The story of Oscar Pretorius, the star paralympian, has dominated the news headlines in South and the world since Thursday morning. I got off a plane reading a stream of tweet that he had murdered his girlfriend, mistaking her for an intruder in her house. Why has this story dominated the new headlines and social conversation space?
I believe looking at the story through a narrative lens (no pun intended) explains why this story grips us. Firstly, an understanding of Booker’s 7 Basic Plots is required.
In his deep research on fictional literature Booker outlines seven basic plots that any fictional work aligns to, if not more than one plot. They are: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy and finally Rebirth. Booker’s ultimate hypothesis is that these plots are not only fictional, but that the stories we tell come from the reality we live. And so these plots can be seen as mirrors of the way in which reality plays out, so to speak.
When it comes to Oscar Pistorius, the national icon, we need to realise that he is a hero in the story of South Africa and that his story is a mixture of the Overcoming the Monster and Rags to Riches plots. Born without fibulas the man has overcome the ‘monster’ of physical disability to become the first paralympian to compete in the Olympics. From very humble beginnings, at a distinct disadvantage, he has risen to fame (and relative fortune).
One of the angles the media has taken this week is in uncovering a volatile character in Pistorius. Prone to outbursts of rage, they argue that this tragedy was somewhat inevitable. And so, there is a ‘monster within’ that has surfaced. In this sense, the overcoming of the monster has failed – it has got the better of him.
Then, and most poignantly, this story captivates us because it is a collision of the hero’s journey with the tragedy plot. According to Booker, a tragedy plot is when a character through some flaw or lack of self-understanding is increasingly drawn into a fatal course of action which leads inexorably to disaster. And so the potency of Pistorius’s story lies in how the hero’s journey collides with the tragedy plot. From rags to riches to self-destruction.
Pistorius’ trial is also compelling because of the tension inherent in the journey towards discovering whether our hero is actually a villain or not. The media have oscillated between portraying Pistorius as a villain who set out to kill Reeva Steenkamp (the State’s case) or a misguided hero that has lost his way.
Which ever way you look at it, Pistorius is likely to go to jail. No one is disputing whether he shot Steenkamp or not. We are all torn though between loving or hating him.