Here’s my favorite idea from the past few months:
Nobody is average.
I first came across it on an episode of the podcast 99% Invisible. Basically, if you measure a large population for several traits (let’s say ten) and take an average, you’ll get a measurement of the average person—but nobody you measured will actually match that average. A person with the average leg length will have the wrong foot size, and so forth. This is called the Jaggedness Principle (referring to the jaggedness of the data).
If nobody is average, do you know what this means? All those “realistic” novels with that dull Everyman protagonist, all those movies about the Average Joe—
They were lies. THERE IS NO AVERAGE JOE.
I’ve been feeling it for a while now, that the fictional people I read about are way less interesting than the people I know. People in fiction can ride dragons and rise from the dead, but it’s the people around me who keep blowing my mind with how gloriously fucking weird they are. Sometimes the gloriously fucking weird people are the ones writing the dull Average Joes, in their well-trodden worlds, in their predictable plots.
By default, we write characters and plots we’ve seen before. We have ideas about “average” and “realistic” people and how they behave. We have standard narratives of what’s believable, and they’re a lot narrower than the real world.
Say I’ve fleshed out my hero as a three-dimensional person who is not at all average, but my planned plot dictates I now need the “wife,” the “best friend,” and the “other woman.” I can picture those characters right now: vague amalgams of people I’ve met and stories I’ve read.
No actual human is as boringly average as the people I’m picturing.
If you can inject the true and the unexpected into those people, even just a little bit, you’ll have a better and truer story.
Let me pause a moment to pick on gender stereotypes, because fuck gender stereotypes.
Let’s average all men into the Average Man and all women into the Average Woman. (All the nonbinary folks will hide in our usual invisible corner for this exercise.) He’s taller; she’s shorter. Studies show some behavioral traits correlate with gender. I’m not going to argue nature or nurture right now; I’m just going to say—sure. Let’s assume Average Woman has all the average female traits and Average Man all the male ones. Our two prototypes are totally distinct, with a hard bright line between them. (The way they seem to be in almost every book I’ve picked up for ages. Bleh.)
Those “average” people we’re picturing—they’re bullshit. The jaggedness of the data is just as true here. Nobody exists who is not a complicated overlapping mix of all the traits we just drew hard lines between. (Here’s a neat article about this.)
Identity traits like gender or race are a huge part of a person and the world they move through. Expanding our narratives means listening to varied points of view, not just to those of our designated default humans, the straight, cis, able-bodied white guys. But it’s also true that every person is a gazillion things, and their gender only tells you one thing.
There is no hard bright line. So let’s stop drawing one.
If nobody is average, we writers can ignore that nagging voice telling us that “average” characters are more realistic. That the unusual is unusual. That there’s such thing as a default human. As we build out from the available narrative, we change it. We expand the things it’s possible to say.
Here is my call to arms: Look at your life, and look at your writing. Notice how your preconceptions and stock narratives distort the real world into something more predictable and believable and “average.” When you choose believability over reality (and sometimes you should), be mindful of what you choose and why. Embrace the structures and tropes that feel true to you, and reject those that feel false.
Find the true things no one has said before. Tell them to us until we understand.
PHOTO CREDIT: www.unsplash.com/anh-phan-133452