesome but haven’t made it to the page yet. There are also challenges to come that she’ll have to face that will bring some of that out. BUT this still raises a more general question—do all characters (even secondary characters) in your story need to be awesome?

In our group discussion we never fully defined what “awesome” meant, but for me when I think of awesome characters, my mind immediately jumps to those with extraordinary, super-abilities or traits: Sherlock Holmes smart, Superman strong, Buffy’s ability to kick some vampire ass, or Dean Koontz’s well, odd and supernatural Odd Thomas—characters so full of great capabilities, contradictions and strengths (or so unusual) that they stand out, can carry their own story and are easily remembered.

So should every character in your story be awesome? I think the answer is yes and no. All well written characters should be unique, should stand out in their own way, ideally they should be flawed/troubled/complicated enough to seem real. My goal and hope as a writer is to bring characters to life that people care about, want to hang out with, spend time with maybe even think about and remember after the story is over. But I think there is a character type in literature and film that somewhat defies the idea of the “awesome” character.

The “Everyman” is a somewhat generic character that people can often easily relate to, who is taken from their own, mundane, normal world and plunged into a crazy or abnormal situation or reality. The interest in the story of the everyman usually comes down to “what would an average person do in this strange/terrible/tragic situation?” Often they end up surrounding themselves with many stronger, talented and/or more interesting characters to help them accomplish their goals.

My lead character Job in Sunlight fits the bill as Everyman. He’s a cop trying to cope with the loss of his family in a world taken over by monsters. He doesn’t have super-powers, he’s not the “chosen one,” he’s not an antihero, etc. He’s just an average guy doing the best he can in taxing and extraordinary circumstances. I do want my readers to strongly relate to him. Likewise with Job, as I develop him further in my rewrites I hope to make him seem real, unique, likeable, etc. But he’ll still be an “everyman.”

Some of my favorite fictional literary and film “everyman” characters:
• Rick Grimes, from the Walking Dead series. (And just about every lead in every zombie story starting with Romero’s The Night of the Living Dead.) I have to say, I don’t really “like” Rick, but I can always relate to him.
• Sherriff Brody from Jaws
• Arthur Dent from HitchHiker’s Guide…
• Peter Parker (when not Spider-Man)
• The Man and The Boy from McCarthy’s The Road. (Very generic but relatable characters.)
• Mario from Nintendo Games (and just about every main character from any first person-shooter game)
• Frodo, from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings might qualify as an everyman, too… despite being a Hobbit, even though he’s also the chosen ring bearer. He starts the story living in a hole in the ground, afraid of adventure. Compared to his other companions in the Fellowship, his extraordinary/awesome levels aren’t that impressive. He’s got his own skills, but he’ll never face down a Balrog on his own.

More specifically the conversation in our writing group focused a bit more on women characters. Do female characters all have to be special, unique, more than just your run-of-the-mill person to be a worthwhile/interesting character? Can they be a good character without being “awesome”?

Maybe. I’d like to believe there is room in fiction writing for the “Everywoman” character, too. I tried doing a Google search on this concept, of an “everywoman” character, and I didn’t find much information at all. I did find this posting on the everywoman that I though raised some good points, especially “Why is there only “room” for “extraordinary” women?” in literature.

Images of the “average woman” from various countries, 
created from hundreds of pictures of women from all over the world.
Although I haven’t read Stephanie Meyer's vampire-romance Twilight books (and don’t intend to, it’s just not my thing—and the movies fill me with a vague sense of nausea and sadness for sparkly vampires… I can't watch them, either) from what I know of the stories, my gut instinct was that the main female character “Bella” is an “everywoman.” This post on the “everygirl,” (also nicely done), confirms this idea, and also lists some other great examples of the “everywoman” in literature.

So after thinking more about this, I do think there’s room for the Everyman or Everywoman in your story, depending on what that story is. If you are looking for a way for people to relate and sympathize with your main characters, especially if the world you’re creating is crazy/dangerous/abnormal it can be a great way to go.

But--don’t be afraid to bring the awesome. If it’s there in your character, let it out on the page.


(Source for the "Average Woman" photo article linked above)

Friday, July 11, 2014

A Peck of Villains

As you may know from previous posts, I spent my winter and spring reading the novels and stories from Le Guin's Hainish World. I made sure to request later editions from the library so I could read the introductions. Written by Le Guin well after she wrote the pieces themselves, they are full of her later thoughts on each piece, as well as her ruminations on writing.

In her introduction to City of Illusions she touched on something that I find I'm struggling with in my own WIP.


Le Guin's thoughts:
Real villains are rare; and they never, I believe, occur in flocks. Herds of Bad Guys are the death of a novel. Whether they're labelled politically, racially, sexually, by creed, species, or whatever, they just don't work. The Shing are the least convincing lot of people I ever wrote.
In the series of integrated stories I am finishing up, I've got some baddies that I'm just not all that satisfied with. They are called Thority (a "what if" spinning out of a world in which the transit authority ends up as the sole organization, and having access to resources they can wield quite a bit of power.)

Mostly these baddies are in the background, just another feature of a world that has newly fallen apart, one of the many defining features of the new environments within which my characters must make their decisions about how best to live their lives. That's probably one piece of why I'm dissatisfied with them: there are no unique Thority members as a characters, so they are all just a grey wash of badness.

As the stories have evolved, I've found myself needing to explain why they are bad. I didn't want it to just be because Power Corrupts. Maybe that impulse was a good one, a step away from the grey wash and the Herds of Bad Guys that Le Guin regrets in her own writing. If you give the bad guys a story, rather than just having them fit a category, maybe they will be more interesting. More real.

But the story I have told has explained away their moral culpability. They've got soft-wiring that's gone glitchy. And right now it feels again that I'm taking a step back toward category-badness. I didn't set out to write a zombie story, but in way I think Thority have ended up fitting into that trope.

Which has gotten me thinking about the Zombie trope itself. Given that it has been so popular, it seems that many folks are convinced by the mass-bad-guy. Or is it that zombies work as background, but never as real characters in a story? The real enemies are ourselves, and other folks just like ourselves: unique individuals with individual histories, wants, and needs. Individuals who all must interact with one another within the environments they find themselves (which may contain zombies like Jon's Gunslingers or zombie/vampires like Mark's Sunlight or as in my story cycle: radiation, strange new diseases, the reemergence of old diseases, self-aware plant/animal trains, and zombie-like Thority-figures...).

So maybe Thority really aren't the villains in my stories. Maybe no-one in them is. Maybe all my characters are each doing the best they can with what they have, even if that best sometimes results in a whole lot of pain.