There’s this desire to make stories huge epics, covering vast expanses of space and huge worlds of consequence. There’s also a desire to make the same stories be personal, relatable, grounded in the lives of a few people and their struggles. There’s a third desire to make characters active rather than reactive, to make them the agents of change in their world. We want our Star Wars and our Marvel movies and so forth to be huge galaxy-spanning epics while also to relate everything back to a small cast of main characters who are the agents of their own destiny, and each of these desires are wholly narratively understandable and sympathetic.
Together they cause problems.
The narrative plane defined by these three points is one where every aspect of reality is defined by the actions of a small group of people. Every war, every plague, every problem and every solution is derived from the interpersonal conflict of this group of friends or family. Now, let’s throw into the mix our human tendency to favor characters who resemble us, and the current demographics of the monied creative class in Hollywood and other sectors with a broad audience. Let’s throw into the mix the pragmatic understanding that it’s usually those who are born into wealth and power that have the agency to create this kind of broadly sweeping change.
In this context, every massively accessible mega-blockbuster is a story where the important characters overwhelmingly skew white and whelmingly skew male, where their interpersonal conflicts drive massive events that cause literally untold (because it is deemed unimportant) suffering and loss of life, but where only this core cast’s personal losses are dealt with as important or meaningful. Every reasonable axiom of storytelling will, in concert with other very common and reasonable assumptions and presumptions, create a story of aristocracy, of an elite and privileged few who are granted the destiny of the world at their fingertips.
One might argue, “Well, that’s just how it is. A few people control the world.” This argument is not only incorrect, it’s also not actually an argument. First, it’s incorrect because, while a few people certainly hold an incredible and morally atrocious amount of power in the world, the actual driving forces behind change tend to be far more complex than the agendas of a small elite – however, stories of systemic change and broad social movements tend to be difficult to tell if we assume it to be necessary that the story be told through a small and memorable cast of people who are the active agents of change. It’s not even an argument, though, because it assumes that we’re constrained in storytelling to the power structure of the world as it is now – which, if we’re creating huge fantasy epics, we are decidedly not. Is it even fantasy at all if that’s the extent of our imagination?
We’re all writing with Chekhov’s gun at our heads. We try to conserve detail and make it count, but if we let this control us then we make contrived worlds ruled by snickering fate instead of worlds that live and breathe, worlds where the anointed few drive all consequence instead of the camera happening to settle on a few who are particularly central to the events which unfold. There’s a difference between the message “A great event can have distant reverberations” and the message “Everything interesting that happens ever has something directly to do with this small group of people” – but all too often these two messages twist together and conflate.
By telling epics exclusively through the characters directly manifesting those great changes, we repeatedly imply that the only meaningful people in history are those who visibly drive it. Who gets erased? Anyone who doesn’t have the power to overtly drive history. Anyone who relies on any sort of collective power to drive history. Anyone who is driven under by history. Our classical understanding of storytelling tells us, over and over, that these people are not important, that these people are beneath mention.
History is a form of storytelling, and these characters are similarly, often, excised from those drafts.