“There’s Always A Struggle”: On My Love of Ensemble Characters (with a nod to the Atlantic’s “Voices of the Loneliness Epidemic”)

So now I’m returning to this, an entry I began on March 11 when more of us probably should have anticipated how thoroughly the sh*t was going to hit the fan, but for the most part didn’t. I wasn’t working from home yet, nor were most of my colleagues or my partner, and I didn’t yet grasp how deeply this subject matter would resonate just a few days later.

I won’t be so obvious as to talk about this strange experience we are all sharing. I will just note that I work in an inbound call center, and doing so from home leads to a novel blending of private and public personae. It seems to do the same for the employees who call in to me, and I find myself bearing auditory witness to interesting transformations, odd off-the-cuff confessions, or glimpses of facets of selves peeking out like untucked shirttails amidst the word tracks and obligatory niceties. Moments like this are necessary for perspective; they jog our recognition of common humanity.

The seeds of this entry were planted by a few things: though social distancing had not yet become an exhausted phrase in my lexicon at the time, I had just watched the Atlantic‘s piece on voicemails received by the UK’s Minister for Loneliness. I had also recently sat in on a ContraPoints Patreon Livestream in which Natalie, while patiently answering one of a deluge of questions from thirsty admirers as per usual, said something like: If one is to have the discussions necessary to educate and understand, let alone persuade, it’s important not to turn people we’re at odds with into stock characters. There’s always a complicated process by which people develop their beliefs… in other words, “There’s always a struggle”.

I didn’t need Natalie to tell me this, as belief in same is a fundamental part of who I am. But it was refreshing to hear it reinforced by a high-profile figure.

I had also long been meaning to write about how I can be an emotional sucker for fiction that presents an ensemble of characters but takes care to allow the observer to spend time individually with each one. I’ll say up front that if something’s not already in my admittedly narrow wheelhouse, this might not be enough to hook me in and of itself, but if something’s already my cup of Twining’s Lemon Ginger, the addition of this element is likely to inspire my frothing devotion.

Two examples from recent years have been Skins UK and Team Salvato’s Doki Doki Literature Club. Since I was well into my thirties when I happened on both pieces of media, and they seemed largely patronized by audiences considerably younger then myself, I had to take a long hard look at why I was so lain to waste by them.

Screenshots from DDLC – Photo credit: Team Salvato

I can only figure that both works reinforced my worldview as described above. They both offered an initially superficial presentation of certain personality types – thus encouraging the trope-based pigeonholing to which we humans, so bent on categorizing and labeling for the sake of practicality, usually resort – but then subverted our expectations by allowing us entry to the private worlds of the individual characters, facilitating an appreciation of their complexity and by extension fostering an emotional attachment to them.

Photo credit: Skins UK

For a keenly observant introvert who is reserved about mingling my private world with others’, and who, as a result, sits with vague impressions of what others’ private worlds must be like, the jolt of these epiphanies in fiction is much the same as hearing a co-worker saying, “Hey, babe –” in the middle of a work call as she gives her teenage son a gentle order, or another owning up to working in an armchair while watching Dr. Phil, or another saying, “It’s me, the mouthy one. Y’know I always wanted to be an opera singer?” It’s all very banal, yes, but in the throes of wearing our social masks (even if under the mantle of “reality programming”), it’s all too easy to forget.

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