All stories are populated by character archetypes—some inspiring and larger than life, others small and unassuming. The everyman is the most unassuming archetypal character of all, but they often find themselves filling big shoes and going on dynamic, exciting journeys. That’s what makes them so fun to read (and write!) about.
Let’s dive into what the everyman archetype means in literature, why we love them as unlikely heroes, and some examples from beloved stories across time.
What is the everyman archetype?
The everyman archetype is a mundane and unremarkable character designed to be a stand-in for the reader or audience. They don’t display any outward powers or extraordinary strengths, but they are humble, compassionate, and kind. Through the everyman archetype, the reader is able to insert their own self image into the story and live it alongside the character.
Also called the “everyperson” or the “common person,” everyman archetypes usually begin as a regular person living their regular, everyday life before being faced with a new set of circumstances. They then have to adjust their understanding of the world in order to survive, move forward, and grow.
Why are everyman archetypes effective in storytelling?
If you’ve been keeping up with your literary studies, you might be familiar with the Hero’s Journey story archetype—a universal narrative template in which an unlikely hero goes on an external and internal journey of discovery.
It may surprise you to learn that the heroes in these stories are almost always everyman archetypes. In fact, beginning in an “ordinary world” is one of the essential plot points of the Hero’s Journey.
Readers love the everyman archetype because they exhibit the traits readers like to imagine in themselves: empathetic, relatable, and hard-working. When the everyman begins facing obstacles, discoveries, and new experiences—whether this is of a supernatural nature, or simply a new stage of life—it’s easy for the reader to empathise with their journey because they’ve already developed a connection with the character.
Because the everyman character is just a regular guy, watching him (or her!) overcome extraordinary challenges and find a new reservoir of inner strength feels satisfying in a visceral and transcendent way; the reader feels that if this character can do it, maybe they themselves can too.
The everyman archetype has a lot in common with the classical antihero character, for this same reason. Audiences have always loved watching an ordinary person become a hero with the ability to inspire others.
Characteristics of the everyman archetype
Next, let’s look at some of the distinctive characteristics that you’ll find in most of these archetypes.
1. They’re empathetic of others
Unlike some other characters in literature, the everyman character is usually pretty good at telling how other people are feeling. They’re compassionate and understanding precisely because they believe that everyone deserves to have a voice.
When another character is struggling, the everyman will be among the first to pick up on it and look for solutions to help. (Hint: most people like to see themselves like this, whether or not it is true—another reason why everyman characters are so relatable.)
This is why they make a great character to have as a best friend.
2. They believe in equality
As a stand-in for the silent majority of any community, the everyman archetype believes that everyone is created equal. Unlike the rebel archetype, they don’t go on kamikaze missions trying to prove this universal truth; however, they live their life in a way that champions this basic ideal.
They rarely exhibit deep internalized prejudices against minority identities, and they believe in being a good neighbor to those around them. The everyman gets along with pretty much everyone and takes a simple, balanced view of the world.
3. They’re grounded and hard-working
One of the most common traits among everyman characters is that they’re a “nose-to-the-grindstone” type who believes in the value of a hard day’s work. They’re solid, dependable, and down-to-earth.
This is why you often find everyman characters in labourer positions or lifelong mid-level roles; they’re not afraid to work hard, but they sometimes lack in aspiration (more on that below).
4. They’re humble and easily satisfied
The everyman archetype lives a pretty simple life filled with simple joys and pleasures.
They may have a strong family culture, and they don’t spend all their time worrying about what they don’t have or what they’ve not become. Instead, they focus on enjoying good food, good company, and a sense of belonging in their community. In this way they can be quite similar to the lover archetype.
5. They’re kind, but flawed
The everyman is the typical boy- or girl-next-door, and generally what you would think of as being a fundamentally good person. However, they’re not unrealistically pristine.
The everyman archetype is often guilty of the typical weaknesses most people experience in the scope of their life: pessimism, cynicism, or personal insecurity. It’s common for an everyman character to worry about things like their body image or how they’re perceived. They might also exhibit traits like short-temperedness or anxiety.
6. They may lack drive and ambition
Once an everyman archetype has their basic need met in terms of sustenance, sense of belonging, security, and stability, they don’t feel the need to upset the status quo. A good job is good enough; basic safety and contentment is preferable over a career that’s high risk and high reward.
For this reason they often don’t fulfil their ultimate potential—at least, until the events of your story are put into motion.
Everyman archetype examples from literature
Chances are, you’ve come across examples of the everyman archetype every day of your life. But to see how this looks in practice through narrative mediums like books and film, let’s take a closer look at a few everyman archetype examples that readers have fallen in love with.
(Spoiler alert: lots of Martin Freeman roles coming up here.)
The protagonist of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (portrayed by Martin Freeman in the 2005 film), Arthur Dent is an utterly normal, utterly English human who finds his existence forever changed when his planet is demolished in the name of intergalactic progress.
In this sci-fi adventure, Arthur is exposed to extraterrestrial monsters, time travel, and paranoid androids… all while trying to find a decent cup of tea in space. Even while the world around him seems to have lost all semblance of common sense, he manages to retain his own identity as an honest, hardworking man of simple pleasures and ideals.
John Watson, best friend and sidekick of Sherlock Holmes, is a classic example of the everyman archetype. He doesn’t share his friend’s superhuman insight or deductive capabilities. Instead, he navigates his new world in much the same way as any of us would—with determination, wonder, and a hint of luck.
Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle chose to tell his stories through this everyman character because it makes them feel more relatable to the average reader. Showing Sherlock’s adventures through John’s open-hearted, everyman lens makes the thrilling twists and turns more accessible to a broad audience.
As a famous example of a hero’s journey story, The Hobbit is told through the eyes of a simple, unremarkable creature of comfort. Although Bilbo is a non-human character, he exhibits all the best traits of humanity.
When the wizard Gandalf arrives and whisks him off onto an adventure, Bilbo is forced to rise to the occasion without ever losing his innermost sense of self. Eventually, he finds himself on equal footing with the others in the story and discovers he’s capable of more than he ever imagined.
The everyman archetype brings mass appeal to your writing
As a representation of the common man, the everyman archetype is a great way to help readers identify with your story on a deep and personal level.
Because the everyman has a genuine and authentic personality that the reader can recognize within themselves, your audience can connect with the events of your plot, and the growth of your protagonist, in a way that will stay with them long after the book is closed.