It’s Not About You

Those four words, I am convinced, are some of the most profound and useful things to understand.

And it’s hard, because we all want to be the protagonist in our own narrative — and we are! You can’t help but be your own main character, because everything that happens is in the first person, and that person is you.

But while you may be the main character, you are not, necessarily, the protagonist. At least, not in every story you’re a part of.

That’s a hard one to grasp, but let me give you an easy example: who is the main character of the Sherlock Holmes books? If you say it’s the detective, I’m here to tell you: wrong.

Here’s how the amazing writer Chuck Wendig put it: A main character is the one who the narrative focuses on (or focuses through, via that character’s perspective) whereas the protagonist is the agent of change.

Watson. Everything is framed through his experience, through his eyes. He’s the main character, but Sherlock is the one with (again, as Wendig put it) “the quest”. Mad Max and Furiosa from Fury Road is another example. So is the first Fast & the Furious movie, with Brian as the main character but Dominic as the protagonist.

Let Them Lead Once in a While

The reason this can be useful in everyday life is because often we interpret things people say differently depending on whether we consider ourselves the main character or the protagonist. An easy example comes from pretty much any comment section:

Person A: “I feel that what you wrote was racist.”

Person B: “Oh, so now you’re saying I’m a racist, then? Well %$#$#@ you!”

Person A is talking, very clearly, about what person B wrote. Even without knowing what that was, you can imagine: it’s a bunch of pixels in the shape of letters in a font on a screen. That’s what Person A is talking about, the meaning of those letters which formed words which expressed what they interpret as a racist idea.

You’ll note that Person B only gets mentioned at all as an adjective describing which words Person A is referring to: what you wrote.

However, Person B thinks that they are the protagonist. This is about ME! Which means they add something to what Person A wrote: “I feel that what you wrote was racist, and that means that you’re a racist, too!

Except: Person A didn’t say that.

The Main Character’s Approach

If you think about the way Watson described Sherlock Holmes actions, he was quite often bewildered. “At first I didn’t understand, but then…” and there’s a long declamation by the detective explaining what at first seemed to be incomprehensible actions.

We only get that because of the main characters curiosity. Because of their willingness to sit with that bewilderment and puzzle it out. Mad Max only had a movie because he stuck around in the truck with Furiosa and the crew. He had little to no idea of what they were doing, or why, but the story is revealed through his willingness to let the story explain itself.

Person B knows they are not racist. It’s likely that Person A knows that too — which is why they are disturbed by what Person B wrote in the first place. A Main Character Person B could respond differently.

Person A: “I feel that what you wrote was racist.”

Person B: “Really? I don’t see that. It certainly wasn’t my intent. Can you explain what you’re seeing there?”

Suddenly instead of a personal attack on anyone, there’s simply a discussion about a bunch of words. Maybe some adjectives are confusing. Maybe there are some ideas or trends that A or B wasn’t aware of, and through the discussion, they can learn.

But most importantly: it’s not about them.

It’s really hard, in the heat of the moment, to remember that this may be one of those points where you’re the main character, not the protagonist. It’s not an easy thing to do at all, in a culture so steeped in Identity.

It’s worth a try, though. It can make all the difference in the world.

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