In this post I’m going to talk about a few people I know in the real world. I’ve avoided all names and major identifying features, but even so, if you’re one of the people in this post and you’re uncomfortable with being mentioned, please let me know and I’ll edit it. I realise not everyone is happy to be used to illustrate a point, and had I planned this better, I would have talked to you all beforehand.
Recently I’ve been thinking about the idea that everybody is the hero of their own story. Not in the sense that most antagonists think they’re doing the right thing, but in the sense that we’re all at the centre of our own character arc. We’re all the protagonist in our lives, even if it doesn’t feel like it, and all the side characters and extras wandering around us have their own franchise worth of life drama going on just off screen. Sometimes, we won’t even know about it.
I was reading The Rest Of Us Just Live Here by Patrick Ness, which may have been what triggered these thoughts: the idea that even though some people have the big, obvious dramas to deal with, everyone’s got ‘something’ that gives them their story. Then I read Beautiful Broken Things by Sara Barnard and the main character in that wishes she had more Significant Life Events happen to her so that she could feel interesting.
Man, I can sympathise with that one. I often feel like I don’t have the most interesting of stories, even when that’s a matter of perspective. I’ve actually written about that before.
But the thing that really brought it home wasn’t in a book, it was in real life. Amazingly, I actually do engage with the real world occasionally.
There are plenty of people I know who, if my life were a movie, they’d be the extras. Take my neighbours in college, for example. Most of them I only talked to now and again, but I would see them every day or so, just crossing paths in the corridor or the kitchen. One of them I saw primarily at three in the morning in the bathroom, since we always seemed to cross paths there as a result of our weird hours and sleep patterns.
I like them, I know their names, but other than that I don’t know much about these people. I would care if something happened to them, but I have no idea what already has. Like I said, they’re the extras in the movie of my life.
And then I discovered that the neighbour I usually met at 3am in the bathroom lost both her parents a couple of years ago, and I’d had absolutely no idea. This huge, personal tragedy was lurking just out of sight, a few months before we both came to Newnham. For me, the thought of my parents dying is genuinely one of my worst nightmares, something that keeps me awake at night. For her, that’s her everyday reality.
Like I’ve said, we don’t know each other that well. It’s to be expected that I wouldn’t know something like this about her. But what got me was how the possibility had never even crossed my mind. When she tweeted on Mother’s Day that she loved and missed her parents, I assumed she meant because she was away at university. It turns out it’s because they’re dead.
How do you deal with something like that? How can you get past it? That’s so huge, so insurmountable — I can’t even imagine picking myself up after something like that, let alone getting through Cambridge with all its stresses and strains. I’m also struck by a sense of guilt, not necessarily that I didn’t know about this, but because I can’t help thinking of all the times my parents came to see me at uni and walked straight past her room without a clue that we as a family represented something unreachable.
I was proud to have finished school with my issues, but they pale into insignificance beside this. This is main character material. This is the sort of thing that happens to protagonists. Maybe that’s why it never occurred to me that it was a possibility for someone who appears only peripherally in my life.
Then I started thinking about my other friends, and the dramas playing out on their own personal stages. How one of them is a trans guy who goes home every holiday and has to answer to a girl’s name because he hasn’t felt able to come out to his parents yet. How one of them can’t use her right arm because the bone is literally fusing to her hand. And these are just people I see every day.
But other people’s protagonist-worthy events don’t have to be bad things, either. I have a friend who sings in a college choir and they’ve travelled far and wide for performances, as well as appearing on CD. I have a family friend who made a breakthrough while doing their undergraduate dissertation and discovered something (although it’s sciencey, so I don’t understand what). My brother was on the radio yesterday, in Canada, talking about his music. Two of my schoolfriends are engaged.
Everyone around me is at the centre of their own narrative. They’re all protagonists. Some of us have big, obvious antagonists (tragedy, illness, vampires). Others have subtle ones (university workload, financial strain, fatigue).
And what’s really amazing about this is that this means the world is absolutely full of protagonists. Imagine if you were watching a film and every single extra in the background had a spin-off movie and it turned out that they were just as interesting as the main hero. They might say one line to Thor as he runs past them, but secretly they’re trying to balance an amazing invention with their everyday home life. You could take one film and expand from it an entire universe containing every kind of story. The big epic blockbusters. The rom coms. The tear-jerkers. The mysteries.
The 100 people nearest to you right now could be at the centre of a hundred stories.
And of course most of them don’t get told. A lot of them don’t mean anything to anyone other than their heroes. My wrist problems triggered a huge amount of character development for me, but it’s not something that’s particularly engaging to an outsider. Most of my drama goes on inside my head, so there’s not a lot to tell — people whose lives have a more external focus, like political campaigning or theatre or whatever, provide better subjects.
And we can’t all recognise the protagonist in ourselves because we don’t think we’re interesting. We might feel like an extra in the stories of everyone around us. But take a good look at yourself, and compare that to five years ago. That’s a character arc, isn’t it? There’s been development there, maybe even plot. Maybe your story isn’t an epic blockbuster, but you’re still its protagonist.
I don’t know if it blows anyone else’s mind, but it blows mine.