The Eyes of Others

I’ve been working on a large scale project over the last few months, which is now being work-shopped in my University class ‘Researching and Writing a Novel’. That might be a hint as to what sort of project, but nevertheless, I’ve managed to get through the majority of it and I’ve been working on a synopsis for the first assignment. It’s surprisingly difficult, but I’m getting there bit by bit.

One thing keeps being raised, however, which is the fact that it has no clear singular protagonist. There is no one person through which the whole narrative is viewed, and some events that are witnessed are entirely unknown by other characters. What surprises me, more than anything else, is how much difficulty it’s created for the work-shoppers of my synopsis.

Is this such an alien concept to people? Is the idea that the world does not necessarily revolve around one person within a story so unfamiliar that people now struggle with it? This seems such a fundamental tenant of reality to me; no one person is more special than any other, each unique and with their own story, how could you say that any one person’s story has any less merit than another’s?

We all suffer from the same limits of our perspective. In our lives, we are the protagonists, and we cannot see our own story unfold from any other vantage point. Nobody is able to experience anything but their own version of the world, coloured and affected by the filters of our emotions and experiences we’ve had along the way. Even our understandings of others are merely assumptions based on the time we’ve experienced in their presence, and the reactions they’ve had during it. Is it so difficult, then, for people to switch between characters?

I’ll admit that we’ve grown up on a steady diet of ‘classic story formula’, with a protagonist and antagonist, a motley crew of supporting characters and a bucketful of extras along the way. But is it so hard to understand that each of those extras is a person? Don’t get me wrong, there’s only so many people you can concentrate on without starting to forget who’s who. Some people might have four hundred friends on facebook, but I can guarantee there’s only a handful they regularly speak with on personal terms. But limiting ourselves to one main character seems almost to disregard the validity of other perspectives.

So is this a team mentality? Is it a case of a reader trying to work out who to root for? Is it that important to have someone you know that you should be on the side of, who has a clear moral bias? Your antagonist, if you believe in such a term, is just a person, just like your protagonist. If the situation is morally ambiguous, but has opposing view points on a situation, is it important for the writer to impose a neon sign above one character’s head to say ‘This guy is who you should agree with’? Do we need other people to tell us what’s right and wrong in a given situation rather than working it out for ourselves? Will I ever stop asking rhetorical questions?

My answer, at least to the last one, is that we should all ask far more rhetorical questions than we do. That aside, though, I look at the recent storm of popularity that’s taken a hold on Game of Thrones, and I see that it’s famous most of all for the  sex  way it doesn’t give anyone any narratively meta rank above anyone else. Everyone is a person, a human, everyone is fallible and potentially able to die at any given time, or just make decisions based on their own perspectives of the world.
So if this is so wildly popular, why do people wear a perplexed frown when such an attitude to characters is brought up? While the perplexed frown is very much my own when I’m asked to contain such a novel’s synopsis down to a mere thousand words, I had expected a more narratively open mind when I had it work-shopped.
Maybe it’s a case of there not being enough of this style of novel yet. George R R Martin is certainly not the first to do it, and won’t be the last, but perhaps the writing market, along with other narrative media such as film and TV, is so saturated with these classic narratives that people have come to expect it from everything, and double take when they see something different. Maybe because we’re so used to our own singular outlook on life we find it hard to adjust to the idea of looking at a situation from many angles. Maybe I have no idea, and I’m just going over this in the vague hope someone might come up with a clear answer and tell me?

I’m not going to tell you. You can make up your own mind about this particular blog post!

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