Working from the template of the everyman and the action hero can help you achieve buy-in from the player, but it’ll take more than that to make your player character something special. In fact, making your protagonist safe is really directly at odds with making him or her original, evocative, or lifelike. There is a vital arm-wrestling match that goes on here between all those limitations and the creative goal of making a really good, memorable character. It may be that successfully walking that line is what gives the best game characters (and all formal creative endeavors) that elusive magic and vibrancy.
Be that as it may, we’re not done listing all the various constraints and limitations. The problem of finding an acceptable player character is followed directly by the problem of how to present that character to the player. The player only knows their avatar as presented, after all. And it’s an important distinction.
To give the cast of Psychonauts the level depth and individuality he wanted, Tim Schafer created mock-Friendster pages for each character. But this is not how we come to know the hero Razputin. Instead, we meet the be-goggled hero of the game when he crashes the opening ceremonies at a summer camp for psychically gifted children – and manages not to get kicked out. His charming bravado and sincerity come through in spades in the several minutes of the intro scene, without almost any of the personalities, relationships, and background information that Mr. Schafer so diligently prepared.
For Psychonauts, Doublefine created a charming and very well developed protagonist. This is by no means the industry standard, and, in fact, I’m not sure you could say that as an industry, we have all agreed that such definition is the goal. Most game developers do a pretty good job of finding that action hero/everyman sweet-spot, but far fewer take the time to make more out of the hero or find a compelling, striking way to introduce them.
God of War, Max Payne, and Grand Theft Auto 3 (and 4, it appears!) stand out in this regard, simply for properly setting up the beginning of the game, even, in Max Payne’s and GTA’s cases, if the setup is a pastiche of pulp fiction clichés.
Other games approach the issue by defining the hero as little as humanly possible. Half Life 2 is an example of this category. Although you technically play as Gordon Freeman, it feels much more like you yourself have been sucked into Valve's beautiful, dynamic, lovingly crafted world. But in the end this hurts the story side a little – Alex’s role as a potential love-interest feels more like the developer flirting with its fan-base than a romantic sub-plot.
More peculiar, and, to my mind, problematic, is when a game hands the job of character creation over to the player. This is the standard in Western-style RPG's, inherited more or less wholesale from their pen-and-paper counterparts. But there is a big difference between Dungeons & Dragons and, er, Dungeons and Dragons Online. The table-top gamers ostensibly role-play – as in act – and player-crafted characters are a real element of that. We have not yet invented social AI that allows for the same sort of acting in computer RPG's.
Herein lies a notion I would love to try and dispel, that being that ninety-nine out of a hundred gamers will, under no circumstances, make up elaborate back-stories for their characters. They will not imagine a rich Tolkienian narrative on top of the game’s bare plot. They will do nothing at all like use the game’s narrative structure as a canvas on which to construct their own self-expressed meta-narratives. Story and character-development are our jobs. The gamer is not an aspiring actor or writer; he or she just wants to be entertained. More specifically, the gamer would be happiest to be able to step right up to the role of the dashing hero, with a full tank of gas, ready for the road.
The real reason that common Western RPG conventions such as character customization and multiple quest/career paths have persisted is that they make good gameplay. Customizing the appearance, alignment, and profession of a character belong to sandbox and sim styles of gameplay, not to game storytelling.
Having to deal with so many different configurations of player character makes storytelling harder, if anything. The color of your hair and whether you are a wizard or a warrior are not dramatically meaningful choices. And while choosing to between good and evil actions can be, if a bit crude, many games (such as Fable) manage to make it a purely customization-based affair. Now it is true that these customized characters fit the everyman bill, but they don’t accomplish much more than that. The player is bringing their own hero to the story, and the fit, not being tailored, is a poor one.