Whose Story Is It, Anyway? by John Ostrander
In any given story, one of the primary questions that must be answered by the writer is – whose story is it? For example – in any Batman/Joker story, we assume that the story is going to be about Batman. He is the title character, after all. However, the story can be about the Joker – taken from his perspective, with the Joker as the protagonist and the Batman as his antagonist. A protagonist, after all, is not always a hero.
Sometimes, when I’m having problems with a story, I’ll go back to that simple, basic question – whose story is it? The answer sometimes surprises me. When I was writing my historical western for DC, The Kents, I assumed for a long time that the story was about Nate Kent, who was the direct ancestor of Pa Kent, Clark’s adoptive father. It was only when I was deep into the story that it occurred to me that the story was actually about Nate’s younger brother Jeb, who takes a wrong road, shoots his brother in the back at one point, becomes an outlaw, and eventually has to make things right.
The story may not always be about a person. When I wrote Gotham Nights, the focus of the story was the city itself, and the city was comprised not only of its buildings and roadways but, more importantly, the people who lived there, of whom I tried to give a cross-sampling. Batman was a part of all that because he is a part of Gotham City but the miniseries didn’t focus on him. It was Gotham City’s story.
All this becomes possible or even relevant when you have a well-developed cast of supporting characters. The main purpose of any supporting cast, be it a book or movie or TV show, is to bring out different aspects of the main character who is the protagonist of the story. We all act slightly differently according to whom we’re with. For example, how you act with your sweetheart would be inappropriate with your mother. You tell your friends things that you might not want to share with your family, your siblings have the dirt on you that you’d just as soon was not shared with everyone, and your parents not only know how to push your buttons, they installed the wiring. We’re always the same person but different people bring out different aspects of us.
The secret to creating a good supporting cast is that you have to know as much about them as you know about your main characters. They have to have stories of their own to tell; we’re just not choosing to tell them at this particular time. One of the best examples I know of this dictum currently is the TV series The Office.
If you don’t know the series, it’s based on a BBC series created by Ricky Gervais. The American version is set in the Scranton, PA, a regional office of fictional paper manufacturer Dunder-Mifflin. Steve Carell plays the lead role of office manager Michael Scott, the terrifically funny and somewhat creepy Rainn Wilson plays assistant to the manager Dwight Schrute (he is not, as people keep reminding him, assistant manager), and the main romantic pairing is played by Jenna Fischer, who is receptionist Pam Beasley and John Krasinski, who plays Jim Halpert.
The rest of the cast is also superb and, in a brilliant move by the producers, they’ve been allowed to develop their roles from background figures into fully fleshed characters. Everyone who watches the show has their favorites. Brian Baumgartner’s Kevin Malone is a fan favorite. Angela Kinsey’s tightly wound ice queen Angela Martin is another and her romance with Dwight has been a fearful one –the two might have offspring and that would be a bad thing for the world. Ed Helms joined the cast after the first season playing Andy Bernard – both he and Steve Carell are graduates of The Daily Show and have apparently little or no sense of shame. There are others – one of my own faves is Leslie David Baker who plays salesman Stanley Hudson. Stanley is moving towards retirement and just doesn’t give a damn about Michael or the other idiots in the office – an attitude Baker probably learned while working in various Chicago City Departments before going to Hollywood. Suffice it to say the entire cast is brilliant.
The concept that makes the show work is that it is entirely shot from the point of view of documentarians who are filming this branch office of Dunder-Mifflin. As creator Gervais said (in an interview that I saw), all the characters are aware they are being filmed at all times and behave accordingly. Michael Scott, for example, is in many ways an idiot, socially oblivious, self-centered to an appalling degree but he is always trying to present himself as a good guy, smart, and a well-loved boss. The anonymous and never seen documentary film crew is itself a character in the story just as Gotham City is in the Batman stories. The fact that the characters know that their behavior is being watched must and does by its very nature change their behavior.
Each and every character in that office believes that the documentary is about them. Each character has enough story in them that it could be. It’s something that’s true for all of us – as Shakespeare said, we in our lives play many parts. Each of us are – or certainly should be – the lead characters in the stories of our own lives. (If not, then you have serious self-image problems.) We are the protagonists in our lives; our narrative is about us. Many people come in and out of that narrative – antagonists, supporting characters, romantic characters, bit part characters, people in crowds.
However, I realized fairly early in my life that, while I was the protagonist in my own story, in someone else’s I might be the antagonist, the villain, a support character, or maybe I was just walking through, giving background texture or noise. Other narratives were going on constantly around me besides my own; I had only to pivot focus to hear them or see them. You can do the same – how many different stories are you a major or minor part of every day?
In freshman year of high school, I went to Quigley Seminary North which was located just north of Chicago’s Loop. I took the elevated train back and forth to school every day and, during the winter months, would frequently come home after dark. If I was sitting next to the window, I could stare out and look at the apartment houses that faced – sometimes abutted – the tracks. The windows might be lit and the shades not yet pulled down and I might see a moment of another life – another narrative – being flashed through that window. For that moment, they had part of my attention, were a part of my life. At the same time, I realized that, in their narrative, I was just another train passing by. Just noise. It all depends on where you choose to focus – on whose story you’re telling.
I’ve seen a couple arguing in the street by a car. For a moment, their narrative bursts in on mine. Sometimes I’ll see a face or a posture that grabs my eye as I pass. I never question as to why my eye is drawn; I see, I register what I’ve seen, I tuck it away. I’ve glimpsed a part of someone else’s narrative. I don’t know the context but it doesn’t matter; I’m a writer. I can create a narrative around what I see. It’s a rock thrown into a still pool; the rock is the moment I see, the pool is my imagination. It creates ripples, which are the beginning of narrative. I toss in other rocks – other things I’ve seen and remember, or the “what ifs?” that could occur – and the ripples cross one another and sometimes a story forms itself.
On The Office, the main story is the Scranton branch office of Dunder-Mifflin. The only link that these disparate people have binding them together is the place where they work. Not even the job itself joins them because they have different jobs within the office. It’s the location. The separate story lines are all threads being woven together for the documentary that is being made. The event of the filming creates the series. That’s the narrative focus.
As a writer, I’m fascinated. The characters within the story are aware that the story is being told and, to a greater or lesser degree, try to control that narrative. The show is achingly human and also achingly funny. Maybe painfully funny is a better description. Michael Scott, Carell’s character, is cringe-inducing; sometimes you feel a humiliation for him that he is too self-absorbed to feel. The only narrative of which Michael Scott is aware is his own. He appears oblivious to the fact that the other people serve any other function than as support characters in his story. We as the audience are aware of it and of his social tone-deafness even if he is not.
Jim and Pam’s ongoing up and down romantic relationship – felt and denied, proclaimed and refused, currently together – has functioned as an über story, something that connects the show throughout the seasons. It’s a major component to the series and about which the fans care a great deal.
It is not, however, the story – the office, as it is being filmed, is the main story. Like the people I glimpsed from the subway, we get snippets of the lives of those who work there and, for a moment, they are part of our lives, our narrative, even though we are not and will never be part of theirs.
John Ostrander writes GrimJack: The Manx Cat, new installments of which appear every Tuesday here on ComicMix, and Munden’s Bar, new installments of which appear every Friday here on ComicMix. Both for free. Can’t beat that. His new Suicide Squad mini-series is out there from DC Comics, and his Star Wars: Legacy is out there from Dark Horse, both at finer comics shops across the galaxy.