Every time we pick up a book or watch a movie, we are investing in this single character. It might be the main character; it usually is. We follow them as spectators through their adventures, trials, and journeys, and our reward is (generally) good solid storytelling with a smidge of catharsis or vicarious thrillage.
But sometimes, the protagonists just don’t have that “oomph.” There’s no pizzazz or depth to them. While they’re interesting enough to read or watch for a while, they are not the ones driving the action; they are simply being driven by it.
To me, the very best stories are those that tell the story of someone who is not the main character. The very best stories are those whose lynchpin does not stand centerstage, whose keystone might not be in the center of the narrative arch.
“Why?” you ask.
I answer you: “I’m not sure.”
What’s even more confuzzling is how I can read some books and watch some shows/films and still have no idea whose story I am being told. It’s like the main character is not deep enough to really fulfill my innate need for narrative cohesion.
I’ll give you three guesses who the Star Wars saga is about. Was your first guess Luke Skywalker? If yes, continue guessing. If no, and you answered “Darth Vader” or “Anakin Skywalker,” you can stop guessing.
Seriously, though, Star Wars does not tell the tale of Whiny Luke. It’s the story of his father. How he was a golden child, fell from grace, and eventually gained redemption through the actions of his family. The emotional catharsis at the end of the series comes not from Luke finally becoming a Jedi or Lando blowing up the second Death Star; it comes when Anakin dies.
Sure, Vader’s not exactly a background character, but as the antagonist, he certainly does not get as much screen time as Luke or Han. And without his someone divine birth and eventual fall to the Dark Side, there would be no reason for us to visit that galaxy far, far away.
If you think the Harry Potter series is titled after who it’s about, you’re wrong. Just like Star Wars, the protagonist only fulfills the role of he-who-we-see-most-of-the-time. The real story of the Harry Potter novels is told through flashbacks and histories.
Harry Potter is about Tom Riddle. Voldemort.
He is, after all, the entire reason that Harry Potter is even remotely special. Sure, he has good genes; James and Lily Potter would have had a talented son no matter what. Voldemort just gave him that little push he needed to greatness by making him the Boy Who Lived.
And by giving him that push, his story was set in motion. Harry is manipulated by Voldemort his entire life, and it is not until Deathly Hallows when they finally part ways. The series ends with a vague, tacked-on prologue about a middle-aged Harry Potter just because readers were curious about what might happen to him after Hogwart’s. (note: I wasn’t I think Harry’s a wiener kid who I hoped to die since Chamber of Secrets.) The real narrative was over, the full story was told and details exhausted, when Tom Riddle exited stage left.
Here’s where I start to get confused. I have no idea who LOST is really about at this point. It would be easy to make an argument that it’s not about any one person based on the size of the ensemble, but I think that would be doing the series a disservice. It already gets a lot of flak for being unfocused, and not having a narratively integral character would only exacerbate that consensus.
We know the show’s not about Jack. When a character was intended to be killed off in the pilot episode, there’s a good indication that his story is not the one fueling the narrative. Kate may be a candidate since she was intended to take on Jack’s role as Survivor-in-Chief, but that doesn’t feel right to me. Despite all of her connections to other characters off the Island, Kate seems too far out of the loop and is wrong far too often to be pushing things along.
Who then? Sayid? No, he’s set up too much in S6 as being the villain who potentially replaces Esau. Hurley? After seeing Good Luck Hurley in the alternate reality, I could see an argument being made. But still…I dunno. Who else? Benjamin Linus? I’d love nothing more than the story to be Ben’s, especially given how his tale seems to parallel Vader/Voldemort’s in so many ways. But I have to exclude him for the same reason I did Jack: he was never intended to be a character from the beginning; it was a guest spot gone great.
So my vote is split.
One one hand, I can see the whole story being Richard’s. After watching “Ab Aeterno,” I know there’s a lot more to Richard Alpert than we are being told (even now). Despite his crazy, suicide talk for the past couple of episodes, Richard is close enough to every single major player on the Island to influence the narrative in any way he needs. But to what end? I don’t know. Without a full series to draw from, it’s impossible to tell if “Ab Aeterno” is a microcosm of the true narrative or if it was just a good episode.
On the other hand, Christian Shephard may be the one we’re learning about week after week. Outside of Jacob, no other character has interacted so much with the full narrative of the show yet stayed so perfectly behind the scenes. I mean, Christian has been dead since before the pilot! And he still manages to impact Jack, Sawyer, Claire, Sun, Lapidis, and others. His downfall was that of a lack of redemption, which is one of the main themes of LOST to begin with. With only a handful of episodes left, I think we would be silly to discount Christian Shephard from playing a major role in the story that is yet to come. I wouldn’t even be surprised if he were the “Shephard” Jacob was watching in the Lighthouse.
And I would say that Jacob’s story encompasses the rest of the ensemble’s, but I have a feeling that’s too heavy handed. While he’s important and his backstory impacts everyone, Jacob has been too hands-off in his scenes to be important enough to warrant the whole series’ focus. Sure, he’s seeking candidates to replace him, but to what end? If he were the focus of the narrative, would he need a replacement? I’m not so sure.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: I just don’t like Buffy. She’s not hero material. She’s whiny and moody, and when the going gets tough, Buffy gets the Scoobies. Understandably, Buffy is a series about relationships, but the most interesting and poignant relationships are those that do not involve Ms. Summers at all: Xander and Anya, Willow and Tara, Spike and Dawn, Giles and, well, everyone.
Again, in Buffy’s case, the titular character gets shortchanged. She gets our focus, but the narrative is solidly on someone else.
While Giles does get his share of the spotlight, he is one of the main characters in the show who truly evolves as the show progresses. Buffy herself goes through stages of progression and regression, while the rest of the Scoobies typically seem to push through their weaknesses and get stronger by embracing them rather than acquiescing.
Giles, more than any of the other characters, tends to take the events of his past and incorporate them into who he is at the end of the series. He does not move past being Ripper; he is simply Ripper when he has to be (as in the Season 5 finale “The Gift”). Therefore, I have come to the conclusion that Buffy is really Giles’ story. Sure, the Slayer is the focus, but without Giles, she would be nothing. She would have died more than she did.
Despite his misguided idea during Season 6 that Buffy was better off without him, Giles always plays such an integral role in the narrative that I cannot help but think that at the end of the day, the story of redemption is his. From his vague past as Ripper to his integral role as Buffy’s (and the rest of the Scoobies’) proxy dad, Giles exists as the entire narrative’s backbone.
Am I Full of Crap?
Maybe. Am I reaching? Maybe. All I know is that I immerse myself in these stories and oftentimes do not see the depth that is implied in the protagonists. So I dig deeper and eventually find a way to justify the narrative being the way it is, a reason for the story to be told. I am not the kind of person who buys into art for art’s sake. I truly think that every narrative needs a focus, a character as a reason to justify its existence. If only more narratives would rely on telling peripheral characters’ stories, there would be a lot more interesting art out there, if you ask me.