I’ve seen the term “main character” used a couple different ways. Unfortunately, and a little ironically, this is a common problem with writing terminology. Often there aren’t good hard and fast definitions for these terms, so most authors, publishing houses, and editors just have to pick one and be consistent. For my blog, I’m going to use “main character” to mean the single character around which the whole book revolves.
Some people are going to disagree with me on that "single" part. There are books that have dual protagonists. But let me tell you why that’s an exception to the rule.
Why have a single main character?
People experience life through one point of view. When your best friend tells you a story about their day, they may imply what everyone else is thinking, but you still know that you’re getting a single side to the story. You know that at the end of the story something is going to happen to your friend, not to this random other guy in the background that wasn’t mentioned at all in the set up. It’s all about the communicated expectations. This story is about me. The things that happened are about me. You’re supposed to sympathize with me. It is a framework people are used to, to such a point that they expect it subconsciously.
Books are fun because they can get inside other people’s heads. You can experience another life through another person, sometimes even multiple other people. But if you want the reader to really focus on the story and wonder how it’s going to end, you have to keep pointing them in that direction. If you spend your precious word count setting up this person and that person and also this other person rather than a goal which will lead to the climax, you’ve moved from storytelling to writing a book about perspectives. Which has done well in contemporary fiction from time to time. But it’s not the right focus for a middle grade adventure novel or a historical romance novel or any other genre I can think of.
A single main character will be a constant connection to pull your readers into the story and also a guide to take them all the way from that first page until the very last one. If you have other perspectives, readers will know that their issues are eventually going to become relevant to the goal of the main character and that will help them piece everything together in their minds.
So while having multiple main characters could be right for your book, unless you have a good reason, stick to a single main character.
A good example of this principle is the Legend of Korra. During one of the later seasons, Korra ends up being taken out of action for a while. I won’t give away exactly why or how, but she sits on the sidelines while all the other characters run around doing things.
And the episodes were boring. After each episode ended, no matter what challenges or conflicts the characters had faced, no matter how much I laughed at my beloved character’s jokes, I wasn’t really eager to start the next episode.
I like this example because I really hated Korra. I watched the show because it was a spinoff of Avatar: The Last Airbender and I fell in love with many of the side characters, but Korra was specifically designed to be the opposite of everything the previous main character had been. She drove me nuts throughout the whole show. So when she wasn’t around, I was relieved. My favorite scenes were ones that had nothing to do with her.
But when she stopped being the main character of the show, the show still suffered. There was a purpose she served in the story. Without her, the story was wandering.
Stories are all about emotion. There are a lot of tools that can help you connect with readers from the first word. Your voice, the narration style, picking the right beginning. Each of these tools can give you a little time. But the thing that makes them stick with the entire book is that promise of a resolution at the ending. They want to know how it ends. And in order to create that sense of purpose and wonder, you have to give them a reason to care about the ending.
That’s what your main character is for. They are the ones who dive into each new fight, who take every twist and turn, who feel every punch and tragedy. The main character is that thread pulling forward as the plot pushes back. Without that thread, it is much easier to lose your readers.
One good way to see this in practice is to look at TV shows. Because of the nature of television writing, they often have to change main characters as the show progresses, actors leave, and other real-world events effect their plans for the show. Some shows can pull this off and others struggle with it.
But one easy way to contrast different main characters is to look at the CW DC crossover specials. If you aren’t familiar, the CW channel has a massive amount of DC superhero shows: Flash, Arrow, Legends of Tomorrow, Supergirl, Batwoman. And once a year they do a crossover special where they put aside the season plotlines of the various shows and make a what is basically a long movie. This crossover special airs in hour long episodes throughout the week, one for each of the shows. Each episode is part of the overall storyline, but it focuses the characters and issues of a single show. For example, the Arrow episode will focus on Oliver Queen, his quest for redemption, and his issues with leadership and forgiveness. The individual episodes usually start with a series of “previously on” scenes that include the storyline of the crossover as well as scenes from the specific show that this episode is focusing on.
I only like a couple of the shows in the CW DC world. I have this thing about time travel stories. They drive me nuts. So I never watch Legends of Tomorrow, which is all about time travel. But since the plotline crosses into each of the shows, I have to watch the Legends of Tomorrow episode in order to follow the storyline. And each time, I get bored during that episode. I have no emotional investment in the Legends of Tomorrow characters and so their problems bore me, even though they’re working hand in hand with Oliver Queen and still fighting the same bad guy as the last crossover episode.
The other characters may still be there, but because they are no longer the main character, I am no longer connected to the story.
And that's on TV, where a main character is more a matter of choosing which scenes to show and which conversations to focus on. In a book, a main character is a much bigger deal. It not only effects which scenes the reader sees, but it’s also the ideas that are presented in the narration, the bias that goes into each description. In a book, the bond between the reader and the main character is an even bigger deal.
Balancing Your Cast
That doesn’t mean that your main character has to be the most lovable or the most interesting character. They guide the story, but they don’t have to steal everyone’s hearts. One good example of this is the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. The first few movies focus on Will and his quest to save Elizabeth. But everyone is really watching for Jack Sparrow. And then in the fourth movie, they made Jack Sparrow the main character and the whole movie was meandering. He might have been lovable and interesting, but he couldn’t carry the story. Viewers never knew quite what Jack wanted or quite what he was trying to do. His goals didn't have clear stakes and consequences. Viewers weren't quite sure what ending to root for. And this made for a less compelling plotline than the first three movies.
So don’t be afraid to shape the story around the character who can carry the plot. And then have your other characters be fascinating, and dazzling, and distracting, and lovable. But don’t hand the main character role over to them.
About my coauthor:
Ahna Larson is an awesome editor who was a huge help working on this blog post.