Thursday, August 23, 2012

Making the main character main

YALitChat takes place on Twitter on Wednesday nights. I haven't participated in a while, since I've been focusing on my latest manuscript, but I dropped in for a few minutes last night. The discussion was about characters and characterization. At one point, Chihuahua Zero (@chihuahuazero) tweeted this:
"One thing most people struggle with is the fact that the protagonist is overshadowed by the supporting cast."

I got to thinking about that problem a bit, and what to do when I run into it as a writer. I came up with two suggestions:
Give the main character bigger desires
Give the main character bigger flaws

Because I suspect that if side characters are more interesting than the main character, it's because the main character isn't driving the story (i.e., doesn't have much to do, doesn't have a big enough desire to launch events into motion), and/or the main character is too safe or too perfect. Flaws and vulnerabilities not only help us identify with a character, but they can open up new possibilities in the plot. Possibilities for conflict, for growth, for emotion.

I suppose I would sum it up this way: Characters have problems, and main characters have the biggest problems.

And thanks, Chihuahua Zero, for sparking this train of thought!


I want to mention some live bookish events happening soon (one involving me, the other not):

Saturday, August 25: PAYA (Bringing YA to PA), multi-author signing, library fundraiser, and book event. Pennsylvania's Leadership Charter School Advanced Learning Center; 1585 Paoli Pike, West Chester, PA 19380. Writing workshop starts at 10 AM; author panel for librarians also starts at 10 AM; author signings start at noon.

September 12, 6-7:30 PM: Teen Author Reading Night featuring Tara Altebrando, The Best Night of Your Pathetic Life; Sarah Beth Durst, Vessel; Gordon Korman, Ungifted; David Levithan, Every Day; Kate Milford, The Broken Lands; and a possible mystery guest! Jefferson Market Branch of NYPL, corner of 6th Ave and 10th St, New York City.

13 comments:

  1. Interesting point! MCs should have the biggest conflicts and obstacles over the other characters.

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    1. And yet I've managed to forget this on occasion, and then wonder why an early story draft isn't working!

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  2. I'm flattered that I inspired a blog post! I'll be following your blog.

    By the way, I have added more thoughts on this topic: http://thewritepractice.com/geeks-and-freaks/#comment-627171059

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    1. Welcome!

      I clicked over and read your post. Making a side character the hero and the rational, practical one is an interesting idea, and since I tend to prefer sidekicks to noble main characters, I might really like such a book. Probably the main question with such an approach is figuring out how to give the main character enough to do, if a side character is the hero.

      Another way to deal with this is, for example, in TV shows like MONK and HOUSE. The main characters are very flawed and quirky, yet they still manage to do the heroic action that drives the plot and saves the day--but it's not because they're perfect. Rather, in Monk's case it's his idiosyncrasies that enable him to solve cases. House, he saves the day in spite of all his flaws.

      But it would be very interesting to see what you come up with!

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  3. Characters do get kind of dry when they're too perfect- I think sometimes people get the notion that a hero or heroine must be flawless, but I am more drawn to characters if they have some small imperfections.

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    1. I think they're more relatable, and probably more believable if they have flaws.

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  4. Heart this post so much!! I often think of ways to make my MC more... well... main. :) Since I love writing books with a large cast of characters, your advice serves me well!!

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  5. Your summation is perfect. By the way, I just finished The Hunger Games trilogy today (late to the party) and your summation here is exemplified in that book.

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    1. I'm still trying to shake off the hang over. I remember you describing it that way, and it's true. I was into it so deep that I plowed through the series in four days, with work in between. I haven't read that fast in a very long time.

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  6. For some reason, your explanation seems obvious, but then I look back on issues I've had with this, and it's so easy to get lost in the other character's problems. I think there is a difference in the types of problems, though. For instance, in my current WIP, one of my secondary characters definitely has major and more serious immediate problems with the law and such, but my MC has even bigger issues with decisions she's making at the moment that will affect a lot of people and herself for years to come. So I'm trying to figure out - after reading your post - if I'm running the risk of losing my MC to other bigger things. I don't think I am, but it's something I'll definitely keep an eye on as I write.

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    1. I think secondary characters can have moments where they step to the front of the stage, scenes where their problems are spotlighted. But over the course of the book, probably the main arc and the biggest overall problem has to be the MC's. I'm sure there are exceptions, as there always are in writing, but that's my general idea.

      Of course, if your project feels right, I wouldn't worry about it. This is probably something to think about more if the project doesn't feel right and you're trying to figure out why.

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