Essays > Published on September 16th, 2011

Talking Shapes: The Rebel, the Follower, and the Witness

Some writers say that story telling is less about inventing stuff, and more about archeology.  So often, the task is not imagining new stories, it’s identifying ancient myths and presenting them in unique ways that still hold true to the original plot. 

The stranger the circumstances – outer space or dinosaur park or Middle Earth – the more likely the audience can accept that strangeness if the plot is a familiar classic.

Instead of wild, original maneuvers, the best storytelling depends more on an ability to combine and present ‘compulsory’ traditional forms -- perfectly.

The most-popular example is the Star Wars series, and its basis in the teachings of Joseph Campbell.  It may happen in the distant future, far, far away in space, but it’s still a Quest story: the warrior is called, saves the princess and kills the dragon. 

Often, when you’re not sure what’s missing in a story, it helps to identify the type of myth you’re telling and to study the original as a blueprint.  For example, in Haunted, the story “Ambition” is a Faust myth, where someone makes a bargain with the devil for personal gain and is destroyed by that deal.  Or, maybe finds a new way to escape the doomed bargain.

This essay will explore a form of myth that seems to be prevalent in popular fiction, through most of the past century in America.  If this is a “shape” or a structure, I’m not sure, but it’s everywhere when you look for it.  You start with three main characters – and you end with just one.  You’ve seen this plot since you started reading, in books like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Great Gatsby, Valley of the Dolls, and even Fight Club.

The reason this form is so popular is that it seems to mirror the politics of our times: within our families and our government.

For example, consider that One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest is about the paradox of living in a modern democracy of only two political parties.  Cuckoo’s Nest tells the same story as the most-popular novels of the last century, a story we’ll be telling and retelling because that paradox is still our paradox, and we still struggle with Kesey’s central conflict:  How can you live within a democracy that expects you to participate, to hold an opinion and vote and thereby control and be responsible for your society – but at the same time, you must surrender and follow the will of others if even the slimmest majority disagrees with you?

To live in a democracy, you must be willing to live as a savior or a slave.  To have all or nothing.  And you have very little control over that choice.

Either way, you’ll be lost.  Destroyed.  Either by yourself, out of self-hatred.  Or by your society because you pose too big a threat.


Or, you can choose something different.  You can learn from the destruction of others.  You can create and live into a new system.  You can rise above the either/or choice of being a parent versus a child.  A savior versus a slave.  And you can become an adult, not rebelling against or caving into your culture, but creating a vision of your own and working to make that option into something real.

That…  consider that as the core of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

The rebel.  And the follower.  And the enlightened witness.

The first time I heard this story, it was the movie starring Jack Nicholson.  A movie that Kesey once told me he disliked.

In 1975, my parents’ marriage had been through several trial separations, little rehearsals for their eventual divorce.  My siblings and I lived with our mother.  Our father lived an hour’s drive away, and every Sunday he’d collect us for an afternoon and evening.  That’s when anything was possible.  He took us to see Klute with Jane Fonda and Bonnie and Clyde with Faye Dunaway, films full of sex and violence.  He was so desperate to please us for those few hours, if we’d asked he would’ve taken us to see a snuff movie.

We had only one movie theater, five towns away from our town, and one Sunday night the only choice was Cuckoo’s Nest.

On the surface, the story was new and different, but really – even as a child – I could see my parents in that mental hospital, battling each other for power.  Here was my father, Randle Patrick McMurphy, who always looked for a quick miracle to fix his life.  A trick or a new scam that would rescue him – even faking a back injury so he could retire early from the railroad – the way McMurphy faked being insane.  And there was Bill Bibbit as our mother, trying to follow a path she’d been taught since childhood: being good, giving in, obeying orders, trusting that good behavior and hard work would bring love.  My mother, who got straight A’s in school.

And here I was, Big Chief, the witness to their battle.

Not just that, but here was a story like so many I knew.  Here was the rebel girl, Holiday Golightly, from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, or Sally Bowles from I Am A Camera or Cabaret.  Or the rebel Jay Gatsby, social climbing to find his lost love in The Great Gatsby.  Or the pushy, ambitious Ethel Agnes O’Neill who remade herself as Neely O’Hara in Valley of the Dolls.  For that matter, Randle Patrick McMurphy was the renegade Scarlet O’Hara from Gone with the Wind.  These were all books my folks had at home, alongside Pearl S. Buck and Agatha Christie.

The story was always about someone, a man or woman, almost always renamed, who didn’t seem to fit into the world and always shocked people by misbehaving.

More often than not, the rebel was missing some kind of father.  Sally Bowles invents a mythic diplomat to replace the man who ignores her.  Scarlet O’Hara buries her father but then becomes him, saving his farm.  Even Jay Gatsby displays an old photo of the rich man, Dan Cody, who lifted young James Gatz from poverty and showed him the world.

And here, in Ken Kesey’s Billy Bibbit, is the follower.  The lamb for sacrifice.  Here was Melanie Wilkes, so good and upbeat and meek.  Billy Bibbit was Jennifer North, the beautiful Valley of the Dolls showgirl who primped to please men, then slept with even the most obnoxious for a fur coat.  Here was Holly Golightly’s offstage brother, the blonde beanpole, Fred Barnes, stupid and obedient and stashed away in the Army for his own good.  Like Bibbit stashed in the asylum.

By the way, Holly marries her father figure, Doc Golightly, escaping her starved past as Lulamae Barnes.  At that, her life becomes a series of similar, older men, all of whom she serves for the money she needs to rescue her brother.

In all of these stories, there was the rebel and there was the follower.  The first, trying to destroy the social order and the latter trying to please it.  But both of them used by that system.  Both of them reinforcing that system.

Even the social order was the same.  A great looming doom:  The Union Army swarming in to burn Atlanta.  Or the Nazis, swallowing up Sally Bowles.  Or the barbiturates swallowed by everybody in the Valley of the Dolls.  In Gatsby, it’s the ashes, the valley where Myrtle’s death takes place, and the “ashen man” who arrives to kill Jay Gatsby.

In all these stories, the rebel exhausts herself battling the system.  Resisting but perpetuating the social order.

The follower conforms.

The follower destroys herself.

And the rebel is destroyed.  Or lost, left bereft as Scarlet O’Hara is, without love or husband or child or family.

But the witness…  the witness lives on as a compromise, transformed, leaving the old system to begin a new story in a different social order.  Enlightened.

As the witness, we have Rhett Butler, Ann Welles, Nick Carraway, and the unnamed narrator who lives above Miss Golightly’s apartment.

The rebel, the follower and the witness.  The two extremes and the resulting compromise.

Of course Kesey’s social order is ugly.  That part of the story is always simple and ugly and unjustly represented.  It’s the “bull dyke” police officers who ambush Holly, or the Berlin Nazis or the cold, old-money snobs -- always happy to attend Jay Gatsby’s parties, but absent from his rainy funeral. 

That was the pattern:  Randle Patrick McMurphy will always rush in to threaten the social order.  My father would always reappear on Sundays to offer us children options we’d never imagined.  Holly Golightly will always shine in the First Act, brash and loud and thrilling.  Sally Bowles makes such a dazzling first impression.

There will always be the meek Billy Bibbit, jumping to please everyone and living in terror of their displeasure.  Daisy Fay Buchanan, drunk with frustration and sauterne, but fishing her $100,000-dollar pearls out of the trash and going downstairs to marry a man she doesn’t love.  Or Myrtle Wilson dashing out in front of her lover’s car.  Both women, sacrificing themselves for the same man.

McMurphy will always dance and sing, but Jennifer North and Fred Barnes can’t follow.  It’s too late for them to change.  They’ll continue to conform, but they’ve seen what’s possible so that new truth leaves their old lives fake, inauthentic, and the only choice they see is to destroy themselves in order to escape.  So like Melanie Wilkes, choosing to have another child despite the advice of her doctor, they choose to die. 

Whether it’s Billy Bibbit cutting his throat or Myrtle Wilson with her breast torn off or Sally Bowles staggering after her back-alley abortion, it’s usually a bloody plot point.  And that crisis will prompt the social order to destroy Sally Bowles.  Or Jay Gatsby.  Or Randle Patrick McMurphy.

That’s the pattern I’d seen so many times before.  Even as a 13-year-old, on that Sunday night at the movies, I knew this story.

There were my parents, fighting, and there was me:  Big Chief.  Always watching, mute, trying not to attract attention, but always dreaming up ways to make my escape.

I just didn’t recognize how this is everyone’s story, in a two-party democracy.  Even now, especially now,  in America where an almost equal number of people must follow the will of their peers.   No matter how democracy holds them responsible for their government, no matter how much they protest, the minority is still the minority.  Saviors or slaves.

That’s the pattern.  That’s always the pattern.  But we’re never stuck with just two choices.

In Fight Club the narrator is the follower, Tyler Durden is the rebel – so the follower’s martyrdom serves the double purpose of killing both characters in the same instant, leaving an enlightened survivor.  The good boy and the bad boy die in order to create the adult.

When you recognize the type of myth you’re telling, you have the freedom to create a variation.  Your reader will recognize the basic form of the myth and that familiarity will keep the reader hooked, even if the hero is an elf or the setting is a galaxy far, far away.

For homework, take another look at the plots of your favorite books.  Is there a passive character?  A rebel?  A witness?  This form shows up in even more movies.

And now that you know the secret formula – look for variations that people have created.  Notice how just a little tweaking leaves you with a bitter, sad end to a story.  In final scene of the novel Valley of the Dolls, the witness takes her first pills so we know she’s learned nothing and will be destroyed – but then, We The Readers become the witness and learn the big lesson.

Also, notice how these smart, dark endings tend to get re-written for the movie version.  There, the witness will learn – and We The Audience will just watch that happy enlightened ending. 

Is that another pattern?  Do novels tend to teach by a doomed example – but movies teach by a successful example?  If so, why?  Is it because movies are rated and books are not?

Beyond that, look at your parents or your spouse.  Which one of you is the rebel?  Or, depending on the situation, do you trade that role? 

Beyond THAT, look at your work.  Are you writing a classic rebel-follower-witness story?  If not, what kind of myth are you creating?  If your work doesn’t seem to fit any classic myth, you might be creating a variation.  What myth are you closest to?

About the author

Chuck Palahniuk is author of the novels Fight Club, Survivor, Invisible Monsters, Choke, Lullaby, Diary, Haunted, Rant, Snuff,  Pygmy, Tell-All, DamnedDoomed, and the upcoming Beautiful You. He also has two non-fiction books, the Portland travel memoir Fugitives & Refugees and the collection of true stories, essays, and interviews, Stranger Than Fiction.

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