Earlier today I was reading about a role playing game that (in my opinion justly) has come under a lot of fire for creating an unsympathetic main character who is too whiny and entitled and not nearly heroic enough. Perhaps predictably, the discourse on the game was divided between those who thought that the character was a daring modern overcoming of tropes about heroic and self-sacrificing outsiders and those people who felt as I did that such a character was unlikable and not worth celebrating because of a lack of self-awareness or virtuous character. It would make sense that people in our day and age would create unsympathetic lead characters who lack the moral fiber to act heroically. Any pop singer can consider themselves to be an anti-hero, but finding people who are fit to be heroes is by no means an easy task. We get the unsympathetic protagonists we deserve because they are like we are.
As I comment from time to time the stories we tell cannot help but tell on ourselves. When we tell a story, we are revealing some aspect of ourselves to others through the details we include, through the nature of the characters we focus on and place at the center of our story, and in the way that we try and sometimes fail to make the stories we write believable and the characters in our story relatable. One of the reason that so much contemporary storytelling fails, and fails repeatedly, is that the people writing the stories are themselves not the sort of people that anyone should or does relate to or find sympathetic or charismatic. Instead, we find them insufferable, and so it is no great surprise that they should create characters that are the same way. This is by no means a new phenomenon, I remember reading a review of a movie that pointed out, “This is not the story of us. It is the story of them.” When there is too big of a disconnect between the nature of those telling the story and those who are supposed to celebrate it and cheer it on and purchase it, things cannot help but go awry.
Ideally, the stories we tell can help bring us together with others. The best stories we tell are crafted by people who have something to say and to share about themselves and the workings of their own heart and mind and also are deeply sensitive to those whom they are telling the stories to. We not only create stories based on who we are but also read (and read into) stories based upon who we are. A story itself can only be appreciated to the extent that it speaks to us, and only those elements of the story that we can relate to will be read in it, whether they were placed in that story by them or by ourselves. It is not only the stories that we tell others that tell on ourselves, but the interpretations that we give to the stories of others that tell on ourselves, because those interpretations are thoughts that come from our own heads, since we are not privileged to know what was interior to the creator of the stories that we interpret. If we recognized the extent to which our stories and our interpretations opened us up to judgment, perhaps we would be more sparing in doing so. Whether that would be better or worse for us is sometimes hard to say.