We are plagued by Protagonism.
Protagonism: The belief that we are the ‘main character’ of the story, that important things will happen in front of us and all other people are side characters or NPCs.
I’ve lived my whole life from my own perspective.
And, you’ve lived your whole life from your own perspective.
We see life pass by, watching through the coloured glasses tempered by our own life experiences and drives.
We briefly escape our lives by mindfully immersing ourselves in creative art, like film and books, slipping into the words like a warm duvet.
At the same time we wonder if our life has any meaning, if it will be special. Simultaneously assuming it will be.
Where does this assumption come from?
Violence in video games
We see constant discussion of the impact of violent video games on young people. Saying they are making them violent in their real life.
One more pervasive element is never discussed.
This element is far more fundamental to not only video games (where I would argue its effect is lesser), but rather to all media. Especially film, television and narrative fiction.
What I am talking about is the Protagonist structure.
This is structure that there is a ‘main’ character. It fits like a glove to the way we view the world. From the inside-out.
They are typically the hero of their story, going on a journey of self-development and growth.
All the interesting things happen to them. This is the key. It feeds our ego.
The plot will begin by humanising them to you, aligning you with their thoughts, getting you into their head. You build a model of expectation, how they will react when given a stimulus.
We will often hear their thoughts as narration, so we can judge them by their intent instead of the outcome, and contextualise their evil actions. Often making the unforgivable forgivable.
This lays the ground-work for the possibility of the anti-hero.
A protagonist that is not “good” or “moral” by standard measure, but they still must go on the Hero’s Journey.
The Hero’s Journey was a concept popularized by Joseph Campbell – who was inspired by Carl Jung’s view on myths – seen as the world’s authority on mythology. A standardised process of the rawest elements that makes an acceptable hero.
Anti-heroes can go on this journey, often hesitant but called upon to act.
Why, hello there Mr Bond
The invention of the anti-hero in stories was a revelation. An acceptance of the fallibility of humankind. We stopped glorifying our heroes as perfect, moral creatures and started making them more human.
Just look at the swath of hit Netflix specials of gritty Marvel heroes like Jessica Jones and Daredevil who feel real emotions, make real mistakes and hurt people when they are upset.
They struggle with their dark sides. Exploring their anger.
They are more relatable than ever before.
The public is obsessed with it as we go through this era of honest self-evaluation of what we are all capable of.
so What’s the problem here?
It is junk food for our egos.
It convinces us that as we passively watch our own life from behind our eyes we expect important things will happen, like they did when we watched Hercules or Limitless. Like they did when we read Hunger Games and Harry Potter.
They all follow the hero, as all stories do. The story is told from their perspective because they were going to be there.
If the hero wasn’t there, they wouldn’t be the hero of the story.
Not many stories are told in which nothing out-of-the-ordinary happens, though maybe they should be.
We feel such an affinity to these stories because they give us hope. But they set the expectations for us. An expectation that we will be ‘important’. But that’s just what the studio is preying on. It puts bums on cinema seats and sells action figures.
They make you feel insecure and give you the pill to feel better, the same way the make-up, fashion and perfume industries prey on physical insecurities in their advertising.
with great importance, comes great impotence
Importance is relative and subjective, you decide how much things matter, based on your values. Something I will try to explore another time in detail.
We have been trained from birth to expect we are heroes in our own journey. Everywhere we look important things happen to the narrator, they save people, help people, make the world a better place with massive feats of strength or cunning.
This is all Escapism in one form or another, but it leaves its hooks in you when you descend back into your body. Weakening your resolve to act.
You compare yourself to them. The paths that they get, but they’re contrived. Manifestations of the hopes and dreams of the author.
The perfect concoction to create the prime specimen of virtue.
Unfortunately we write our own stories, we don’t have an author making sure important stuff happens to us.
Protagonism is eating our psychology alive, bloating our egos and expectations of achievement in our own lives. Stopping us from appreciating what we have and waiting for our big transformational moment to just stumble upon us:
Our radioactive spider, our home planet being destroyed but not before we are launched into space in a small capsule and sent to Earth to become a reporter called Clark Kent, our origin story.
These origin stories almost always have something external happen to the hero to create them. They fall into a vat of something, or have an experiment done on them.
Creating the idea that there will be a watershed moment, a one-way door we walk through and become something else, something more.
But when you spend your whole life waiting, you miss the opportunity to be doing.
What’s the message here, what’s the point?
We typify heroic acts as sacrificial, they must give up something of great value to raise the stakes. Yet we want to have our cake, and eat it too, then also save some for later.
Instead of waiting for our Deus Ex Machina (Act of God) to transform us into what we want to be, we must start taking action ourselves. For we are the authors of our own narrative. Instead of waiting for someone to give you a cake, start baking.
Then you CAN have your cake AND eat it too.
Stop waiting to be a hero and start being you.