Welcome to Night Vale: When the Protagonist Isn’t the Hero
If you haven’t heard of it, look it up now: Welcome to Night Vale is the podcast that’s been taking the Internet, and specifically the iTunes charts, by storm. Co-written by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor, the podcast assumes the role of a community radio show in the fictional Night Vale, a friendly desert town where writing utensils are illegal, the PTA president is a Glow Cloud that rains small animals, and angels are definitely not real. The podcast comes out twice a month and features an episode-specific musical feature when Cecil Palmer, the character that hosts the radio show, cuts to the weather report.
Welcome to Night Vale is a unique exercise in story telling for a lot of reasons, but one particularly interesting aspect of the podcast is how it utilizes Cecil’s point of view to tell a story. Cecil, voiced by Cecil Baldwin, is typically the only voice you hear in an episode, with very few, short exceptions. On top of that, listeners don’t necessarily get Cecil-Palmer-the-character’s point of view, but Cecil-Palmer-the-radio-professional’s (although Cecil has been known to go off on some personal tangents, especially where a certain perfect-haired scientist is involved). Also, because the format is that of a radio show, there are very few moments where Cecil himself is involved in any of the action he’s reporting on. Cecil is nothing if not professional, and typically remains dutifully in his recording booth, despite what may be happening out in the town.
What this leaves listeners with is a very complex experience that leaves them one step removed from the main action of most story lines. Cecil may be the protagonist of Welcome to Night Vale, but he isn’t the hero. Undoubtedly, Cecil is a character that the audience can connect with and stay interested in. Listeners want to know more about his life and his relationships, and he is the character whose development and story we want to follow. He’s certainly heroic, and may even be one hero of the story, but he isn’t the hero. In the earlier stages of the podcast, when there wasn’t much coherent or consistent plot, this wasn’t as obvious as it is now. If there was some danger to Night Vale, the residents of the town were generally able to sort it out themselves, or, like in Glow Cloud, the threat just went away. On the few occasions a hero was needed to put the town back to normal (or as normal is it gets in Night Vale), the honor of “saving the day” usually went to Carlos, the handsome scientist who later became Cecil’s boyfriend. Cecil reported on these events in a typical radio-host fashion, in between segments like traffic and the community calendar, occasionally becoming emotionally involved.
One episode in particular highlights this situation. In One Year Later, Carlos is attacked by a tiny city full of people that reside under lane five at the Desert Flower Bowling Alley and Arcade Fun Complex. Cecil gets reports that Carlos may be gravely injured and possibly dead. Unable to leave his recording booth, Cecil becomes increasingly upset and actually comments on his inability to act: “He (Carlos) fell back to the side of the small hole in the pin retrieval area of lane five, blood welled through his shirt, and here I am, stuck in my booth, useless, only able to narrate and not to help. He staggered, fell to his knees — so much blood!” Later, it is revealed that Carlos was saved by the Apache Tracker. This episode is an example of Cecil clearly being the protagonist, but not the hero, of the story line.
There are a few exceptions, especially later on, one of the most obvious being Numbers. In this episode, Cecil actually escaped from his radio station, now owned by the seemingly evil corporate overlords at Strexcorp, to rescue Fey. With his mobile broadcasting equipment, he escapes his scary bosses and sets out to see if he can help her escape- only to discover that she is actually self-aware computer software. In one of the few episodes in which we see Cecil take action, he is unsuccessful in his ultimate task and the episode ends on a depressing note.
But as the podcast progressed and more concrete story lines developed, Cecil’s limited point of view and inability to act drew a clearer line between protagonist and hero. The Strexcorp story line truly did expose a need for a hero in Night Vale (literally, as 13-year-old Girl Scout and rebellion leader Tamika Flynn remarked in Parade Day), and it certainly couldn’t be the radio show host that worked for a Strex-owned radio station. More and more, it became obvious that Cecil’s broadcasts were being controlled by Strex, so he wasn’t able to publicly be involved in the budding rebellion against the company. But the rebellion needed a leader, and so turned to Tamika Flynn, the well-read and well-armed preteen. It is Tamika that leads the fight against Strex, and it is Cecil that does the supporting by urging other residents of Night Vale to rally behind her. Although Tamika’s rebellion was ultimately unsuccessful, she is clearly the hero in the episode and in most of the Strexcorp story so far.
As we find out in Renovations, Intern Dana is also an important hero figure. She’s been lost in some other world for quite a few episodes now, but finally came in and saved the day by rescuing Cecil from the company picnic. Once Cecil is returned to his recording studio, he recounts the events that brought him there. Although he mentioned he was involved in a brief and thwarted escape plan, it is clear that Intern Dana, Old Woman Josie and the Erikas, and Mayor Pamela Winchell are the true heroes that helped the town break away, if even just a little bit, from Strexcorp. Cecil rounds out the episode with a passionate speech about bringing the town back to freedom, but this only serves to cement his position even more. He is the communicator, the bearer- not the maker- of the news. Surely his way with words can unite and inspire people, and maybe Tamika Flynn and Intern Dana and everybody else wouldn’t be the same without the influence of Cecil. But without these other characters, Welcome to Night Vale might still be Welcome to the Greater Desert Bluffs Metropolitan Area.
The “protagonist is not the hero” concept is not altogether a popular literary choice. In most popular literature, the protagonist or main character of the story also fills the role of “hero.” Regardless of point of view choice, audiences are typically introduced to a character, who then encounters and eventually overcomes (or doesn’t overcome) some kind of conflict. However, there a few popular examples that deviate just as Welcome to Night Vale does. One of the most popular is To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee. Although Scout is the protagonist and narrator, most people would argue that it is actually Atticus Finch that is the hero of the story. There is much to be admired about the character of Scout, and perceiving the story through her character makes the story what it is.
Much of the podcasting world is dominated by shows that are very different from Welcome to Night Vale. Most podcasts function similarly to actual radio stations, with a host doing interviews, explaining a concept, or reporting on news. Welcome to Night Vale is currently the only podcast in the iTunes Top Ten list that is a work of fiction, although several others do exist. Podcasting as a form of story telling is still very much developing, and it will be interesting to see the choices of writers in the coming years.
Of course, we don’t know where Welcome to Night Vale is going, and the next episode may very well feature a “save the day” moment for Cecil. For now, the disconnect between protagonist and hero has been an interesting way to tell a story, and it seems supremely suited to this radio-podcast style of work. Everything Welcome to Night Vale listeners know about the heroes in the story comes through Cecil first, which is a compelling way to digest a plot like this. It also speaks the writing talent of Fink and Cranor: they have been able to keep so many loyal fans captivated over the course of two years, all with the same narrator, who is incredibly interesting but ultimately just another resident of the strange town of Night Vale.
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