The Myth of the Everyman Action Hero

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  • Monday, January 14, 2013
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  • Sean Ellis
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  • Last week, in my discussion of Dan Brown, I also mentioned the movie Die Hard, and the fact that, for a while after Die Hard came out, everyone was trying to imitate it, or at the very least, cash in on it as a marketing gimmick. Naturally, this story from Daniel O’Brien at caught my eye.
    If you don't feel like clicking through, I'll give you a hint about one of the three...Die Hard. 
    What really stood out to me was the reference to Willis’ John McClane as “the perfect example of the Everyman Action Hero.”  Why that?  Probably because of a conversation I recently had with an author friend whose literary agent suggested he write “an Everyman kind of story.”  He wasn’t thrilled with the idea, and I think I know why.
    The original Die Hard was something of a singularity in that it took Willis, an actor known mainly for a single comedic role (the TV series Moonlighting) and cast him against type as a serious action-hero.  That, more than anything else, is what set it apart from the rest of the genre (at the time at least).  Willis wasn’t a steroid-fueled bodybuilder or a grim-faced, steely-eyed killer, nor was he traditional Hollywood leading man material.  He was accessible to the audience in a way that his contemporaries—you know who I mean…the rest of the Expendables—never were.  Accessibility fuels our sense of living vicariously through the character.  If barefoot and faced with a skyscraper full of terrorist, I’d figure out a way to save the day, I know I would, but for damn sure I’d turn the air blue with muttered invective.
    Accessible, yes…but Everyman?  John McClane is a police detective.  He packs heat, he’s got experience dealing with high pressure situations…maybe he’s no ex-Green Beret/SEAL/CIA spook/whatever…but he’s still got skills that set him apart from the rest of the folks at the party. Perhaps in demeanor, he’s an Everyman, but in terms of lethality, he’s on par with Dirty Harry.  He may not be a Highly Specialized Action Hero, but he definitely skews that way.
    Plausibility is an important part of writing a thriller, especially when it comes to developing the protagonist.  If the character is too…well, just too much of anything…then the story starts to become parody (some of my friends in the New Pulp community might beg to differ).  This was the problem (for me at least) with a lot of those action movies of yore.  On the other hand, how plausible is the Everyman protagonist? Would it have been more or less believable if John McClane had (as Hans Gruber mistakenly thought at one point) actually been a rogue janitor?
    Part of the plausibility problem is that the protagonist must have the basic skills to deal with the situation.  These skills often involve knowing how to apply violence and how to remain calm and collected in the face of real danger.  Plausibly, the best place to acquire those skills is through military training—the more elite, the better—so little wonder that many writers (myself included) have dipped into that well.  There are other ways for your protagonist to acquire both a taste for- and an immunity to- the affects of adrenaline (e.g. past criminal lifestyle) but these can be trickier from a moral perspective.
    Skills notwithstanding, the real challenge to plausibility is getting your character into the story.  For the Everyman protagonist, it can simply be wrong place/wrong time…but if you’re writing a serial character, you’ll be pushing credibility if lightning strikes twice (or five times—See Die Hard franchise).  If you want to visit trouble on your hero more than once, he (or she) will almost certainly have to have a more compelling reason than coincidence, for being in thick of things.  And of course, the sort of story you want to tell in terms of subject and scope, will tend to dictate the orbit of the character.  Private investigators generally don’t run afoul of secret agent level world domination plots…unless of course they are former CIA-agents turned rent-a-dick.
    Not all the skills have to be violent in nature, but they will of necessity exert a limiting influence on the story.  For example, can you conceive of an adventure where Dan Brown’s serial symbologist Robert Langdon doesn’t have to figure out a code or symbol?  Can you picture him taking on a skyscraper full of terrorists? Utilizing a specific skill set will limit the variety of contrivances that may be employed to get the ball rolling.
    The Accessible Everyman Action Hero remains a sort of Holy Grail for me. Someday, I’m going to come up with a character that can have the adventures I want him (or her) to have…get in the kinds of trouble I want to create…without being cut from the standard Specialized Action Hero mold. 
    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having a protagonist that has elite commando training or somesuch, but I worry that it can start to feel a little too familiar to readers, formulaic even.   But maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way.  “Formula” has such a negative connotation, but what it really means is a balanced equation of certain parts that has already demonstrated its success.  A better word would be “recipe.” 
    You can tweak a recipe, but you don’t want to make wholesale changes.  I might be able to make a unique chocolate chip cookie by the addition of some cinnamon or nutmeg, but if I substitute raisins for chocolate chips…well, then it’s not a chocolate chip cookie any more.  We don’t just tolerate the sameness of the chocolate chips, we look forward to them.  Maybe the same goes for the Highly Specialized Action Hero.
    I’d love to hear your thoughts on this subject:  Everyman or Highly Specialized?  Elite or Regular-Joe?  Formula or Recipe?  Chocolate chip or raisin?


    crossingswords said...

    Why can't a protagonist be both highly specialized and an everyman? A recent hero from Ben Coes' novels named Dewey Andreas comes to mind. I'm not overly familiar with the character much past the first novel but in it he was a FORMER military man turned oil rig worker.

    I consider my own hero creation Declan McIver an everyman hero as well. He's spent far more of his life in the "civilian" world than he did in any kind of military service. Even his "highly specialized" training came in the form of a civilian army of sorts (The IRA.)

    Both of the heroes mentioned above do have training in stressful situations so perhaps they are not the everyman you had in mind. I do think that the circumstances of their lives that get them into trouble are more interesting as a result of them not being "professional operators" though.

    The ex-CIA/SEAL/RANGER type is becoming very normal in terms of literary heroes and I think some authors are starting to take notice of this. My novel Veil of Civility featuring Declan McIver will be out in the Spring. I'm excited to learn what people think of this "reformed terrorist" turned American entreprenuer.

    ~ Ian (

    Steve Manke said...

    Great post! This has been on my mind a lot lately. Particularly weighing the formular/recipe of the protagonist being an experienced operator. I think the "every man" hero is underutilized. But its for exactly the reasons you explain. It stretches that bounds of credibility, particularly in the thriller genre.

    That said, I think there could be a potential hit for the author who finds the right balance and puts the right character in just the right situation. I could be almost a magical synergy because it will break with the more commonly accepted recipe.

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