Indelible NATO forces, hidden agenda, puppet governments.”
So I was—
“Walking down the street/to the hardcore beat—”
—and it occurred to me that one of the things that binds the cultural narrative of this society together is homogeny. We can talk about how the idea of a “melting pot” subtly implies the loss of individualism as the ingredients of the mixture melt and meld into one continuous mixture. But again, that’s implied in the name itself. What isn’t explained so often is the way in which the loss of discrete identity is harmful. Because the culturally dominant force doesn’t lose anything, the minority loses its identity; the minority dissipates into the melting pot just as a sliver of onion dissipates into a literal cooking pot.
As storytellers how do we push against that? Today’s lesson challenges the assumptions that we commonly hold about vantage point characters. Protagonists. The common mode is for a protagonist to be hollow. A default setting. The protagonist is generally the character who (in the context of that particular narrative) is closest to our cultural norms. The Everyman. Within the constraints of the story, the protagonist is The Most Normal within the cast. On a large scale, a cultural median is established and people are reminded of what their culture wishes for them to conform to. As the narrative advances, the protagonist’s normalcy (or relative normalcy) plays against the foils, and antagonists. There is a villainous force which seeks to disturb the social order represented by the protagonist. There are foils, characters who are generally share the protagonist’s goals but disagree on the details. There are the disinterested, characters who lay outside of the range of the narrative’s objectives and also are cast into relief against the protagonist’s goals. All the while, the protagonist is the median perspective.
No matter the story’s outcome, we are given little choice in how to perceive the world through that narrative’s lens: a protagonist designed to be inoffensive and median will always represent social norms and thus, remain passively hostile to cultural diversity. That is to say the fiction of the story will be hostile to real-world cultural diversity.
Every piece of media enforces an idea in a public’s mind. Whether they admit to it or not. This is why women and minorities instinctively know that they must seek greater representation in the arts and the media. Because being represented means having their perspective dealt with. This comes before being tolerated, accepted or embraced. This is just awareness.
Having different perspectives play out through characters is positive for a story and for the society from which the story is a part. But having those different perspectives come from the central actor in a narrative, the protagonist, does all of that while also rejecting the idea of self-normalcy. The hollow, easily accessible everyman protagonist is “me” in the narrative. But given specific traits and strengths and weaknesses, the “me,” becomes “that person.” But lest you worry that putting distance between the Generalized Protagonist and the audience makes for a colder experience, the simple fact of being a protagonist gives an audience an intimacy of character that we all seek in fiction. It’s more challenging to the reader but also more rewarding.
One of the primary effects of fiction is building and encouraging empathy. In order to do this effectively, storytellers must give the audience somewhere outside of themselves to “go.” Be aware of the generalized social standards and moral ideas of a society. And trust an audience enough to give them a character who isn’t perfect (or near-perfect). The audience wants to be challenged. They want to explore. Take them on a journey. Little by little, story by story, storytellers can nudge the world toward a different place: where diversity isn’t melted and absorbed into a larger whole but rather a place that is inclusive yet appreciates life’s textures.