We Don’t Need Another Hero: Moving Beyond Protagonist-Driven Narratives

In the recent finale of a popular television show, a group of characters get together to choose a king. There’s no precedent for this; none of them have any sense of how to go about it. One suggests they hew to the old way of doing things: the throne should go to the person with the strongest patrilineal claim, which happens to be him. He’s quietly asked to take his seat. Another suggests a new system whereby the votes of the people to be governed are tallied, and the most popular choice is given the throne. We know what the response is going to be: these things play out in threes, two failed attempts and one success. The democratic proposal is rejected.

A third character rises to address the gathering. We know his idea will be the correct one because it’s the third. In addition, this particular story has spent a lot of narrative time showing and telling us that this character is very very smart. He suggests the king should be the person with the best backstory.

“There’s nothing in the world more powerful than a good story,” he says. Shockingly, although not really because, after all, he went third and third tries carry magic in them, everyone agrees. All hail the new king, and please preorder his memoir, coming this winter.

I could launch here into a very nerdy rant about who they decide has the best story, but this isn’t the place. The trouble is that “best story wins” is a terrible method for choosing a head of state, falling below “someone you’d want to have a beer with” as a criterion. It’s generally a bad way to choose a candidate for any job, as most of us already know. When I first started job-hunting after college, my father told me to be sure there was nothing on my resume that needed to be explained. “You don’t want to be the guy in the job interview with a story to tell,” he said.

Which, given my current career path, is kind of funny.

But every four years, every two if you’re doing your proper work as a citizen and showing up for midterms, we chose our leaders based largely on who’s telling the best story. We listen to tales of bootstrapping, of childhood adversity, of wartime heroism, of personal resiliency. Conflict, after all, builds character. A less gruesome adage than “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” We accept this as a truism not only in our fictions but in our personal lives and our politics, centering the conflict narrative, what Ursula K. LeGuin winkingly calls “the killer story” as the axis around which all three spin. We have read about heroes. We imagine ourselves, in small and large ways, heroes. We look for the candidate who best embodies some archetypical hero. One contender grips the Arthurian sword or the cherry-tree axe embedded in our hearts and tugs. Best story wins.

The problems with this are legion, and they’re present even if we assume every storyteller is telling the truth, which as we know is a wildly unsafe assumption. Stories are, after all, the informational vehicle best suited for lying: we talk about our engagement with stories as “suspension of disbelief.” But let us be sweet and naïve and imagine that the stories we’re being told are entirely honest. There are still two major problems we face.

The first is that so much of the value of a story comes in how its told, or, more cynically, how it’s sold. Two people may take the same facts of a tale and spin them in vastly different ways, or with vastly different levels of skill. Form trumps content, style beats substance. If you think there’s not a concrete monetary value in being able to tell a story well, let me inform you that “expert storytellers” from competitions like the Moth and First Person Story Slam regularly offer trainings to CEOs and executives in how to shape their business narratives into tall tales. Let me tell you about a fiction writer friend of mine whose day job is to plow through medical documents and interviews with sufferers of traumatic brain injuries and their loved ones and distill the data into one harrowing chapter in the victim’s life that their lawyers and use to woo juries at trial. I’m not trying to shame these folks. We’re all out here trying to survive capitalism. I only want to point out that storytelling is a marketable skill with market value, and that skill is spate from the experience it recounts. America loves a huckster and a raconteur. WE pay to see Barbum’s humbugs knowing they’re fakes, buy the snake oil because the pitch thrilled us and pitch is, in some way, the product. We are forever ready to be won over by a tale well-told.

Secondly, even in fiction, there’s not a lot of evidence heroism qualifies one for governance. Sure, Aragorn defeats the hordes of Mordor, but where’s his plan for integrated public education in Middle Earth? The things that make a person heroic may not overlap with the necessary skill set for the drudgery, compromise, and attention to detail peacetime leadership requires. To a carpenter, every problem’s a nail. To a dragonslayer, every policy issue’s a dragon.

Lastly, and this is bigger, the form of narrative, the shape stories take, limits and changes what can fit within its frames, and by extension, limits what the audience can glean from it. Being consumers of narrative, being the kinds of creatures who hunger for stories, creates a pathway in our brains, a circuit path through which information travels with the least amount of resistance. We become (and I fully implicate myself in this), people who thrill at the prospect of a thousand page novel and cringe at the threat of a spreadsheet. We thirst for the story even when what we need is the data, until information that can best be, or can only be, presented as data gets ignored.

Look at the trouble faced by climate change activists. The data is overwhelmingly, terrifyingly on their side, but every winter, some idiot stands on the Senate floor in wet boots telling how he trudged through six blocks of DC slush and sure could use some of that global warming he’s been hearing about. And those two things, a mountain of evidence and an anecdote of adversity, sit balanced on a scale. Articles bursting at the seams with expert testimony, with charts of a millennia’s worth of climate data, of maps that show coastal cities lost to the sea, still have to run underneath a lede photo of a lonely polar bear, preferably at sunset, because we can imagine the story of that bear and empathize with it in a way we can’t with a chart.

Narrative locks us into the personal, and every story resonates with and relies on our understanding of stories we already know. A man tells us he started with practically nothing and became one of the richest men in America, and we believe him because we’ve heard this one before. If there are omissions and inconsistencies, our mind eagerly fills them in. Tax disclosures, profit-and-loss statements, independent valuations of wealth: none of these speak to us in the same way as the Horatio Alger story, the core myth that in America, anyone can make it. Although it helps if your dad sneaks you a cool half billion dollars tax-free. The evidence speaks to systems, about circumstances and conditions that are largely static. Narrative is notoriously bad at describing systems of oppression in ways that contribute to understanding their function, although it can be a tool to describe the experience of living within those systems. Systems in a narrative exist to be overcome, and as such are often embodied in a single villain. One character who is explicitly, virulently racist, rather than implicit bias. Hitler standing in for all of the twentieth century’s pervasive anti-semitism. When the man falls, the implication is that the system he represents crumbles, so the story goes. If climate change could be punched in the face, someone would have done it by now. That’s the kind of challenge our stories prepare us for. They don’t ready us for the long slow work of remedy and mitigation. Stories have to move, and for that, we need a protagonist who rises, who overcomes adversity.

Which brings us, for better or worse, to Joseph Campbell, and the myth of the monomyth.

I’m not going to go deep dive in the Campbell’s soup here, but it’s hard to talk about or contemporary conception of stories without at least dipping a spoon into the hero’s journey. The ubiquity of Campbell’s work, the successful selling of the Hero’s Journey as monomyth, the backbone of all stories, imposes damaging limits on the kind of stories we can digest. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy that mirrors the way Campbell’s work itself operates. More avid amateur than cultural anthropologist, Campbell posited the idea of the Hero’s Journey as universal and cross-cultural, then gathered up the evidence to reinforce it. There’s confirmation bias at play. A psychic tells you the number 23 is cosmically significant (it’s not: the number 42 is cosmically significant). You start to see it everywhere, confirming the happy medium’s prediction. But this only means you’ve installed an anticipatory set in your cognition, your attention has been shaped a certain way, and your perceptions are primed to find all those preexisting 23s, the same ones you walked by yesterday, and count them as evidence of something larger. Campbell wades into the world of myth with the self-assurance that all stories take a certain shape, and then sees that shape everywhere, ignoring stories that might take different shapes, hammering out the odd edges of others when needs be.

Then we the storytellers, we the audience, are told the monomyth exists. We’re told that this is the shape of all stories and a list of stories that follow that general shape. We ignore or set aside the nagging concern that the hero is always, it seems male, that women in this one true and universal story function largely as attractive and or threatening furniture: mothers to be left, temptation to be shunned or maybe sampled a bit and then shunned, wives to be found, won, and installed in a kitchen, shoeless no doubt and pregnant with another hero who can repeat the cycle. Maybe we pause to note that this story privileges the idea of the individual in a way that’s practically out of Ayn Rand, that values like community, nurture, and empathy are all oddly absent. But we are assured this is the one story to rule them all. So we shape our stories to fit it. We look for that shape in the stories we consume, it becomes the way we recognize something as story. A story is a thing that contains a hero.

We think in terms of story, and facts of the world that do not cleanly fit into the narrow frame of narrative fall out of our sphere of attention, although they most certainly don’t fall out of the world at large. Voices that cannot play the game of story properly go unheard. We assert that stories and storytelling are culturally universal, but stories that don’t obey the rules and strictures of the monomyth strike our ears and our minds oddly. That’s not a story, we think. Maybe it’s a poem? And nodding because poems are lovely and not really our thing, we move along. At the end of the day, we want our heroes and their quests. But when we search for a hero, we also need a villain, and there’s a danger in both those prospects.

At the beginning of the Trump administration, I found a picture of the Legion of Doom from the old Saturday morning cartoons. Those are the supervillains that fight Batman and Superman and Wonder Woman, incidentally. As cabinet members resigned in disgrace, or fell to indictments, I’d select a supervillian and photoshop a red X over their face. It was comforting. For a while. And it jived with stories I knew. It could have been the police corkboard of mobsters, where the savvy cops x out one low level hood after another, moving their way up to (wait for it) the Don. But we know this story, and we take comfort in it, and we let ourselves forget that these dozen or so people are only representative of problems that can’t be taken down with a subpoena. We distract ourselves from the real work of on-the-ground social justice because it doesn’t have proper villains. It lacks dragons to slay.

There is a danger in looking for real world heroes. Heroes in narrative teach us that someone will come along to solve our problems, to slay our dragons and chase the bandits out of town. When we read a story of a hero, we experience something bifurcated: identification, an understanding of ourselves as potentially the hero, under proper circumstances, but also passivity. We cast ourselves, glumly but hopefully, as the damsel in distress, the townsfolk beleaguered and waiting to be rescued. We forget to fight for ourselves because heroism is hard work, and requires a hero to do it. The idea of the hero gives us the freedom to lean back and say Robert Mueller will save us, while others, burned by heroes before, close the Washington Post tab on their browsers, roll up their sleeves, and set to the anonymous and collaborative work of making a small thing better. The individual nature of the hero blinds us to the potential of collective action. When we see Martin Luther King, Jr and miss the massive mobilization of people that stood along side him, we give ourselves permission to sit on our hands and wait for the next great man (or woman) to come along.

If we need to be more savvy consumers of stories and narrative, more wary of the form itself, what’s the implication for us as storytellers? Presuming we don’t just stop, how do we write fiction under the regime of a fiction-teller-in-chief? Are we in some way culpable when the narrative forms we use are turned into weapons to be wielded against people we love? When the role of the villain, a tool we keep in our storytelling belts, is used to dehumanized individuals and groups to the point that killing them becomes framed as a heroic act, can we continue writing bad guys at all? How do we write about leaderless resistance, about gradual progress? How do we move away from the stories of great men and villains to be defeated, obstacles to be overcome?

I want to step slightly to the side and mention that these concerns are, in a way, more pressing for authors of a certain privilege level. The title of this talk should have been “we don’t need another cis-gendered, neurotypical, able-bodied, heterosexual white males hero” but that didn’t fit in the programs. Representation in books and media is massively important. It’s 2019 and there are kids out there who’ve never seen or read about a hero that looks like them, and we need more heroes created for and by them. I mentioned earlier that one function of the hero is audience identification. We love heroes because they make us feel that I could be that. Identification is easier when the object of identification looks like us. Identification’s strange sibling is empathy, the jump over borders to care about a character who’s different from us. Think about that a moment and imagine a white cishet teenage boy. He may have never encountered a book or a film with a protagonist who didn’t look a whole lot like him. He may have spent his entire life only having to identify with the protagonists he sees in books and movies and tv. Unlike the girl who’s told by her teacher that Hamlet is a universal character even while she identifies herself with Ophelia drowning in the lake, that boy may never be tasked with doing the work of empathy, of having empathy as the price of admission into a story. There is a lot we can say about the trouble with teenage white boys, but an inability to empathize, to see themselves as anything but the white knight in a story where everyone else are bit players, lies near the heart of the problem. If diverse representation is good because it creates role models for a wider audience, it’s also so important in that it teaches empathy, it breaks through the shell of solipsism we let young white boys stew within.

But to return to our main point, and to the title of this talk, how do we shape stories that are not focused on individual action and driven by conflict? I should warn you up front that I don’t know the answer. My work is a search for the way to create itself, and that’s both an exciting and terrifying place to be. One possible answer passes through the origins of the novel as a form. In his essay “Discourse and the Novel”, Soviet philosopher Mikhail Bahktin locates the difference between the novel and previous narrative forms like the epic poem in the novel’s unique ability to be multivocal. While the epic has one speaker (a hero), the novel can be the assemblage of many, and the art of the novelist lies in how they manage this heteroglossia. Opinions, viewpoints, experiences are carefully arranged within the novel so that voices intersect at particular angles to particular effects, with no one voice dominating. The novel is then, rather than one monomythical narrative, this collection of intersections, like the angles created within a web. Writing in the mid-20th century, Bahktin focused on the novel as it existed in the 19th century, drawing on the works of Eliot, Doestovsky, and Dickens. In their books, we can see what Bahktin means in referring to the novel as a dialogic or heteroglossal form. Dickens’ London becomes, in many of his works, a more interesting character than the hapless title characters that tread its cobbles. Middlemarch is as much a novel of ideas, examined through its myriad characters as it is the story of Dorothea Brooke’s path to marriage.

This potential for multiplicity, for the choir rather than the solo, gets a little lost in the 20th century under the commanding authorial voices of modernism and the confessional voices that followed (the confessional, we should say, is often its own reiteration of the hero’s journey. It’s ethos is I went through this and lived to tell you the tale). In the fallout of postmodernism, with new techniques for fracturing, sampling, and remixing available to us, the multivocality of classic novels may offer up a tool to creating novels without centered protagonists, crafting narratives that form more of a map than a hero’s travels across it.

In her essay “A Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction”, Ursula LeGuin cites a related potential in the novel as a form. “The novel is a fundamentally unheroic kind of story,” she writes. “Of course the hero has frequently taken it over, that being his imperial nature. He has decreed, first, that the proper shape of the narrative is that of the arrow or spear, starting here and going straight there and THOK! Hitting its mark (which drops dead); second, that the major concern of narrative, including the novel, is conflict, and third, that the story isn’t any good if he isn’t in it.”

LeGuin suggests that the “natural, proper, fitting shape of the novel might be that of a sack, a bag. A book holds words,” she says, “Words hold things. They bear meanings. A novel is a medicine bundle, holding things in a particular, powerful relation to one another and to us.” LeGuin’s words echo Bahktin’s conception of the novel as a thing of arrangements, a collection set just so to achieve its desired effects. “Conflict and competition,” LeGuin writes, “may be seen as necessary elements of a whole which cannot itself be characterized either as conflict or harmony, since its purpose is neither resolution nor stasis but continuing process.”

This is where I take a moment to remind you all that among other wonderful things, Ursula K. LeGuin was a badass Marxist, and what she’s describing here is the novel as a post-Hegelian dialectic.

Some of LeGuin’s masterpieces, thinking here of The Left Hand of Darkness and The Dispossessed, feature heroes and plots that move and resolve in more or less traditional ways, but their main concerns are anthropological: collecting bits of an imagined alien culture and presenting them to the reader for inspection, for evaluation, and ultimately as medicine. Like Marx, LeGuin shows us the contingencies that go into creating alien cultures so we can understand our own culture as contingent, built out of historical process rather than handed down whole cloth from on high. And anything built, she slyly reminds us, can be taken apart.

One of LeGuin’s later works, the monolithic Always Coming Home is a full realization of LeGuin’s vision of the novel as a carrier bag, documenting a culture through its songs, recipes, and micronarratives. It’s a book I’m still grappling with. I barely recognize it as a story: like Joseph Campbell sifting through myths, I find myself looking for a hero where LeGuin purposely avoids one. Like the novels of WG Sebald, strange and peripatetic reflections on history and architecture and war that are at times indistinguishable in form from his essays, these challenge the idea of what novel might be, what it might do. “We take almost all the decisive steps in our lives as a result of slight inner adjustments of which we are barely conscious,” Sebald writes in Austerlitz, morphing the hero’s journey into a leisurely stroll in a way that has a truth to it, a reflection of real life. Most of us have gone stumbling and wandering as often as we’ve sallied boldly forth. LeGuin and Sebald offer up the novel as that time spent going nowhere in particular, the collection of thoughts and memories turned over, the objects picked up and pocketed or even set back down and carried only in the mind for the rest of the walk. The novel like the mind: a bottle, a bag that holds other things, some of them, maybe, treasures.

Now we are accumulating models with potential, with space in which we might be able to breathe. The novel, rather than the track of a hero’s arc, might be a conversation. The novel, rather than a quest, might be a question.

There is one last option I ‘dlike to suggest, one that potentially fuses the previous two, or at least partakes of both: the novel as community. And here is where I feel it becomes most important to get it right and at the same time I feel least sure of the path to get there. But I think the answer may be starlings.

You’ve been here in upstate New York long enough you’ve likely seen a flock of starlings. They’re relatively recent additions to the US, and their presence here has literary roots. In the late nineteenth century, Eugene Schieffelin, an amateur ornithologist and scion of one of the oldest families in Manhattan, was determined to bring every bird mentioned in the plays of William Shakespeare to the US. Schieffelin’s attempts to introduce bullfinches, chaffinches, nightingales, and skylarks failed, but his release of a hundred specimens of sturnus vulgaris in two batches in 1890 and 1891 was wildly successful. For the starlings, anyway. From those two flocks, starlings in the US now number over three hundred million, roughly one for every citizen.

I mention the starling not for its success as an invasive species, which, sure, well done, starlings, but for their flight patterns. A flock of starlings is called a murmuration. Their flight behavior, if you’ve ever had the luck to see it, is hypnotic. If any one bird changes orientation or speed, so do the others, instantaneously. Flocks ranging in size from a hundred to four thousand can turn on a dime in response to threat. Unlike the V formation of geese, there’s no discernible leader. They move like one organism, not unlike a school of fish, connected by an unseen and ineffable network.

The mathematical term for this is scale-free correlation, which is to say that there’s no apparent time or signal lag in the action perceived. A small flock reacts as fluidly and with as much unity as a massive one. The shift in direction or speed doesn’t originate with one bird and travel outward, the way we understand a signal works. It happens all at once, regardless of the distance between two birds. The starlings at the farthest edges of the murmuration from each other shift direction and velocity at the same time. Their movements are correlated regardless of the size, the scale, of the murmuration.

The closest fit to equations describing starling flock patterns map onto avalanches and crystal formations. They explain situations in which a system builds to a point past which everything happens at once, a crisis point. The mathematical term for a system holding at this pre-crisis stage is criticality. A solution is at a stable point of criticality when it is pregnant with solute, more than the solvent can hold. One change in temperature or saturation, and the solution gives up its treasure, the solute accreting instantly into crystal. Snow on a mountainside trembles at a point of criticality until a rise in temperature or I guess maybe a yodeler? Cartoons have led me to believe that yodelers are the number one cause of avalanches) pushes past or activates all of its energy at once. An avalanche isn’t a snowball rolling down hill at much larger scale. It’s an event, an “all at once.” For starlings, criticality is a way for the system to be constantly ready to optimally respond to predator attack. They are poised to shift, speed up, to move together in response to a threat.

This is where we sit. At a point of criticality. At a point where we need to move swiftly, and all together, like one massive organism. And this is what I want to see in our fictions now. This is what I want to write. I want novels about the assembling of communities, the creation of found families, the coming together of flocks. I want a novel where the rallying of forces and the uniting of allies is so compelling that when the enemy shows up at the end, he’s irrelevant, his defeat already assured. I want books that are maps rather than Google directions. Books that show me a space in which to wander and not a path from here to there. I want lazy aimless Sundays and interminable work days rather than ticking clocks and the timer on the bomb counting down, because that’s the feeling of time I know and struggle daily to make my way through.

I want novels about collective action and leaderless resistance, and I’m trying to write them. I want our books, our fictions and our stories to mirror our lived experiences not just personally, but politically and socially. Books teach. We’re a long way from the idea that the novel should sugar the pill of moral education, but not that long. Reading teaches. It teaches us to empathize, it teaches us to connect. It gives us modes, ways, people to be. It’s given us heroes to aspire to, created and canonized the very idea of the hero, the leader. But fiction could also be instructions. It could be medicine. At this point of criticality, fiction can be that inexplicable signal that communicates from the starling at one far end of the murmuration to their sibling bird at the other side and every bird in between, that tells the flock to bend and twist itself into undulating patterns, great moebius strips of flight, away from harm, toward home.

“Now I am quietly waiting for the catastrophe of my personality to seem beautiful again, and interesting, and modern.” -Frank O'Hara