Here's an idea for a novel/movie/video game: open on an ominous castle in snowy eastern Europe. The perimeter is patrolled by cigarette smoking thugs armed with automatic rifles. Somewhere in the stone bowels of the fortress, a maniacal villain is plotting to destroy the world through some convoluted plot that includes genetically modified race horses, Silicon Valley, and blimps.
Enter our intrepid and dashing super spy hero. He's bedded women across the globe. He's saved the world ten times over. He drives an Aston Martin and has impeccable taste in suits. As he infiltrates the villain's lair, he avoids patrols and uses his gadgets to get the upper hand. An unsuspecting guard pauses under a buttress to find relief from the interminable snowfall. Our hero strikes. Lightning fast, he emerges from the shadows and snaps the guard's neck. Instant, brutal death.
Where does the story go from here? Pop culture tells us the story continues with the ruggedly handsome spy. He saves the world and gets (has sex with) the girl. I can't be the only one who thinks about the little guy. All those faceless, interchangeable henchmen in these stories are people. They have dreams, anxieties, and regrets. I want an exploration of the poor castle guard who got his neck snapped. Was he insured? Did his friends or family know about his shady profession? Can these poor bullet sponges unionize?
I want their stories. I want fiction from a worm's eye view.
Action movies are just one piece of this puzzle. Principal Reese, the paperwork-loving protagonist from last week's post, is a great example of a stock character who gets short shrift in young adult supernatural literature. The principal stock character as the main authority figure (and usually villain) gets a thankless job. He or she needs to breathe down the protagonist's neck, warn them about their slipping grades, and enforce the rules with an iron fist.
But what if one of these stories was told from the principal's perspective? The side character becomes the hero. Instead of reading about teens with cool names like Hayden and Brazil, we read about the hapless principal who is trying to save his job as the body count rises and the insurance paperwork from multiple demonic battles piles up. In Looking For Alaska, I rather enjoyed The Eagle's arc. He starts as the stuffy disciplinarian of Culver Creek. It takes the WHOLE book, but eventually Pudge and company manage to make him crack a smile and admit he'd been bested. It was a touching moment that hinted at his character's depth. Think it's hard to be a student at Culver Creek? Imagine being the head of faculty at a boarding school with severe class divides, underage drinking and smoking, and a dead student. It would be a story rich with conflict.
I love this idea of experiencing a story from the perspective of someone who would otherwise be a minor, peripheral character. As I muddled through the book and movie versions of Twilight (forgive me) I absolutely found Bella's father to be one of the most interesting characters. In a story overflowing with vampires and werewolves with ridiculous abilities, I found myself craving the perspective of a regular human being. His world turns upside down when he learns the supernatural truth about Forks. That could be a damn compelling slice of fiction.
While we're on the topic of scattershot mid-2000's pop culture references, let's mention Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog. I enjoyed when Dr. Horrible's friend, Moist, mentioned the Henchman's Union. It's a great detail that expands the faceless henchman trope so well! I had an idea back in film school similar to this, a script that follows a hiring agency for super villain cronies. It never panned out, mostly because I was too busy drinking and smoking and playing video games. You know. College stuff.
Setting a story from worm's eye view can be as illuminating as going on a typical Hero's Journey. There are too many books, movies, and TV shows that follow the strapping, young, headstrong hero. If you want to impress me, make the villain the main character and then make him or her likable and rounded. If you want to impress me even more, make a minor character the protagonist and explore your genre's tropes from a whole new angle.
From a practical standpoint, going to a worm's eye view is an effective way to re-tell a story in a crowded genre. In Principal Reese Takes a Night Class, I tackle the tried-and-true supernatural high school genre from a different angle. Want to write something fresh about secret agents or superheroes? Try going at it from the point of view of a henchman. What about a coming-of-age story told from the perspective of the female lead's snobby prep boyfriend who will eventually lose her to the unique, plucky "protagonist?"
Wait, I think I like that idea. I'm gonna go write it.