Saturday, March 30, 2013

Have You Met Ted?: The Perils of Being a Main Character

Ode to the protagonist. Such a heavy burden is placed upon you. You must be so many different things at once: an everyman, relatable to all; a plot engine, keeping the story moving; an eyepiece, through which your fictional world can be seen; flawed, so that you may seem believable; not too flawed though, lest you lose your likability. You are often considered a tiny desert in the midst of a giant oasis. But you have feelings too, don't you? Not that we care, being easy at is to brush past you to your much more colorful friends and neighbors. I feel for you, protagonist, I really do. Yours is a high and lonely burden to bear. I only wish you wouldn't talk about it so much.

It’s a common criticism of works of fiction (be they books, movies, plays, or television shows) that for all a particular drama’s positive attributes, the central figure of the narrative falls flat. In recent days, this critique has been placed quite heavily on the CBS tv show How I Met Your Mother. The series is so good at so many things, and few people will argue that its quartet of supporting characters are anything but stellar achievements in the field of sitcom writing. But at times, the story’s main character Ted  Mosby (played by Josh Radnor) falls short of the others, often getting the short end of the stick on the show he’s supposed to anchor.
This is not a new concept, and in no way is it unique to HIMYM. It happens all the time in movies. Nicholas Cage in National Treasure has no personality beyond being super invest in finding that titular treasure. He is far out-shined by the supporting cast of Diane Kruger, Justin Bartha, Sean Bean and Jon Voight. Inception is full of rich characters, but Leonardo DiCaprio takes up so much screen time that the viewer finds her or himself waiting for Ellen Page, Joseph Gordon-Levitt or even Marion Cotillard as DiCaprio’s (spoiler!) dead wife to show up again.
J.K. Rowling has made multiple billions of dollars crafting the world of her Harry Potter series of young adult novels. But if you asked fans their favorite character, few answers would match the title of the epic saga. Hermione Granger, Luna Lovegood, Minerva McGonagall, Nymphadora Tonks, Sybil Trelawney. All names one is bound to hear when inquiring on the subject. But few people will call out Harry himself as an achievement in character-building (even though really, he is), because he’s the central figure, and central figures need to be highly relatable to a large audience. And in that regard, Harry certainly does his job. But making a character widely identifiable necessitates a lack of quirks or lovable traits that make their secondary counterparts all the more appealing.
Ted Mosby opens How I Met Your Mother, sitting his kids down in the year 2030 to tell them then 9-year-long story of how he and their mother well, met. So we see everything through Ted’s eyes, and we meet his friends. Looking at the show’s first season (and reading interviews with its creators, Craig Thomas and Carter Bays), it becomes clear that the central relationship of the story was originally intended to be that of Ted and his best friend Marshall (Jason Segel). If you turned on the show now though, it’s a very different story, as Ted’s four best friends became two couples, and their romantic entanglements revealed themselves to be much more interesting than whatever girl Ted was dating that we knew, from the series’ central conceit, wasn’t going to be around long. Ted has quirks that set him apart, and technically it will always be “his” show, but no one’s tuning in these days to see him find love.
Main characters are a tricky business. In everything from The Mary Tyler Moore Show to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, from The Great Gatsby to the Twilight series, the protagonists anchor the story, but in a sense, they’re nothing more than a necessary evil. A person that must be there, if only so that we can see the other more interesting characters through their eyes. I’m sure we’ll all be happy when Ted meets his future wife, but the level attention we’ll give to the event is nothing to the childrearing woes of Lily and Marshall, or how deeply invested we are in the on-again/off-again goings on of Robin and Barney. Protagonists anchor the story, fuel the plot, give us a glimpse into their world, but more than anything, they just seem to get in the way. Sorry, Ted.

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