Leslie Knope and Heroes without Arcs
So I started watching Parks and Rec from the beginning a few weeks back. It popped up on Netflix, I was between series, these things happen. Turns out that the first season holds up way better when you’re just chain watching the series. Knowing where Leslie ends up as a character, you can see the glints of it underneath, whereas the first time through we didn’t quite know what to look for and saw only a confused character without well written focus. But nope, I’m not here to bury or dig up first season Knope.
See, when I was writing about Lord of the Rings a while ago, I argued that the reason that the characters were mostly static and unchanging was exactly because they weren’t really the main characters, that the actual protagonists did have character arcs, it’s just that they were surrounded by all these characters that normally are the heroes and so they were masked, from a certain point of view. Aragorn is the hero when these stories are told nine times out of ten, and so by giving him no character arc to speak of, Tolkien was emphasizing that this was not actually the main character. Rather it was the hobbits who were given the arcs since they were the actual protagonists of the story.
Parks and Rec has something similar going for it, and not just because Ben declared that he too did not enjoy the Peter Jackson adaptations in the least. See, it’s an ensemble show for the most part, but with Leslie as the core. But Leslie changes very little. It’s not that nothing happens to her, not that she doesn’t grow and move on to bigger things as the series moves along, but that those movements pale in comparison to all of those around her.
Leslie’s static nature is exactly what makes her a hero in a sense. She exists in order to move the lives of others. She lives in order to make the characters around her grow. In that sense, she’s not the hero of the piece, but rather the hero maker. By virtue of being the rock that doesn’t move, she forces others to move around her, thus on a story level, forcing every other character to have a character arc as they move around her. As a character, she turns ordinary people into heroes.
In a certain way, stories have it backwards from the real world. We focus in on heroes as being the ones who evolve to something better over the course of a story. But in reality, we all change and evolve over time, even if only by flowing around the obstacles in our way, no better and no worse. But the heroes of the real world aren’t necessarily the ones who changes themselves, they’re the ones who change everyone around them. They’re the irrational ones upon whom all progress depends, the ones who insist that the world should change instead of them.
And I think that there’s nothing that Leslie Knope would rather be.
Steven Lloyd Wilson is a hopeless romantic and the last scion of Norse warriors and the forbidden elder gods. His novel, ramblings, and assorted fictions coalesce at www.burningviolin.com. You can email him here and order his novel here.