A few nights ago, Mighty Reader and I were talking about fictional characters. At some point I was talking--I think--about one of the characters in my work-in-progress (a philosophical detective story) and Mighty Reader asked something like, "Would the average person act that way?"
My first response was to sort of mentally trip over my own feet because the question seemed to have nothing whatever to do with writing novels. "What the average person would do," I nearly said in my loathsome pedantic manner, "Has absolutely nothing to do with what characters in novels do."*
A few of my friends who are bright folks and smart readers but who are not writers have, over the years, talked about what "the average person" would do when I've been describing my own novels. Usually these friends have been attempting to give me good advice, to keep me from writing something really stupid, to guide me toward verisimilitude and all of that. For which, you know, I thank them, but the fact remains that good fiction has very little to do with average people.
Which might seem counterintuitive, because--especially as a writer of literary/interpretive fiction--I claim to be writing about topics that concern real people and "ring true to life." I should be awfully concerned with the average person in that case, right? Well, no. I am concerned with compelling and believable characters, with interesting characters who have interesting problems, but not with average characters.
(At this point in this post I realize that what I'm saying is obvious and likely doesn't need to be said. But posts don't write themselves so I continue and apologize for wasting your time.)
This rejection of "the average person" doesn't have to do with the claim that we need to create "memorable" protagonists with idiosyncrasies or any of that (which too often leads simply to protagonists who are just like the author but with purple hair, a rad tattoo and a habit of ending every sentence with "dammit" or whatever). What I mean is that characters need to be believable--we accept that such a person could actually exist and the fictional character displays consistent behavior within the novel--but fictional characters need not represent the middle of the bell curve of whatever society you belong to.
The other important thing to keep in mind is, I think, the stunning fact that none of us is actually "the average person." We might be statistically normal in many ways but there are ways in which we each deviate from that norm. I'm a middle-aged, middle-class white guy who works in an office and has a mortgage. That seems pretty average. But none of that (O, I am a unique snowflake!) is what makes me interesting (let's pretend for a moment that I actually am interesting in real life) and none of that is something that would make a good novel, I don't think.
(I repeat my apology for having wasted your time. These days, whenever I write a post about writing, I seem to be saying nothing that's either new or useful: "Write interesting characters!" Ground-breaking advice, that.)
Added: Aha! What's missing from this ramble is the real idea behind it: that actual fiction about "real life" does not actually imitate real life! That when we fictionauts talk about the world, we do so using art and artifice and our puppets only have to catch the imagination and hold it for the duration of the show; they don't have to look, talk and act like the audience's cartoon mental image of "real people," which is likely oversimplified and inaccurate anyway. Or something. Readers, that is, don't realize that what they are reading is an abstraction rather than a mirror. A commentary rather than a photorealist portrait. And stuff.
* NOTE: Mighty Reader points out that she knew what I meant right away and that she is not the dunce this post makes her out to be. I apologize to Mighty Reader for implying that she's a mere reader, not Mighty Reader.