Pilgrim’s progress Scott Pilgrim versus Main Character Syndrome

Scott Pilgrim versus Main Character Syndrome

Main Character Syndrome can be as innocuous as walking through the city at night, music blaring in your headphones. Suitably soundtracked, you suddenly feel as if you’re the star of your own movie and everyone else is your supporting cast. But what if seeing your life as fiction, and yourself as the protagonist, also limits your ways of interacting with the world?

I spent part of my summer bingeing the Netflix animated series Scott Pilgrim Takes Off. There’s plenty to recommend about it — paparazzi ninjas, veganism-based superpowers, someone punching a hole in the moon — but its most surprising element is how it takes a bold and unexpected stand against the idea of a protagonist as a narrative necessity.

A comic book series by author Bryan Lee O’Malley, Scott Pilgrim ran from 2004 to 2010. Its seven books were inspired by classic video games, manga-style fights, and coming-of-age dramas: determined to win the affections of the mysterious Ramona Flowers, Scott Pilgrim finds that he must fight her “seven evil exes”, some of whom famously explode into a shower of coins once defeated.

Scott is a problematic protagonist: he’s self-involved, emotionally underdeveloped, and dating a high schooler even though he’s in his twenties. But we still feel ourselves as part of Scott’s quest as he levels up and battles his enemies, all for love. His wins are our wins. If Neil Gaiman is right when he says that a book is a “little empathy machine” that “puts you inside somebody else’s head”, the machine is working as expected here, with Scott at the wheel.

But is it real empathy? As writer Namwali Serpell points out in The New York Review, “narrative art is indeed an incredible vehicle for virtual experience — we think and feel with characters. It simulates empathy, so we believe it stimulates it.” That difference, between simulation and stimulation, questions the usual assumptions about empathy in fiction being an automatic good.

(Serpell adds, sardonically, that authors must always “imagine themselves into others” and yet are “not historically renowned for being good people”.)