Part of the How They Do It Series (Monthly Contributor)
Over the past five years, I’ve seen a small transformation happening in how I think about writing. My tendency as a young writer was to take the rules offered by editors, agents, and other authors and make them into unbreakable barriers. If someone taught me that I needed to make my character more proactive, well then I would make sure to have them jumping off of a train, while saving a baby, while simultaneously ordering a club sandwich with extra pickles.
Rules aren’t without merit, but I’ve recently found scales more useful.
I want to discuss the Everyman vs. Superman scale I’ve been using for character analysis. I’ll define the scale first, and then walk you through several scenarios in my debut novel that really used this concept.
These are two different methods for building sympathetic characters.
The “everyman” concept builds sympathy through realistic connection. We relate to an “everyman” character because they’re a realistic expression of our humanity. I always use Amir—from The Kite Runner—as my example. Like Amir, we’re often afraid. We’re cowardly. We’re unwilling at times to do the brave or honorable thing. We connect with him at a basic level because he so clearly expresses our deep and often raw human qualities.
Superman, on the other hand, is a concept of using a character to connect a reader with who they wish they could be. These are the characters who leap into the burning building, or stand up to the bully, or who choose the higher, more honorable road. Another character from The Kite Runner—Hassan—acts as a great example. He’s as kind, thoughtful, and innocent as we often wish we were. In the face of atrocities, he stays true to his overwhelming goodness. After reading scenes that feature him, we’re left thinking, “I wish I could be a friend like that.”
Applying this as a hard, fast rule would have us picking one or the other for our characters. Is he supposed to be average? Or heroic? The use of a scale allows you to take advantage of both. Here are some strategies that will allow you to use the sliding scale between Everyman and Superman to build connections between your characters and the reader.
Strategies for Using the Scale:
1. Your character has to ascend from somewhere.
As much as we love heroes, it’s hard to fall for someone who simply starts out perfect. I love when novels and comics begin by showing us the gritty, human flaws. In my book, Nyxia, I was careful to demonstrate Emmett’s humanity early on. He jumps to the wrong conclusion about one of his competitors. He burns a bridge with an early ally. He trusts the wrong person. These mistakes prove to the reader that we’re not starting with Mr. Perfect. Emmett has room to grow, and the reader will be cheering him on in that, but also groaning every time he makes a huge mistake.
2. Beware of Making Your Everyman a Nobody.
I’ve read a number of stories in which the author is so intent on showing us how flawed their character is that they end up burying any reader interest in them. There’s a reason we call it the “try/fail” cycle and not the “fail/fail/fail again” cycle. Emmett makes some serious mistakes in the early sections of Nyxia, but he also flashes some of his Superman qualities, too. He’s perceptive about the other competitors. He uses his ingenuity to win a few challenges. In several scenes, he’s the first one to do the right thing. I bring him back down to Earth in later scenes, but not without some obvious sign posts along the way that this character has the potential to leave us in awe.
3. Examine Peaks and Valleys.
I highly suggest going back and charting your scenes. Look for the rhythm of your character’s movement between these two concepts. There are a few things that I’m looking for whenever I go back chapter-by-chapter and assess this:
a. Are there ever too many peaks or valleys in a row – This tends to make the reading repetitive or stale. Too many failures might have the reader frustrated with a lack of progress. Too many successes can have us feeling it’s unrealistic.
b. Am I responsible with my peaks? – I’m usually analyzing the ideas of too soon and too powerful here. Flashing power too soon can often leave the pacing feeling erratic. Having a too powerful moment can create a distrust in the reader. We don’t really feel invested in later struggles, because we know just how powerful the MC is in comparison to what they’re currently facing.
c. Am I responsible with my valleys? – While there are certainly stories that disprove this, I’m always concerned with a story that pushes the character into deplorable territory. Humans make mistakes, but there is such a thing as “too far” in literature. Give me even a shred of hope in their goodness and I’ll stay with you until the end.
4. One Moment to Rule Them All.
There’s a tremendous payoff for the reader if you can get us to the true moment of ascension. Sometimes this doesn’t even happen in the first book of a series, but ultimately, we’re always hoping for this as a reader. All those flashes of Superman quality have to be leading us somewhere. In fantasy, I like to think of this moment as more than just a glimpse of power. I want to feel like the character has accepted the mantle they’re supposed to wear. There are examples throughout literature. Rand’s battle in the first Wheel of Time book. Po defeating Tai Lung in Kung Fu Panda. The same is true of Nyxia. I wanted to give Emmett an opportunity to rise up and be the character we knew he was becoming. His final scene is the ultimate expression of his heroism, but all written through the lens of the “everyman” that I’ve made sure the reader knows he is.
So these are just a few methods, but I’ve found the scale incredibly useful for making sure I have a character readers are willing to invest their time and energy into. The more reason we have to connect with their story, the more likely we are to stay along for the entire journey.
I’d encourage you to use this scale on your own, but also to investigate some of the hard and fast writing rules that you’ve been using. Take the time to see if you can’t recreate them as a scale that moves back and forth between two truths. After all, the point of all this writing advice is not to make you feel that you’re trapped under a box. The point is for you to feel like you’re standing in an ever-growing toolshed, and the walls are slowly filling up with different ways for you to write a brilliant story. I hope this is just one more hook to hang in that shed, one more tool to use as you go back to whatever you’re working on. Happy writing!
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Emmett Atwater isn’t just leaving Detroit; he’s leaving Earth. Why the Babel Corporation recruited him is a mystery, but the number of zeroes on their contract has him boarding their lightship and hoping to return to Earth with enough money to take care of his family.
Before long, Emmett discovers that he is one of ten recruits, all of whom have troubled pasts and are a long way from home. Now each recruit must earn the right to travel down to the planet of Eden—a planet that Babel has kept hidden—where they will mine a substance called Nyxia that has quietly become the most valuable material in the universe.
But Babel’s ship is full of secrets. And Emmett will face the ultimate choice: win the fortune at any cost, or find a way to fight that won’t forever compromise what it means to be human.