Who is Joe Everyman?
You see him everywhere, with his crewcut, t-shirts, jeans, and vintage motorcycle jacket; this white, clean shaven, hetrosexual, twenty to thirty something rules the summer movie season. A de-socialized soldier in civilian clothes, he goes wherever the screenwriters order, not because of a strong desire, but because the plot needs him to be there.
He doesn’t waste screen time illustrating his motivations, those frames are better served with explosions. When there’s a 120 page script with 250 scenes, he’ll be there. When it feels like you’re watching a two hour montage, he’ll be there. When a set piece passes before you can figure out its dimensions, he’ll be there sprinting onto the next one. While other films take time to reveal their characters, Joe Everyman races to the closing credits.
When the premise is the selling point Joe doesn’t slow things down with character development. Every second he needs to evolve, comes at the expense of giant robots knocking over skyscrapers. He keeps things consistent so we can get back to super-sized dinosaurs fighting on beach front property, and UFOs blasting through landmarks.
In screenwriting, there’s a rule: enter a scene late, leave it early. Joe Everyman exploits this rule, to seem like more than what we see. As a cheat, the screenwriter implies Joe is a dynamic three-dimensional character, whenever he’s not there.
Joe can make his wife laugh, though we’ll never hear his joke. She’s swooning over a romantic gesture he performed off screen. They’re deeply in love, see they’re kissing, in a nice warm lit room shown through a shaky camera, so you know its intimate. As for the rest of their relationship, we’ll just have to take the movie’s word for it.
The screenwriter didn’t have time to fill in Joe’s personality, they left you to do it for them. Joe is a mannequin, hanging from train cars, leaping across buildings. A blank template for the viewer to project themselves onto, a surrogate, an empty vessel, a pod person. He’s a cardboard cutout with flat character traits and an empty face, ‘insert self here.’ He has a Madlib in place of a personality.
In this by the numbers story telling equation, the hero is the least important variable.
Without a call to action, Joe Everyman would languish behind a desk for the rest of his life. Stuck in a go nowhere 9 to 5, he’d have his 2.5 kids, and wait for his 401k to come. Coincidence has elevated him to the role of the chosen one, the one who will bring balance to the force, lead our armies against Skynet, and free us from the Matrix. If only there was a mentor figure to tell the rest of us how special we were.
The Alternative is Always more Attractive
There’s a reason everyone likes Han Solo over Luke Skywalker, Wolverine over Cyclops, Michaelangelo over Leonardo, Hit Girl over Kick Ass, Captain Jack Sparrow over Will Turner, Elizabeth Swann over Will Turner, Captain Barbossa over Will Turner (you see where I’m going with this).
Personality is appealing. Every saga has its vanilla individuals, fine, safe, and boring, then there are the players with some flavor.
Choosing between ‘interesting’ and ‘identifiable’ character attributes, I go with interesting every time. The character’s drive, goals, and failings should make them identifiable, not their broad appeal.
Beige just isn’t my color.
While erratic villains lead the plot in interesting directions, Joe Everyman takes orders between locations. Walking off the set of War of the Worlds, Joe shows up in Godzilla in the exact same outfit. Sam Worthington’s character from Terminator Salvation wondered through Avatar, then onto the set of Clash of the Titans. These were different time periods and places, but the exact same person. Not to make fun of Worthington as an actor, he’s good in everything I’ve seen him in, it’s just these parts were all underwritten.
Joe Everyman makes the supporting cast look cool by accident. He’s always upstaged by misfits whose plots we’d rather follow.
I can’t help but imagine a Matrix movie with Morpheus as the lead, a Thor title starring Loki, or a Godzilla film staring Bryan Cranston (for those of you saying “Don’t we already have one of those?” No, no we don’t).
Joe Everyman must come into His Own
Joe Everyman is a portrait of the audience, painted in broad strokes, a bad boardwalk caricature. His psych profile is all encompassing. He’s the one size fits all of storytelling. He communicates with all the grace of an advertisement, a Frankenstein Monster stitched together from market research. As authentic as a politician, he’s something for everyone, and everything to no one.
He’s so hyper-average that he threatens the suspension of disbelief.
Plenty of stories start with a pessimistic protagonist. A person who’s been railroaded by life, a victim of a series of accidents who learns to take control of their situation. A passive presence who changes the moment they decide they truly want something. This is when Joe Everyman works best, when he becomes Joe Individual.
In The Matrix, Neo decides he’s not ‘the one.’ Realizing his life is expendable, he sets out to save his mentor. Rather than let the Oracle tell him what he is, he makes a defiant decision (which I know, was her plan all along). Regardless of the existentialist determinist debate, Neo believes he’s made this choice on his own. Killing his Mr. Anderson persona, he evolves into his avatar.
A storytelling crime happens when Joe Everyman is introduced only to stay blank until the very end. He may have gone through an adventure, but made no choices, personal changes, and learned no lessons. Taking orders without making decisions, he’s still just a victim of circumstance.
If a screenwriter wants our empathy, they shouldn’t expect it from the character’s presentation. Sure the guy on screen might look like me, but he has to earn my empathy. Get me invested in his plight, until his goals become my goals, his change becomes my change, and his outcome becomes my outcome. Then, and only then, will I see myself in him.
Do this well and it won’t matter what age, gender, color, or sexual orientation this character comes in, we’ll still see ourselves in them.
When you create a slate for people to project themselves on, take care not to leave it blank. If the vessel stays empty, it will feel hollow to the audience. Average Joe Everyman should end up Exceptional Joe Individual, or at the very least Tragic Joe Anti-Hero.