In Uncanny magazine, Ada Palmer and Jo Walton write about “the protagonist problem“. In stories, who has “the power to save the day, make the difference, solve the problem, and change everything?” Who possesses that quality which makes them the one to lead the action, to advance the plot?
“Think of the formula for an action team,” they write. “There might be five characters: the smart one, the strong one, the kid, the love-interest, and…the protagonist, whose distinguishing feature may be described as courage, or a pure heart, or determination, but really comes down to writing, that they’re the one who always lands the final blow.”
(One of the ways we know that Mad Max: Fury Road is the story of Charlize Theron’s Furiosa is that she is the one to kill the principal villain. Max, imprisoned as the start of the film as a “blood bag” for his valuable universal donor’s Type O blood, serves the same purpose at the film’s end, when his transfusion prevents Furiosa’s hard-won victory from costing her life).
Palmer and Walton argue that it’s “harmful when people see themselves as not protagonists, and differently harmful when people see themselves as protagonists.”
If we feel that we are not protagonists in a world which has them, we may experience
imposter syndrome, feelings of powerlessness, inaction, cynicism, and despair. It leads to the belief that if you personally don’t resemble a protagonist (if you falter, have undramatic setbacks, mundane problems, job hunting, laundry, rent) then you can’t be one of the special few whose actions matter.
This feeling also causes us, Palmer and Walton argue, to believe that mundane activities such as grassroots organising and even voting lack the power to truly change things, as they do not seem “heroic”. To believe real life has protagonists is to succumb to talk of heroes and villains, the conspiracy theorist’s belief that some secret plan underpins the state of the world, and the notion that acting like a character in a book, film, or videogame is the right way to address the world’s problems.
For those who not only accept that there are real-life protagonists, but believe themselves to be cast in that role, the consequences can be even more troubling: “recklessness, power trips, and […] the expectation that breaking rules is okay so long as it’s you.” Palmer and Walton give the example of people who were not COVID deniers yet felt that their gathering wouldn’t be the one to cause a problem; the rules didn’t apply to them.
“Remember,” they say, “that, at the most famous school in our culture – Hogwarts – breaking the rules always has positive outcomes, for teachers and students, so long as you have a good reason, and are protagonist-and-friends.”
None of this is to say that all rules are just and can never be challenged. Nor is it, as Palmer and Walton point out, that heroic tales can’t be enjoyed.
But it is a chance to stop and think about roles, responsibilities, stories, and systems.
As Russia invades Ukraine, my social media stream turns to a ghoulish sports feed. The understandable urge to show solidarity and keep abreast of the crisis means that Twitter seems to offer a play-by-play account of war, with plenty of armchair pundits, analysts, and colour commentators weighing in. Zelensky is the evident hero, the comedian turned politician who voiced a beloved animated bear. Putin’s mental health becomes the subject of endless discussion as he perfectly inhabits the role of the arch villain.
But the story we are watching play out on social streams is not an action movie or a political thriller. There is no doubt that we need to unambiguously denounce Russian aggression and make every effort to protect Ukrainians, assist them, and minimise suffering. However, the acts we are witnessing, these choices and their consequences, take place within systems and frames of reference which are built collectively and which stretch far beyond the decisions of any one actor. It may serve our emotional needs to treat the figures we see on the screens of our phones and our computers as vessels into which we can pour our feelings of anger or compassion or righteousness or hope, but we risk falling into “protagonist thinking”.
The alternative is not to give up on emotion, or storytelling, empathy and compassion, or our sense of right and wrong. It is to think about the collective, not only the individual. It is to attend to the system as well as the superficial story.
Palmer and Walton point to what they call “tapestry” novels, stories of multiple agency. These don’t merely exist in the realm of experimental literature. They’re not alien to the English-speaking world. Palmer and Walton give as examples potboilers and airport novels like Arthur Hailey’s Hotel, Colleen McCulloch’s The Thorn Birds, the works of Harold Robbins, James Michener, Shirley Conran, where a book follows a broad cast of characters through a series of events.
Their writing, and the tension between capturing multiple agency without giving up on compassion or justice, reminds me of The Laughing Policeman by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. It’s probably the best-known instalment in their series of Martin Beck books. Although this series is commonly known by the name of a single character, Sjöwall and Wahlöö themselves called the ten collected novels The Story of a Crime. A publisher and journalist respectively, both committed to left-wing causes, they used their thrillers to expose the inequities and shortcomings of Swedish society.
The Laughing Policeman provides the perfect example of a gripping thriller that is not really about police as heroes, or even the sense that someone in this life gets to be the protagonist. At the book’s outset, two lazy uniformed cops are flagged down at the scene of a mass murder, with nine people machine-gunned on a double decker bus. The duo are out of their jurisdiction and so ill-prepared for such a gruesome discovery that their initial clumsiness disturbs forensic evidence and impedes the subsequent investigation.
Superintendent Beck of the homicide squad is assigned the case after a period of disarray in which “it wasn’t even known for certain who was in charge of the investigation. The confusion was complete.” As his team’s work progresses, each detective pursues lines of inquiry based on their own suspicions, hobby-horses, personal inclinations, or simply the task that they are dumped with. We gradually realise that we are not watching the quest of one hero to bring truth to light, but the swirling and uncertain progress of a collective conversation.
People talk and talk in a gruelling attempt to make sense of why this crime happened. They speak and fail to listen; they ask the wrong questions; sometimes the answers are unintelligible. This conversation isn’t just restricted to the official investigators; one detective usefully discusses the case with his wife. Rock-solid expert evidence proves unreliable. Stray comments and idle thoughts yield more progress than focussed efforts.
When Beck’s team talk to the girlfriend of a victim and question another source who is in prison, we don’t get the sense that the cops are heroes unearthing the truth. The other parties in the conversation are just as curious, just as confused, and just as likely to hit upon an insight that advances the inquiry. One of the murder victims is himself a police detective and his own posthumous notes play a part in solving the crime: this conversation moves forward and backwards in time, and speaks with the dead as much as the living. Beck himself commits a basic error that proves to severely hamper the investigation, and only redeems himself slightly when he averts another killing late in the day through a witty, foresightful move. In doing so, he shows that “the story of a crime” is as much about the future as the present or the past, and should be as concerned with preventing harm in time to come as resolving a past mystery and announcing “case closed”.
The book shows us a set of relationships in motion and under tension, whirling around the open wound of lives lost. The urge to make sense of that wound, to close it and heal it, isn’t fully compatible with the formal work of police officers, flawed as they are and beset by bureaucracy and political concerns. The story of the crime includes criminals, convicts, perpetrators and victims, cops and their families, landlords and migrant workers, motorists and mechanics, journalists, politicians, prostitutes, passers-by, bystanders and onlookers, all in webs of connection which stretch far beyond the narrow jurisdiction of Stockholm police. It reminds us what it is to live within systems, with mixed feelings and mixed results, without sacrificing any of a story’s power to make us care and make us ask: so what happens next?
Palmer and Walton are genre writers. They acknowledge that “the protagonist problem” may not be the most significant contributor to crises which have been “shaped by hundreds of factors” – but, they argue, “it’s a contributor the genre fiction world has the power to do something about.” They remind us that, “Stories teach, and team stories, stories which remind people that power is shared, teach something the world really needs right now.”
That doesn’t just go for those of us writing works of science fiction, fantasy, crime, or any other genre. We’re all telling stories all the time. In our families, our organisations, on social media, and beyond. We cast ourselves as heroes, or feel ourselves powerless and look to others as protagonists. We fall into conflict, and the other party becomes an unambiguous villain. Yet the people we personally clash with will not be villains in every other relationship they hold. And we, in turn, are unlikely to be everyone’s hero.
Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s novel was useful to me in going beyond the “protagonist problem” and remembering that to give up on the simple world of heroes and villains is not to give up stories, not to give up on compassion and empathy, and not to give up on justice. The master facilitator Adam Kahane writes about power, love, and justice in his work, drawing on Martin Luther King’s speech “Where Do We Go from Here?”.
King said, “Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice, and justice at its best is power correcting everything that stands against love.”
For Kahane, that means working with love, understood as the drive towards unity, and power, understood as the drive towards self-realization, within a wider structure of justice. It encompasses the systems and webs of relation in which we are enmeshed, and through which we make meaning. It means asking ourselves to find ways of telling stories that go beyond questions of heroes and villains.