A hero. A shining paragon of might, intellect, charisma, and willpower. The great champion who will rise to the challenge, armed with a mighty advantage to turn the tide. The ones who ride off to defy fate and forge their own destiny, riding upon the tide of their allies.
And then there’s the other guy. Ladies and gentlemen of the net, meet the Everyman. As the name describes, they are like every man or woman.
They are not chosen by fate. They are not fiery, warping reality with their sheer passion. They are not brilliant, staying 500 steps ahead of the opposition. They are not divinely awe-inspiring in personality or looks, eliciting worship and adoration. No superpowers, no super training. Just enough to get by in the world.
But when stories can vastly vary what makes up ‘normal’, what marks an Everyman when one universe’s Average Josephine is another’s demigod?
So, as explained, the Everyman is the idea of ‘an important character who is normal in the setting which the audience can relate to.’ Important enough to the cast that they require classification as opposed to being shoved off to background character land. If there’s a super team, they’re the government worker. If there’s hyper talented young adults, there’s the unflappable butler. If there are hard-boiled renegade loose cannons who break every rule in the book but get results, they’re the friendly, competent, but unremarkable receptionist. If the hero is a mentally disturbed man who dresses like a flying rodent, there’s a police commissioner.
My absolute favourite quote about this was one from a Star Wars writer: “We’ve been accustomed in the past to seeing the best of the best when it comes to Jedi—the ones who blew the curve for the other kids. Zayne is the ‘other kid.’“
But surprisingly, the key to the Everyman is not a lack of powers or an utter lack of outstanding traits. Not every Everyman is helpless, and none of them are meant to be boring. The true sign is one idea: Groundedness. Whether they’re main characters or not, they are the bridge between ‘humanity’ and ‘the fantastic.’ In all things, whether called to heroism or not, they are there to share in our amazement, confusement, and dismay, while keeping things grounded in the things we recognise as humanising. To some, this means struggling to make it through life and conflict, instead of having a major advantage. To others, that’s having the humanity to look at the small picture.
An Everyman is often Grounded in all they do, whether it’s their goals, methods, or relationships. They often lack obsession or angst that drives major figures to extremes. Heroes are defined by loneliness? Everymen have families and relationships. Major characters have a grand vision for the world? The Everyman lives one day at a time and prays for plentiful harvests and rain for the crops, not the expansion of their glorious revolution. To be sure, this is not a matter of opposites and contrasts for the sake of it, and some Everymen can live similar lives to the Big Guys. But in all things, an Everyman’s goal is to do things the way a real person would, even if the plot forces them to do otherwise. They are not there to change their life in a major way; they are there to try and keep it the same.
So that’s the idea behind Everymen, a figure the audience can connect to, to show them they’re not alone, a device to help frame what’s absurd and what’s not in your world. But how do we write them? Can’t exactly tell you what your target audience relates to, let alone humanity. However, some examples and how they work can help!
Your Average Fantastic
So, how do we deal with Everymen in settings where demigods roam the cosmos and supers shoot lightning from their eyes, where New York is routinely leveled in some major invasion every few weeks?
This may seem easy enough: Have them be Regular Joes. People like Commissioner Gordon, or the reporters in the Daily Bugle. But there’s a certain insect-themed hero of fairly prominent popularity, the very definition of an Everyman with powers.
Heh, Spider-Man? True. But let’s consider the modern Blue Beetle, Jaime, and how he’s pretty similar to Parker in terms of the premise. He takes on problems with the attitude and doubts of a regular guy his age, reacts to his awesome powers the way we would, and his supporting characters hold great significance to him as family and colleagues. Where other heroes treat things as a matter of course, they are the ones who’ll laugh off their insecurities and point out just how insane it is that there is an actual place called Gorilla City. Even well into his veteran stages, Spidey is generally counted on to be the foil to the brilliance of Iron Man and the courage of Captain America. That’s what your Everyman is for, powers or no powers.
From these guys, and various others like Ms. Marvel (Muslim Ms. Marvel, not “I’m so needy for approval I got an ugly haircut and started a civil war over profiling” Ms. Marvel), we can see that powers or power levels alone are not the deciding factor in making an Everyman. Although they DO play a big part in how much they struggle through conflicts, the point is that through it all, they don’t lose track of the things that make them human. They may have experience, they may even have reached a point in their career where they have the strength and experience to deal with something crazy like alternate dimension aliens firing transmogrification rays, but they will never lose fear, doubts, or uncertainty, and their attachment to what they cherish and protect.
Still, don’t underestimate the importance of power levels in making an Everyman plausible; hard to portray Silver Surfer as the most human of Galactus’ heralds when he can terraform a planet in a thought. The harder it is for them to actually get through a fight, the more you can see your everyday ugly emotions, and not the PR-approved inspiring Hero ones.
An Everyday Everyman
Ah, yes. But what about settings where there ARE no powers and everyone is supposed to be normal? Heck, even hard sci-fi makes the special parts outside of people.
Well, let’s consider. Ultimately, the rules are still the same. Whether it’s a hard-boiled detective or an unattractive-yet-gorgeous-and-talented Young Adult heroine, Heroes in ‘realistic’ settings may not have powers, but they do have talents, advantages, and personalities that are just made for driving the plots forward. The detective has his intuition and grit, the heroine has her charisma, and the soldier has skill.
Everymen here function mostly the same as they do in more fantastic media, being the human element to frame experiences through contrast while helping audiences navigate what’s meant to be normal or not. But whether they’re along for the ride or driving the journey as the star, one thing is certain: They are woefully unprepared for the situation.
Whether on a practical or emotional level, something in them leaves them feeling shocked and nervous. They might very well have the skills or at least the potential to solve their problems, but there’s always a level of “I didn’t sign up for this!” For this sort of ‘realistic’ setting, where the Everyman is there to either contrast brilliance or muddle through, we can refer to a very elementary example.
Dr. Watson is probably the best example of a ‘real world setting’ sidekick and Everyman who is a diverse mix of abilities and groundedness. Yes, he’s an equal partner to Holmes who is qualified to help with cases in many different ways. But he’s also the more human of the two, the one who’s as befuddled as the audience at times, the one who actually has a life outside of the great game. Through Watson, the fundamental truth remains the same: There is something the setting considers ‘remarkable’, and the Everyman is placed away from it.
Some Are More Every Than Others
So there you have it! Some examples of an Everyman, each giving you a look at how they figure out in mundane and fantastic settings, and my thoughts on what is the real deal with them. But I’d like to close with some important reminders and tips.
An Everyman doesn’t have to be worthless. Two reasons: An ‘average’ person isn’t useless, and neither is an important character if you want them to drive the story forward and inspire interest in them. They may be at a lower rung on the power ladder, or at the bottom, but their use alone in preserving the human element gives them worth. It’s an attempt to connect to an audience’s shared humanity.
Neither do they have to be weak. Spider-Man went from being what was essentially “Super Powers At The Street Level” (hey, 30 tons may be chump change next to Thor, but it’s monstrous to the Green Goblin) to a pretty powerful contender in Marvel, but more than that, he didn’t rely on strength alone. Speed, agility, endurance, Spider-sense, and of course, his genius in thinking about a solution if he could. These are ALL traits which are fantastic to those around him, but they weren’t what defined his status as an Everyman; it was how he reacted to his powers and enemies in a very human fashion.
So how do you go about creating an Everyman? Or for that matter, using them as a Main Character? Well, with all the stuff I said, I can give you some tips:
- First, figure out what’s normal and what’s not in your world to help work out how people (in-universe or in real life) would react.
- Next, figure out what’s considered ‘talented’ (whether in the main character or just in general in the setting) and find a way to contrast them against it. They could lack the talent in order to emphasise it, or view it a certain way.
- Make them human. It’s one thing to give a hero a trait to identify with (whether it’s through virtues or loving cats), but they remain larger than life in some ways; an Everyman, whatever their virtues or advantages, still holds humanity (theirs and the world’s) to be important. Not in a “Defend the world from the alien menace” way, but in a simple “I have a life outside of vengeance spandex and I want to keep it” way.
- Ah, here’s the interesting part. What about putting them in the spotlight? Well, for starters, power levels are a good way to figure out the sort of stories you wanna tell (Space Cop? Or Regular Cop?). You almost NEVER put them high or at the top, and you make sure there’s room above for problems. They don’t have to be powerless, but they do need to struggle. Because when’s the last time someone had absolutely no internal conflict going through life? Even Christ asked if His cup could be taken from Him.
- You know that stuff I said about humanity? That’s usually the best source for giving them a trait which is “great and useful but not quite Hero level.” Usually this is done by making them cunning or compassionate, giving them an intellectual or emotional advantage so they don’t just bash their way through problems. But that doesn’t mean they can’t eventually learn more and more to become badass, of course. Just look at Bilbo: He started as a shut-in, and ended up a riddling, spider-slaying, dragon-talking, sneaking guy who’ll fight for his friend, all while never losing his desire for home and hearth.
And that’s Everymen in a nutshell! From the powerless to the powerful, they are one of the best lenses you have in your arsenal as a writer. And more than that, they’re the most human, to boot. That humanity is what makes them interesting.
Because it’s one thing for a hero to swear vengeance on the Evil Overlord and vow they will win victory in the name of justice and all that is good. But all that bluster and big picture stuff can seem awfully pretentious without someone with the decency to actually mourn those losses with survivors, struggling to cope with the price of conflict, fighting back tears to stiffen their willpower.
Any hero can power through things for a cause, belief, or goal. Not every man can have the courage to get through life as a common human being.