How to be the Main Character
Lessons from the most
annoying person in fiction
When I was in secondary school, one wall of the school cafeteria was made up entirely of windows overlooking a wide concrete path.
Almost no one liked walking on this path during lunchtimes. With the windows blindly reflecting the sky and the trees, and the flat roar of voices on the other side of the glass, it provoked the irresistible feeling that a wall of spectators was watching your every move as you passed.
This phenomenon is probably exaggerated in my memory. It definitely abated as we got older, but I have many memories of scurrying self-consciously past those windows, or of friends insisting that we took the long way round to avoid them. (Interestingly, or maybe just predictably, I have no corresponding memories of being inside that building and watching anyone walk by outside.)
If you’re familiar with TikTok trends, you’ll recognise the above as a classic symptom of Main Character Syndrome.
Main Character Syndrome is the term for when you view your life as a film or book with yourself at the centre of the narrative. Picture a TikTok of someone pushing their hair behind their ear with a simpering expression to the tune of “Mariner’s Apartment Complex” by Lana Del Rey. “I’m the bolt, the lightning, the thunder/ The kind of girl who’s gonna make you wonder/ Who you are, and who you’ve been...” etc.
The joke, of course, is that Main Character Syndrome is insufferable. This is because main characters themselves are insufferable. They’re selfish, they make harebrained decisions and follow madcap schemes. It’s healthy, every now and then, to get a reminder that we are not the centre of a cinematic universe, but one of almost 8 billion supporting characters in a very long story that ends with the possible heat death of the universe.
But, if you do want to live like a main character for a day, here are some pointers from the world of popular fiction.
1. Pick your genre
Understanding your genre is key to finding your main character persona. It can help with coordinating your key traits - clumsiness might be an adorable virtue for a romance protagonist, but if you bring that to the battlegrounds of a YA dystopia it’ll make for a very short book.
Pick a genre that celebrates your traits and where you are at in your life right now. Examples include a coming of age novel, an apocalyptic satire, or a murder mystery (though for your sake, I really hope you’re not in the latter. We are, of course, all in the second one).
I’ve just started freelancing, so I’m living in an epistolary comic novel told through increasingly erratic pitching emails. You see - easy!
All the great main characters have one really important goal or value; it gives their stories direction. Whether you get sidetracked from this goal - for instance, by an unexpected romance or a terrible disaster - its existence is a compass by which we, the reader, can measure the narrative and know what outcome to root for.
Try not to overthink this one too much though. It can be an existential thing, or it can be more immediate. It can even be fruitless - everyone loves a nihilistic metaphor that falls apart in the final act!
3. Check your common sense at the door
We’ve all seen at least one novelty t-shirt that says “Well-behaved women don’t make history”. Well, I’m here to tell you: sensible people don’t become main characters.
Though I would draw the line at running up the stairs instead of out of the door when being chased by a monster, bad decision-making is key to any main character’s arc. Throw caution to the wind - act on impulse, give in to your curiosity. This can mean literally anything so you can go a bit wild here. I mean it when I say this: do something I wouldn’t do. It’s what we read for; to see someone step out of their life for a minute, so we can vicariously step out of ours. It’s what being the main character is all about.
4. Finally, be unlikeable
This is maybe the most important one to remember. Your audience - I guess, in this extended metaphor, you - do not need to like you. At least, not all the time. In fact, I’d argue that all of the best main characters have a grain of unlikeability about them that makes them interesting.
Let’s face it: constantly likeable characters can’t carry novels. It is impossible to be perpetually funny and clever and upstandingly moral. You know who’s always funny and charming and likeable? Supporting characters! You are not about that life anymore.
The best main characters make mistakes, build impossible dreams and reduce them to rubble; they have misunderstandings and arguments and embarrassing moments that make you wince as you watch them. But you stay with them, because they’re your main character. They are the story - you are the story. You make things happen.