The Protagonist Opportunity

First, go read this amazing essay by Ada Palmer and Jo Walton. I’ll wait.

So, speaking of hotel clerks, there once was a man who went to a conference at a hotel whose customer-service motto was “There are no such things as problems, only opportunities.” He went up to the desk and said to the clerk, “There’s a problem with my room.” “Ah,” said the clerk, tapping the sign, “but there are no problems, only opportunities.” “Call it what you want to,” the man retorted, “but there’s a woman in the room assigned to me.”

Yes, it’s a stupid joke, and faintly creepy to boot, but it plays into what Palmer and Walton are talking about in their essay, which is at bottom an issue of displacement, in the Archimidean sense. It reminds me of the time when I, with disastrous naivety, joined a writer’s group while I was working on Ryswyck. At one point another member grilled me about who the protagonist was in the story: I tried to say that if anything, Speir and Douglas (and specifically the friendship between them) was the protagonist, if there had to be one — but that wasn’t sufficient. I finally allowed as how the reader’s-eye POV belonged to Speir, but refused to follow the logic that was being pressed on me: they wanted me to refocus the story on one person and leave out what wasn’t relevant to her directly.

Needless to say, this was the beginning of the end of my participation in this group, but I’m really grateful to Palmer and Walton for bringing an even wider angle lens to this issue — for describing the continuum of storytelling from protagonismos through braided POV through tapestry. Not only does this perspective explain why I find pitch advice for aspiring writers so desperately annoying (“make sure to identify your protagonist and her conflict/desire/pain point!”), it shows how dangerous for our collective narrative diet it is to read no stories except those driven by protagonismos.

Of the tapestry stories mentioned in the essay, I’ve read only the last — Edward Rutherfurd’s Sarum, which a housemate lent me as a favorite book of his (in exchange for Doomsday Book, if I recall correctly). I would never have picked up this immense book on my own, but I was fascinated by this “tapestry” mode of storytelling, in which all the characters, and the landscape itself, are like the striations of a muscle, working away to drive the story along. I do believe that even a plague flea was given a brief POV in Rutherfurd’s book.

Like Palmer and Walton, I’m not entirely sure what made Rutherfurd the final outlier in the trend away from tapestry storytelling, but I remember the 90s, and recall how much of the fin of that particular siècle was dominated by avatars — the Tank Man in Tiananmen Square, Bill Clinton, O.J. Simpson, Ryan White, Tupac Shakur, Michael Jordan (a lot of men are coming to mind, for some reason!). Stories were avatarized: A Night to Remember became Titanic; D-Day became Saving Private Ryan. Nowadays we’re getting villain origin stories, as if the only way to make Cruella de Vil interesting or compelling is to protagonize her. And let’s not get into Star Wars, shall we?

As the essay points out, the trend has swung so hard that a series like Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” — which in another frame would be seen as a bog-standard braided-POV story — is regarded as an outlier for having a large ensemble cast. Ensemble casts have been actively discouraged as making books unwieldy and hard to sell. My friend and fellow indie author Erica H. Smith has embraced the cast-of-thousands approach — structurally, her books are made up of disciplined POV braids mostly in tight-third, but every other chapter she finds herself inventing another fascinating walk-on character to stir things along and I’m usually like, “Ooh! I like them; are we going to see them again?” “…Maybe.”

This is one of the uses of independent publishing. Ensemble casts, intricate POV braids, walk-on multitudes, tapestries — they may not sell like hotcakes, but someone has to write them. Else the protagonismos displacement might go the way of the Ever Given and block global sea traffic for weeks.

Thanks to this essay, a widened perspective shows me that my own instincts were what I thought they were — a braided ensemble like the cast of Ryswyck is not grotesque, nor is it fully a tapestry story. But as I’ve mentioned in other places, I made sure that the turning point of the plot depends not on Speir or Douglas or any of the other POV characters, but on the most ordinary and unsophisticated character in the cast, a character whose legacy will ultimately cast a longer shadow than a charismatic would-be protagonist like Barklay. I did my best to make sure not only that every character had a trajectory but that nearly all of them are indispensable to the community and to the solution of the story’s dilemma.

The fact that this essay exists is a harbinger of what I certainly hope will come, stories whose moral imperative is based in community, with hope that doesn’t spring from powerful avatars or narrative exceptionalism.

Now excuse me while I go seize an opportunity.