Paul pressed his eyes, tired, and took another aspirin. Easy job my ass, he thought, as the next interviewee entered his minuscule room. At least he had a room where he could rest in the few seconds it took for another person to come in; few trainees had that luxury. Few trainees, though, had a job as unfruitful as his.
The door was opened and Paul raised his eyes, seeing an old man walking in with a stick. The man sat in the plastic chair in front of Paul and smiled. If the elder wasn’t the hundredth person Paul interviewed that afternoon, maybe he’d find the old man likable — bald, sparse beard, looking a little like his grandfather — but the trainee barely managed to smile back.
“You’re…” Paul went through the papers. “Ar… Aresto…”
“Arestlothias Marbono,” said the man, smiling. “You can call me mister R.”
“Okay, mister… R,” said Paul, still looking at the forms Mr. R had filled before coming in. Paul had read some of them the day before, but it was too much to remember. “And you believe you’re the protagonist because of your… Name?”
“That’s right,” said the elder, his smile widening. “All protagonists have impactful names. No story would have a protagonist named, let’s say, Paul.”
“I guess,” said Paul. “But we take this very seriously here. You’re…“ Eyes to the paper. “Sixty-four. If the fiction that is our universe had you as its main character, wouldn’t you have done something impactful already?”
“Oh, but I have. In my youth…”
The elder went on to tell his tales of war, of love, his lost children and how they found each other… Paul felt another stab to the brain and tried very hard not to cringe. Most elders were like that: they based themselves on the theory that the narrative of the world had already ended, and the universe still existed in some sort of story inertia. That’s why nothing exciting was happening, the so-called “endists” argued. The “presentists” would answer that, if that was true, nothing exciting ever happened.
The consensus — including the bureau Paul worked for — was that the narrative of the universe was centered around a single person: someone who could be found, studied, and whose knowledge would help everyone understand existence. That was the hopeful approach.
Many believed that the protagonist was probably isolated, never to be found. Some thought the story had multiple points of view — hundreds, maybe —, intertwined together in exciting ways only for the readers, while being absolutely ordinary to the characters. But all of those still thought the story was likely exciting, new and interesting. The nihilists believed the story was probably just bad.
“Yes, we’ll review your case,” said Paul, for the hundredth and first time. ”Thank you for your time, mister R.”
“You don’t believe me, do you,” said the man, candidly.
“No,” Paul saw himself saying. “I mean, I’m sorry, it’s just…”
“You believe in one of the great ones?” asked the man. “The President, or one of the billionaires, one of the folk heroes…”
“I don’t know,” said Paul. He looked at the clock and figured it wouldn’t hurt to spend a few more minutes talking to the old man. It was better than calling someone else in and hearing their pitiful reasons for thinking they were important. “I think… I don’t know, I feel something is off with them. They seem to live interesting lives, but… I don’t know, I don’t quite buy it. I think the protagonist has to live such an unbelievable life…”
“I’m not so certain. From the right perspective, all stories are interesting. Through good prose, maybe an interesting structure, or weird delivery… Even the story of an intern with the job of interviewing people to advance protagonist-discovery research could be interesting.”
“Yeah right,” said Paul, feeling a little offended, but laughing with the old man. “How is that interesting?”
“That’s not for us to tell; it’s for the reader. Maybe the reader is alien to us. Maybe we’re aliens to the reader, and the protagonist having breakfast is what they recognize as great fiction.”
“Do you study teostoryology or something?”
The old man kept smiling.
“I think we’re pretty slow in our thoughts,” he said. “I don’t know why most people think our universe is a novel. Very few think it might be a novella, a novelette… A short story for the internet…”
“That’s a good one,” said Paul, but his smile faded. He didn’t get troubled with the idea that he was some tertiary character in a work of fiction, but that fiction being something less than the great literary work of the century — being less than a fucking novelette — made him uneasy. He took another aspirin.
“Well, I should be going,” said the old man. “I hope you find someone.”
As soon as the man left the room, someone else came in.
“Hey Paul, you okay?” asked his supervisor, looking worried.
“Yes, I’m sorry, the last one took a while, it’s-”
“You mean the lady? I saw her coming out like ten minutes ago, did she say something interesting?”
“What? Not the lady, the old man…”
“What old man?”
“The one with the crazy name, Mr…”
Paul picked his papers but didn’t find the old man. He scrambled the forms, finding the lady his supervisor was talking about, but no elder after her.
“I’ve been looking at your door. The last person out was the lady”, said the supervisor. “Yeah, it’s a lot of people, we get confused.”
“But… I’m sure, the old man with the strange name…”
“You know what? Take the rest of the day off. You’ve been working hard, you earned it.”
His supervisor smiled, but Paul didn’t see him. He kept looking at the papers, not finding a sign of Mr. R. Was it an illusion? His headache was a sign of something else? Man, he needed some sleep.
Paul gathered his things, and, while doing so, found the pamphlet summarizing his job.
SIGNS OF A POTENTIAL PROTAGONIST:
THINGS THAT HE CAN’T REALLY EXPLAIN; LIFE-CHANGING EVENTS.
Paul sat on the train back home, thoughtful. The event was surely weird, but not that weird, right? Just an illusion. Lapse of memory. Something of the sort; nothing exciting or heroic, nothing expected from a protagonist. But he remembered the old man so well…
Paul never considered that he might be the protagonist. He wasn’t smart, strong, and nothing interesting ever happened to him. Normal childhood, not a particularly happy or sad one. Major in public relations, trainee in the bureau; a boring, regular life. Not the life of a protagonist. The only interesting thing that ever happened to him was probably that visit from the old man.
ONLY ONE INCITING INCIDENT IS NECESSARY TO DEFINE A PROTAGONIST, said the pamphlet. Paul knew the words only too well. He shook his head. No way.
This job at the bureau was starting to get him. He wasn’t sure he believed in what he was doing, to be honest; finding the protagonist via those interviews sounded more like a way for the bureau to justify its budget than a genuine quest for answers. Not that he knew what such a quest would be like. Maybe listen to what the monks: some of them said that, after hours of meditation, they could hear the narrative. The prose, whispered to them as if the Author was right there, diving into his creation.
The train stopped, and Paul raised his head, realizing he might have lost his station. He hadn’t; the train was still one station from home. But Paul kept his head up. Arestlothias Marbono walked in with his stick, smiling, and sat in front of Paul.
“I’m sorry,” said Paul. “Aren’t you…”
“I am,” said the old man.
“Am I getting crazy?” asked Paul. “My supervisor didn’t see you. The records didn’t show you. Am I seeing things?”
“It all has a reason,” said Mr. R. “Paul, I came here with a mission.”
THE PROTAGONIST IS OFTEN OFFERED A MISSION.
“Oh no way.”
“I won’t,” said Paul. “You’re messing with me. I don’t believe that protagonist crap. I’m not going to do anything you want from me. I’m no protagonist.”
“Yet the shoes fit perfectly. Right after the call for adventure, what comes next in the Holy Book of the Protagonist?”
“The refusal of the… no. Oh no no no. I’m not refusing because I’m the protagonist. I’m refusing because… I mean, because…”
The old man just smiled at him.
“Oh no,” said Paul. “And you aren’t my mentor. I’m not the hero.”
What should he do? Run away? No; that yelled “refusal of the call”, and refusing was exactly what a protagonist would do. But if he accepted, wouldn’t he be embarking on the quest? It was inescapable. Whatever he did, he’d lose.
“This doesn’t make sense”, said Paul. “I’m no protagonist. Nothing strange ever happened. You mean to tell me the story began just this afternoon or something? Or did some reader bore himself reading the history of my mediocre childhood? And even then, was our entire universe created just for my life? All the others, all the achievements… And the author chose to write this stupid dialogue on the train?”
“I’ve tried to ease you into it. It’s not your job to decide or infer what parts of our universe are interesting for the readers. Its the Author’s.”
“Well screw him. I bet he’s some old lonely man in his mom’s basement.”
Mr. R didn’t respond.
“How did you find me, anyway?” continued Paul. “Wait; no. I don’t want to know. I’m going home.”
“As should the hero do. You don't believe in any potential protagonists Paul, you never did. And you know why? Because deep down you know the truth.”
The train stopped at Paul’s station. He got up, not looking at the old man, and went out.
“There’s no way out of this!” the old man shouted. “It’s your destiny!”
Paul hurried home, sweating. Those words echoed in his mind, together with his thoughts on them. Destiny? Shit, if I’m the protagonist, is the story a bad cliché?
Paul couldn’t sleep that night. He paced around his apartment, looking out the window from time to time. He didn’t know if he expected to see the old man there or someone else; some villain, some other part of the inciting incident… He didn’t want to know. He didn’t want to be the protagonist for the same reason he didn’t want the story to be short: he had his ideas of what was a good story. And he couldn’t bear the thought that his life was a bad one.
Around eleven, the phone rang. Paul looked into it carefully, scared of it, unsure of the reality of the situation. Was there magic in his world? Could it transform into something? He walked slowly towards it, as if the thing might jump out of the wall and strangle him, and took it.
Paul sighed with relief. It was Jack, his supervisor.
“Jack, thank the Author it’s you. I think I might be getting mad…”
“Well, you’ll want to sit down then. I found something out.”
Paul sat on his couch, feeling anxious. But not because of what Jack was about to say. There was something off with the conversation.
“I looked for info on the old man you asked me about,” said Jack. “Mister R.”
“Oh no way,” said Paul.”I knew I should have taken that picture.”
But saying those words felt… Wrong.
“You bet,” said Jack.”I looked up the picture and I found him. And then, hearing the narrative…”
“Wait, Jack, slow down,” said Paul. His head hurt. “Hearing the narrative? What do you mean?”
It was all coming to him: people could hear the narrative. It was just something they could, all along. But still…
“I mean we were hearing the story, Paul. As you know…”
“Oh no, no Maid and Butler,” interrupted Paul. “This doesn’t make sense.”
“First of all, I didn’t take any picture. And I don’t think I asked you about the old man.”
“You did! I entered the room, and you…”
“No, Jack, I’m sure,” said Paul. ”You didn’t see the old man.”
“What? You showed me the papers!”
“The papers didn’t exist!” said Paul, widening his eyes. “And… Oh my Author. Jack. I… I don’t think you had a name.”
“You were just the ‘supervisor’. You didn’t have a…” He hesitated. “No, it’s still okay. Those are minor problems. We can come out of this. But…”
“What are you talking about, Paul?”
“There’s no way this makes sense if people can hear the narrative, Jack!” screamed Paul. “If they could, how does my job makes any sense? Until now we knew nothing about him!”
“Well, as you know…”
“There’s no way out of this,” whispered Paul. “It’s a major plot hole.”
Paul stared at the phone, shaking. He looked up.
“No NO NO NO PLEASE NO YOU CAN FIX THIS REVISE IT JUST DON’T
Sounds of paper being torn.
Sounds of paper flying towards the bin.
“Crap. Next week I’ll start writing earlier,” he said, yawning and going to bed.