Wednesday, June 22, 2011

What the Average Person Is Like

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.


  1. When I read the title of your post I wondered: "is there such a thing as an average person? i thought it was urban legend."

    And my second point:
    I want to read about out of the ordinary people and events

    not boring I took the garbage out and washed my hair . . .

    Bella Vida by Letty
    Have a great day.

  2. I enjoy reading novels about ordinary people caught up in extraordinary events. Maybe "ordinary" is more apropos than "average."

    And I also enjoy reading about extraordinary people doing anything at all.

    I don't think I'd ask an author (were I reading their WIP), "Would an average person do that" but rather "Would your character, as you've thus far limned him or her, do that?" That's a much more pertinent enquiry.

    Then again, I've run across novels where the protagonist did something which made me think, "NO ONE in their right mind would do THAT." Which is something else entirely. I call it, "stupidity."

    Finally, you are not wasting my time. Never in life.


  3. BellaVida: Henry James would tell you that a woman standing in her doorway, having just taken out the trash and looking at you in a particular way, is an event worth writing a novel for.

    Alex: Yes, ordinary as opposed to average. See my addendum to the post, I think. I also might guess that once a person is caught up in extraordinary events, he is no longer ordinary. He's in a new wakefulness. Though sometimes not. But on average, yes. (I slay me!)

  4. Even if the post is high-level common knowledge, the conversation it inspires can be valuable, so don't sell yourself short.

    I think the advantage to having an average person is that more readers can relate to that character. The average character in the extraordinary situation can be a great hook. When I read THE ROAD, I was able to picture myself as the Man and my son as the Boy. That connection is what made that book work so well for me.

    On the opposite side of the spectrum you have a character like Hannibal Lector. Definitely not average, but to me he's one of the most compelling antagonists in modern fiction (at least in the early books in which he appears). Hopefully no one reading this can relate directly to Hannibal the Cannibal...but the distance from the character can be the primary attractive force. Readers can't wait to see what he will do next, because it's crazy and something the average reader never would have thought of on their own.

    I guess is all boils down to the execution. Damn, I was hoping to avoid going there.

  5. Rick: I don't see the man in THE ROAD as being "average" at all. He's a medical doctor and he's got outdoorsman skills and is more like an adventurer than the average American (who I think would roll over and die and then maybe get eaten by one of the blood cults). You and I could survive in the post-apocalypse, sure, but would most of the people we know? Maybe that character is how a lot of men would like to see themselves, and that's why it's gained its status as "guy fiction." Again, not really an average person at all but rather an abstraction, a work of artifice.

    Execution, Daley? Execution?

  6. This post dips into the idea of how realistic a writer can/should be. Often, the things that have people not believe my writing are the things that really happened to people. One guy in particular insisted that I couldn't have a character swallow a mango seed, even after I told him that my grandmother swallowed a mango seed. When I write a character, I feel like I'm battling this muffling that happens on the page. Things in words are often either louder or quieter than real life and I sort of calibrate that. So, I might exaggerate something relative to reality to make it seem real on the page. Or, I might subtlify something to make it seem real on the page. I also think of characters as being people readers can relate to. You can exaggerate a trait that other people might have to bring it into focus and to make the reader relate to it.

    Hi Scott!

  7. The man in The Road does read as average in the book, though. At least I read him as average. I was able to relate to him as an average person. He's no Tyra Banks, that's for sure.

  8. I think I'm just in the mood to talk today.

  9. Davin: Yeah, the way readers think about reality is often incredibly limited, and some will accept the most outlandish lies while rejecting the historical truth. Which is just weird and maddening and I, for one, try not to think about it.

    Also: "characters as being people" is just so weird to me. Characters aren't people at all. I don't think of them as people. Even so, I meet real people all the time that I can't relate to; they seem like aliens, you know? Real people are the weirdest creatures I can think of. Anyway, I've said before that I don't believe in this "character" we writers talk about. "Character" is just another aspect of narrative, like plot or word choice.

    But I do know what you mean about how events on the page never seem to mimic their impact in real life; they either come as too small or too large and it's some tricky to balance it.

    Hey, Davin!

  10. I think the guy in the Road reads as average because he's the focal character and everything that happens (until the boy takes over the narratiive at the end) is relative to him; he's like the yardstick by which other humans are measured. But I don't see him as "average" outside that story. Not at all. I didn't know other readers did. Huh.

  11. I think the Man feels average because of what he goes through. He gets cold, scared, and sick. He gets tired and hungry. He is an outdoorsman, but doesn't go through Man vs. Wild scenarios scaling mountains and repelling cliffs (although he does push a shopping cart up a snowy incline); he doesn't make cool-ass MacGyver inventions (although he does fix the wheel on the aforementioned shopping cart). Granted he survived the apocalypse where the vast majority of people perished, but the most extraordinary thing we know about his reaction to the event is that he filled the bathtub with water. It makes an average reader like me think Hells yeah, I could totally survive the apocalypse too!

    I think I'm going to turn the faucets on, brb...

  12. That was a pretty cool shopping cart, come to think of it.

  13. Of course, nobody could survive that apocalypse for long, and the ending of THE ROAD is a total wimp-out and I felt cheated. Though I liked the fish at the very end.

  14. You've mentioned the fish twice now. I don't remember a fish at all. I do remember being bored at the end, though. I also remember working in a refrigerated room when I read the basement scene and how that amplified my fear.

  15. Yeah, I don't think McCarthy knew how he wanted to end the story and he took the coward's way out. And then bang: Pulitzer!

    The fish is a single paragraph of gorgeous prose that comes after the actual story is over, right on the final page of the book and it's really cool.

  16. Only because it's you, Scott, I will go home and check out the last paragraph.

  17. Alas, I haven't read The Road, but it seems to be a classic hero's journey, and since Homer, that character has been a kind of Everyman. Odysseus is "wily" rather than truly heroic like Achilles.

    A great contemporary Everyman is Arthur Dent in Hitchhikers Guide. We relate to him mostly because he shuffles around the Galaxy looking for nice cup of tea. I don't think we'd care if the story were told from the point of view of Zaphod Beeblebrox, fascinating as he is.

    What I really can't deal with is the new breed of superwoman kick-ass hero, who never gets uncomfortable in those spandex outfits and can beat up 25 guys without messing her mascara. I can't bring myself to care about a character who always wins and has so little in common with actual humans.

  18. Anne, it would be cool to write about a superhero who gets uncomfortable in the spandex uniform!

  19. For whatever reason, I think that a character like Mr Crick in Waterland, who is a school teacher having a nervous breakdown (after his wife's gone mad and kidnapped a baby from a Safeway) and is being forcibly retired by the headmaster and his class aren't paying attention to the lessons about the French Revolution so he starts telling them about the truly messed-up history of his own family, is a much more compelling and--oddly enough maybe--understandable and human and real character than an everyman like Arthur Dent. YMMV.

    And yeah, everyone is writing Trinity-from-Matrix heroines. But people are still writing ubermensch male heroes, too, so maybe we should give the women some play as kickass supercoolers. I don't know; that's not really my area, as they say.

  20. I've thought and discussed this in a slightly different context with MY might reader..:) (who also happens to be a mighty film-watcher, so our discussion was more in the context of film).

    I think the key to this whole argument is probably just this:
    "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"

    Bad fiction/film and media has existed for long enough that you really don't know if the 'average real' is 'real' or just a mirror of all the bad mainstream art-type-stuff anyway which might have actually lead to this oversimplified and cartoonish image of average people that many 'real people' might have.

    I don't know if that even made sense- it did during the few seconds I was writing it..:)


  21. Lavanya: I get it. People who consume a lot of mass culture have a simplistic view of human nature, because that's all mass culture portrays. Anything that contradicts that simplistic view is considered to be unrealistic.

  22. My first impulse was to say that the average person in my town is a moron. But I think the morons just stand out more. (Think Mob Wives and you'll see my point.)

    I also enjoy an ordinary person confronted with an unusual problem or situation, but if their actions and the dialogue were average, it would tire me quickly.

  23. Wow I'm lame for just now getting to this post. Anyway, yes, I agree that fiction shouldn't imitate real life, but what I love about certain kinds of fiction is that it can takes un-ordinary characters and give them such ordinary characteristics and experiences that I'm left comparing them and those experiences to my own life. Then I find really profound parallels. Jhumpa Lahiri does that for me extremely well, as well as Davin.

    However, it must be said that those parallels wouldn't show up if those characters were, say, average. What is average, anyway? Like you say, it's a bell curve, and that could be awfully boring to read about.

  24. Oh, I know the answer to this!

    The average person is a 28-year-old Chinese man. I don't know if that's based on mode, mean, or median, but that's what I've heard.

  25. I think I like reading about ordinary people who do extraordinary things...and sometimes have oddities or injuries or something...quirks. One of my favorite authors is Cathy Lamb. Her characters are the quirkiest...and so much fun! Yet the stories and people in the stories touch the readers heart. You literally laugh through your tears. The characters aren't ordniary at all...even though sometimes the events that carry them through their lives are events that carry us all through in real life.

    Not sure if I made sense at all, but there ya have it. :)

  26. Hahaha I really enjoyed this post.

    I think of writing as sort of like a home-style restaurant.

    The food reminds you of your mum's cooking, but must be better than her cooking. Otherwise, why would you pay for it if you could get it at home?

    Just so, stories need to be similar to life, but at the same time larger than life. Why would people read stories that are too close to being about plain vanilla people when the time could be better spent on their own lives? There must be an element of escape. And for there to be escape, something must be different.



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