Wednesday, October 7, 2015

How to Stop Your "Everyman" Character From Becoming a Clueless Dipshit

Let's open this entry by talking about Ghostbusters. It's a classic movie, and it's become part of our cultural mythology (along with a television favorite around this time of the year). Three individuals who are both scientists and paranormal experts get together, prove the existence of life after death, and then build unlicensed, unregulated nuclear reactors to power wildly inaccurate ray weapons to permanently imprison the souls of the dead who are burdening the living.

But what about that fourth guy? You know, the one who was different from everyone else.

You know, the guy with no degree.
Winston Zeddemore was notable because, in addition to being the only black member of the team, he was originally intended to be the most intelligent and highly educated of the four-man spirit-catching crew according to commentary. So why the sudden drop in IQ points to make Winston the equivalent of an amateur exterminator getting illegal on-the-job-training? Because he was the everyman character the audience was supposed to both identify with, and to whom important plot points could be explained in short, simple words.

The Danger of "The Everyman"

The idea that your book should have a character who acts as the touchstone for the audience isn't new. It isn't even a bad idea. In fact, the bigger and more unlike our reality a story's setting is, the more these characters may be necessary in order to give readers some shorthand on this new world. Bilbo Baggins had no special qualifications, but got swept up in a madcap adventure out into a world he didn't know, and which readers discover along with him. Richard Mayhew is just an average Londoner with a job and a girlfriend, but when he stops to rescue the Lady Door, he becomes an unwilling member of the world of London Below, and his struggles to understand the world educate the reader on what sort of mess Richard has gotten into. Even Harry Potter, despite his status as an underaged plot device, was experiencing a fantastic world he'd never suspected existed, bringing the audience along on a tour in his wake.

"What are those things?" How the hell should I know? It's only chapter three!
The risk with using the everyman character is that it's easy to take a wrong step and turn him from someone the audience can understand and identify with, into a bumbling moron who becomes a parody of what he's supposed to be. In short, he ceases to be a character at all, and becomes a sounding board to clue the reader in to exposition. Once readers realize that's what's happening they'll begin to dislike the character. If it goes on for too long, they'll stop reading altogether.

How To Avoid The Devolution of The Everyman

The first and most important step you can take is to make sure your everyman character is still a character. He or she should have definable characteristics, a complete past, and a lifetime worth of learned experiences and emotional reactions. These characters don't simply show the readers the world of the story, but they have to react to the experiences they're being put through in believable ways based on who they are.

It was right around then that Watson got sick of his roommate's shit.
Take Dr. Watson, for example. He's a surgeon, a soldier, a capable man, and a veteran of a terrible conflict. Despite his intellect, though, he isn't a crime solver. Watson makes an ideal everyman because he observes what's happening, but still has personal agency. He lacks the knowledge and expertise of Sherlock Holmes, but that doesn't make him stupid or incapable. The world doesn't turn around Watson, or really around Holmes, and they have lives that are hinted at beyond the pages of their stories.

Because of this you never roll your eyes at Watson. Sure, you're probably more interested in what Holmes is doing, but you accept Watson is a real person, and you don't really question the fact that he's the one we're seeing this story through. After all, if we were seeing it through Holmes's perspective, the mystery would be over in two pages, and very little of the logic would make sense to us.

And now, here's a brief list of do-nots you should carefully consider for your exposition ciphers:

- Don't turn your everyman into a five-year-old who asks constant questions about everything. Conversation is a great way to avoid an exposition dump, but if you overuse it readers will get bored.

- Don't make your everyman just a pair of eyes. The character isn't just there to observe; the everyman needs to be an active participant in the story. It's what makes Michael Corvin in Underworld particularly dull.

- Don't be lazy with why your everyman is involved. Chosen ones like Neo and Potter work on occasion, but that deus ex machina has very limited mileage. A personal connection to someone in the cast, a stake in the outcome, or just getting caught in a crossfire will invest the audience significantly more in a character yanked into a situation he or she is unfamiliar with, possibly in a world that character doesn't belong in.

Lastly, Consider Eliminating This Character

Let's go back to the interesting bit of trivia at the beginning. Would Ghostbusters actually be a worse movie if Winston had three doctorates, and was attracted to the operation out of genuine scientific curiosity instead of being some random dude who needed a job and was willing to take risks? That will vary based on opinion, but was there anything complicated enough in the film that absolutely required someone to act as a translator for the audience?

Ghosts are complicated shit, yo.
More often than not, you don't need a character in your book expressly to translate things for your audience. Even if your main character is a special forces werewolf called to a secret meeting with shape-shifting clan chiefs, you should be able to clue the reader in on the nuances of power structure and rank based on the way characters act and speak to one another. If your lead is an alchemist mixing up a magic potion, just make with the magic. We don't need a clueless apprentice standing by and asking for the cliff notes about how the process works.

At the end of the day, you need to understand the story you want to tell, and what you need from your cast in order to execute that story. If you want to keep a little mystery, like with Holmes or Hercules Poirot stories, then you'll need someone else to tell the tale in order to keep the audience guessing until the big reveal at the end. However, if you want to write a story about a vampire mercenary who is part of a greater, secret world containing monsters of myth and legend, maybe you should trust your readers to pick up what you're laying down without the need of a plucky sidekick to ask for clarification.

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1 comment:

  1. Good post. In addition to your comments about Ghostbusters, the way Bill Murray portrayed Venkman was dumbed down enough without requiring Winston to be the 'everyman'.

    Looking at a more recent example, Jesse Pinkman made a great everyman character when Walter White was explaining chemical processes in the first season of Breaking Bad. Initially, he was supposed to die at the end of the first season, but Aaron Paul portrayed the character so well, he became as important as Walt.