Are we Dead Yet?

I’ve been fortunate to have played host on my blog to a very interesting discussion on the rise in popularity of ‘cipher’ characters – protagonists who are blank slates. The most topical one at the moment is Anastasia – the female main character in Fifty Shades of Grey. She is, by no means, the only one.  Increasingly, I’m coming across characters, in both erotica and in erotic romance, who have no goals, no aspirations, no talents, no agency. This is especially true when it comes to sexually submissive characters.

It goes against everything I was taught as a writer, and against all the most celebrated literary characters who are held up as exemplars of brilliant characterization.  And yet these novels are wildly popular. Too popular to simply discount as literary flukes. Too well-liked to attribute their popularity to a readership lacking in discernment.

I think it behooves us as writers to examine how it became not only acceptable, but desirable to deliver up protagonists with no personality, no agency.  And then to examine what has happened in our culture to support or encourage this change. Finally, I think we are required to consider the ramifications of this shift.

As interactive media evolved, it allowed for a very different kind of relationship between the story and the consumer.  There were always role-playing games, like Dungeons and Dragons, but the rise of the computer game enabled the creation of story-space that required the immersion and active participation of the player.  The once maligned 2nd Person POV became a necessary narrative device for interactive gaming.  Writing games necessitated the author to, in essence, make a hole in the storyworld where the player could insert themselves, and allow enough flexibility of plot to make the player feel like he or she had invested enough agency to care about the outcome of the story/game.

Post-modernism greatly influenced many aspects of creative content creation.  There was a thorough democratization of the validity and worth of opinion and experience. Expertise, craftsmanship, authority of the subject were rejected in favour of the lived experience of the common man/woman.  Entertainment types like reality TV have become very popular, valorizing the experience of the everyman – and turning it into spectacle. It also is very cheaply produced entertainment. It doesn’t require a lot of the creative expertise of earlier forms – actors, writers, set designers, etc.

From a literary theory perspective, the rise of new ways of understanding the author’s role in the narrative exchange between the text and the reader forced us to examine where meaning-making lies. And in the latter half of the 20th century, it was generally agreed that the reader played a much greater part in the reader-text-writer relationship than previously acknowledged. Readers internalize the written text and then, essentially, re-write it into their own experience.  This allows novels to have the intensely personal impact that they have on us.

This has influenced writing enormously. Writers began to accept their roles as proposers of fictionality rather than transferrers of truths, and attempted to write increasingly more ‘open’ texts, in which the reader was left to formulate conclusions themselves.  It no longer matters what the novel meant to the writer as he or she wrote it. Now all that matters is what it means to the reader through the filter of their interpretation.

So, in a way, it’s not all that surprising that startlingly vapid characters like Anastasia, are as popular as they are.  As one commenter on my blog said: “I like to immerse myself into what I’m reading and imbue characters with my own thoughts and ideas.” And what better way to do this than to provide the reader with an essentially empty vessel? As another commenter wrote: “…she will be easy to step into as an identity character because so little of her is really fleshed out.”

It occurs to me that this is a reflection of a greater sociological polarization.  Not only does it seem we are, as a factionalized society, unwilling to listen to an opposing argument or consider that any part of it might be valid, but now we can no longer even tolerate the fictional portrayal of characters who cannot be easily made into ourselves.

It would be foolish not to acknowledge that there are deeply feminist implications in the rise in popularity of female characters who have no goals or aims or aspirations other than to be a compliment to the male protagonist in the story, but I don’t really want to get into that discussion.

The desire for empty vessels into which we can insert ourselves literarily has broader implications that go beyond gender.  At its heart, this relates to a society in which individuals have no interest in the experiences of others.  It is not enough to sympathize with or be co-travelers on a character’s fictional journey. We have to have space made for us to be in the starring role.  And I have to wonder whether this is a fundamental product of a consumer culture in which the customer’s voice is, ostensibly, the only one that matters. Have we had our consumer egos pandered to with such intensity, that we cannot tolerate the other, the alien, the different?  If it is not our story, is it unconsumable to us now?

I think Barthes was simply a little premature. The ‘Death of the Author’ did not occur when we relinquished the role of meaning making to readers. But when writers can no longer write rich, complex, evolved main characters and are compelled, if they want to be popular, to write empty vessels instead, then it really is the death of the author.

It is fairly easy to program a computer to spit out a sequence of fictional events. And certainly, most of the scenarios we create in fiction are not all that new.  The thing that afforded writers creative space was to write interesting characters who transgressed through those familiar landscapes in new and interesting ways. Now, it seems, we are not required to do that either.

Are we dead, yet?

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