Why do I have so many characters?
Seemingly, the norm for most forms of storytelling is of one main character who travels through the story learning and doing what they need to get to the end of the story (aka the Hero’s Journey). At least, that seems to be the default because those who deviate from the one main character story motif are “outliers” rather than just writing. The one person story follows just the one main viewpoint, where the main character is the sole hero, or the “good guy” and most of the time the other characters in the story only have an identity in relation to the main character, like “love interest”, “best friend”, “mentor”, without any or much independent motivations or characterisation of their own other than their “function” in relation to the hero.
So, given this abundant cultural backdrop, I was never surprised that one of the common criticisms of my writing was that I have too many main characters and too many points of view. In fact I have a friend who constantly tells me that I should build my writing career on the short stories I do for bonus content, because the multiple viewpoints are too complicated for people. The irony is that I actually write this way deliberately. I’m not just writing how I want because it’s at my whim, I have designed most aspects of TSU very deliberately, and the multiple viewpoint has been a part of the story since I was 14.
I truly believe that our fictional, cultural, and media stories mimic and inform our beliefs about ourselves and life, and if we choose to change our stories (and the method by which they’re told), we also change our culture. But people under-estimate the power of our stories to affect and mold our culture and perceptions. Writers also tend to under-estimate the impact of their fiction and the responsibility for that impact to society at large. Writers just want to tell their story, and the potential impact isn’t usually a thing they think about very much because it’s just fiction, right? I disagree.
When we’re taught by story and myth that there is always a hero, a person who’s more important than others because of destiny (or whatever), we’re laying the foundation for oppression because the “hero” is more important than the side characters. Until recently, most of our stories had the same kind of person as the “hero”: a thin or muscular white cis het male. This informs our cultural subconscious that only this type of person is important, and everyone else is a side character, a “love interest” or the “fat/black best friend” or the “old mentor”. Our very stories tell us that some people are superior to others, so it’s no wonder we have an unrelenting racism and bigotry in our western society.
By focusing on one “main” character, we’re not only adding to the narrative that some people are heroes/important and others are not, we’re also adding to the viewpoint that the individual is the most important thing in the world.
We live in a world where we expect our needs and wants to be met, without much thought for those who help supply those needs. Your place in the social strata can of course vary how many of your needs are met (and how oppressed you are), but over all our society focuses on the single individual, on single dreams, on the pursuit of individual happiness and perfection, and often of being better or more fulfilled than our neighbours. There’s also very often the underlying belief that your greatness must always come at the cost of others well-being or greatness. That the poor deserve to be poor so that the worthy rich can get richer. We are all the hero in our “hero’s journey of life”, and everyone else gets relegated to the plucky side-kick or the romantic love interest or the asshole antagonist. Our individual humanity is the only one that matters, not because it’s true but because we’ve convinced ourselves that the pursuit of individual happiness is the only way to live one’s life. And one of the reasons we believe this is because the only stories we’ve been given to describe our own journeys through life, mirror this mindset.
Our stories have told us a lie, that humans are individualist creatures. We’re not. We are literally pack/herd animals. We’re emotionally, mentally and physically wired to exist in relation to others, and because our stories (and the messages from capitalism) have been based around a single character and their needs and their wants as an individual, we’ve collectively forgotten our connections, our community-based nature. We’ve forgotten how to connect to others, how to work together, how to trust. It’s almost as if our very culture has developed PTSD, and we’re curled up in the corner with a weapon expecting every other person to be a threat, and then wondering why we’re so terribly lonely and miserable.
The healthy, empowered human is one who functions in relation to their community. For evidence of this you only have to look at the native peoples around the world and how their social structures existed before colonial invasion, and perhaps how our ancestors might have lived before invasion as well.
We’ve been so focused on the individual, on dominance and conformity, that we’ve forgotten our base, core nature of community and connectedness. You cannot be connected while looking down your nose at someone who’s different. But we don’t know what we don’t know. We can’t understand something that has no stories with which we can tell and explain a concept. I only understand what I do because I’m a member of a number of oppressed minority groups, so I have a different perspective. For those who fit in the mainstream, they have been taught by our stories to be prejudiced, to be separatist, and entirely individual-focused. And in order to change that in a meaningful and effective way, we must change how we tell our stories, and what stories we tell. People have already cottoned onto this concept (also called diverse representation), which is why we have far more movies and tv series with diverse stories and characters, but we all add to this shift towards a kinder world with our own stories.
So, with intention to help bring about a better future for our society, I choose to write my stories in a format that is as the world really is. There is no one main character because the troubles and problems that come to the characters cannot be solved by one hero, they can only be solved by many, many people coming together and fighting together to survive. In reality, as a species we are stronger together, we are wiser as well, particularly if we share our wisdom and actually listen to each other. And like the fiction world of TSU, the real world cannot be saved by one person, only by a large group of us coming together cooperatively, and saving the world together.
So, I choose to break a number of writing “rules” by deliberately having many main characters and many points of view in my stories, not because I’m trying to be a smart ass or because I’m following a whim. I’m choosing very deliberately to make sure (where possible) that my stories will help to improve the world, to help build a better world without bigotry through my choices of story and perspective.
In summary, I view us all as threads, and together we weave a tapestry of story and experience which becomes history and, hopefully, a better world.
And that’s the perspective from which I write my books.