What is the nature of an ideal fictional character?
While most of my main characters are female and the “superman” vs. “everyman” phrasing may be largely inaccurate, the concept is still valid. Should a character be somehow exceptional or should they be a normal person in unusual circumstances?
This debate can get heated, with some saying that “super heroes” belong in comic books, and that characters in fiction need to be normal so readers to can relate to them…while the other side screams that normal everyday characters are by their very nature boring…
So who is right? Well…neither.
Because both groups are arguing for an absolute. That either the character must be a perfect super person, or a normal average Joe or Jane, while there is a HUGE range in between.
Exceptional individuals, be they supernatural, alien, or intelligent talented humans are just more interesting.
The classic comic book heroes spring to mind, and yes those stories are intended to be larger than life. Yet, television shows, movies, and other versions of Superman, Batman, and the rest of these tales continue to be churned out by Hollywood. There have been popular rehashings of these stories since their original creation, and each year the list is added to.
Spies, Detectives, and Investigators…Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, and their modern equivalents are also “super”men. Larger than life, always win in the end, and they are exceptional in a long list of ways. Their stories have also continued to be adapted and remade.
My last example of a “super”man is the supernatural creature. From Dracula to the Mummy all of these characters, whether they are the villain or the hero are by their very nature super. They are not held to classic limits either physically or mentally.
With that long list of successful supermen you would think I was arguing towards them being ideal. But I’m not.
Here is the major caveat….All of these characters have flaws, problems, weaknesses, and have to overcome challenges. The true mythical “superman”, Jack or Jane of all Trades does not. Or if he or she does, they are not sufficient to balance those strengths.
Example of a SUPER Train wreak
So how to know if your character has crossed the proverbial “line”?
Kitty unsheathed the sword her master had left her, and the assembled challengers took a collective step back. Of the two dozen men who had come to her sanctuary to challenge her, half turned under the threat of her gaze, and fled. The remaining men freed their weapons, some carried swords, others guns, and still more knives. Each would step forward and face her one on one as they did each day, and one by one they would fall.
Facing a dozen men, some with firearms,with a sword? Some would argue this scene is even more unbelievable because the character is female. I object to that line of reasoning. But NO one human being can overcome this many people, with a sword. Now if she had an assault rifle, and some cover? Or if she was a vampire, comic book superhero, or other superhuman creature? That would bring it back around towards reasonable, but the main issue with this simple paragraph? No weakness, no vulnerability, no relate-ability!
Kitty is a caricature.
So what does the other extreme look like?
The comic relief on most prime time sitcoms fall into this category, so does the stereotypical human love interest in a paranormal romance, or the shy secretary who draws the Billionaire’s eye in contemporary erotica. The average Joe, the plain Jane, the simple everyday person who is drawn into odd or interesting circumstances usually by a character that fits in the first category.
They are realistic because they are all of us. Readers can relate to them because they have felt that way, been that way, and dreamed about getting drawn into something new and exciting.
The Normal man’s hero has no special skills, no super intelligence, no super powers. They just make choices, and sacrifices that influence the world. The most obvious one’s I can think of are the Hobbits in Tolkien’s works. Wizards, elves, dwarves, and kings surround them. But in the end it is the simple humble hobbit who saves the day, and gives his life to save the world.
The “Every”man Error
So how can this type of character go wrong?
Mark cowered in the corner, arms tucked over his knees, head lowered, with shivers wracking his body from head to toe. Booted steps paced back and forth across the concrete floor, until the uniformed man paused before him. A glance up revealed the glowering countenance of his father. Mark snapped his eyes back down to the floor. “You will leave this room, and you will do it now.” The words echoed in the tiny space, until they seemed to assault Mark’s ears.
“Can’t.” He whimpered at the thought of facing the world again.
“Fine, stay here.” His father stormed out, and slammed the door on the cellar that had become Mark’s self-imposed prison.
A young man, an anxiety disorder, an interesting concept. But in this case there isn’t enough back story, we don’t know why he is afraid, we don’t see any attempt to overcome the fear or face it. This kind of character needs explanation, and the reader needs some hope that the character will overcome. An entire book where the kid cowered in a room? Not something must people would want to read. It would not only be boring, but also depressing and discouraging. Not something most people seek in their fictional works.
The Stealth Superman is a special case. He or she SEEMS to be an every”man”. But a few chapters, or even a book or two, the story reveals that he or she had special powers all along. This is so common in fantasy as to border on a cliché. The unknown wizard, the half-god, the hidden witch…
The benefit of this is that the reader learns the strengths and weaknesses of the character as the character him or herself does. So maintaining balance is much easier. It also mixes the two types of characters in a way that provides the interest of the superman and the relate-ability of the everyman.
Moral of the “Story”
Balance, Balance, Balance! In all things but especially in fiction!
Characters have to have sufficient strengths to make them interesting, and enough weaknesses to make them “realistic”.
A good rule? For each strength, match it with a weakness, and vice versa.
Vampire that has superhuman strength? Need to drink blood.
Super fighter? But anti-social.
Anxiety Disorder? But seeking treatment.