I was recently reading a post online asking for some of the more unorthodox advice people had received about writing. It was a wonderful little collection of unusual, off-the-beaten-track ideas, but the most popular piece of advice is also my favorite one: “Every character thinks they’re the main character.”
Just take a moment to take that in. You’re smart enough already to figure out why that’s such a wonderful frame of mind to take in to your writing, particularly if it is character driven. But heck, I’m going to go ahead and talk about it anyway seeing as I love it so much.
One of the classic hallmarks of Mary Sue characters is the way the world seems to revolve around them. Every other so-called ‘supporting’ character exists in the world of that story in service to the main character. You can spot it in poorly written fiction: oh, here comes the protagonist’s foil, there goes the love interest, there’s the quirky sidekick over there, oh and don’t forget the wise old mentor. Their personalities are fleshed out only to the point where they service the plot and the main character, and it is all too easy to imagine them disappearing in a puff of smoke of non-existence the moment they disappear from the narrative.
Now, to that you might be thinking: “Well, what’s wrong with that? The main character is the main character after all, and it’s his or her story. Isn’t everything going to revolve around that one person by definition?”
This a perfectly reasonable response, and I can see how one might come to this conclusion, but the main problem lies in that one word: revolve. A story where it really does feel as though the main character is standing still while all of the other pieces of the story shift into place around them. Side characters pop up at just the right moment with just the right piece of information to get past the current obstacle which is just about to appear.
You have surely read stories or watched movies like this. And sure, some of them pull it off well. But on balance, there is no beating a story where all of the major characters (and even some of the minor ones) don’t seem to exist on the page just for the sake of the main character but purely of their own accord. They express their own strengths, reveal their own weaknesses, chase their own desires, are driven by their own motivation. Every character thinks they are the main character. The main character isn’t the static hub at the centre of a turning wheel, but is one of many bumper cars on the dodgem track, swerving and bouncing off of everyone else. The reader still experiences the story through that main character’s eyes but it is evident that everyone else out there is jostling to get ahead, to win, to get what they want – just as much as the main character.
So why is this better? The previous metaphor is a good one: a main character is the central hub of a wheel of plot and side characters that revolves around him or her is oddly static, and barely develops. Sure, we will watch our character as he apparently learns just enough from the wise mentor (who teaches the protagonist just enough knowledge for the needs of the upcoming battles) and then overcomes the prescribed villain (who has no other motivation than being a villain), but it doesn’t feel earned. It’s like watching a kitschy stage show where every move is telegraphed way beforehand and impeccably choreographed to give the impression of tension and danger. But we as the reader or viewer feel no fear for our main character because of course the danger isn’t real. Of course there will be victory for our protagonist. Nobody else has any motivation or personality fleshed out. If the protagonist fails, it won’t be a sad ending. It just...won't make sense. It’ll be a non-ending. The equivalent of a ‘Game Over’ screen on a video game. The bad guy didn’t ‘win’, the good guy lost. The narrative doesn’t conclude with a victorious villain, it just goes blank. Meaningless.
But with a story built where every character has a 3D personality, motivation, fears and desires, suddenly that stage show bursts into life. Because there are other characters on the page or screen that are just as interesting or empathetic as our main character, and they want to win just as much, the tension and narrative authors crave comes to life. Rather than an orchestrated stage show where everything and everyone miraculously moves to make way for the protagonist, suddenly your protagonist is bouncing off of other real people, with real motivations, some of whom may synergize with your protagonist when they bump into each other, while some will clash and, yes, hurt your protagonist. The main character is still center stage, but is now a pinball hurtling around the pinball machine. She can get hurt, and she can fail.
So how do you achieve this state of a full cast of characters who think they are the most important one there? The first step is to see how much (or little) you are there already. Try this little activity: write a short skit, perhaps 1000-2000 words, of your secondary characters gathered around a table at a pub. The main character isn't there. Now write about their conversation. The rules are: they aren't allowed to talk about the main character or any of the world or plot. They must only talk about themselves and each other. What do they say? How do they interact? The more interesting conversation you can put together, the more fleshed out they are, and the closer you are to achieving that all-main-character state. If, however, you are struggling to write that conversation then that is a sign these characters haven't been developed beyond their service to the protagonist and the plot. The solution? Write up some character profiles! Things like fears don't need to be complicated or relevant: your wise mentor's irrational fear of dirty socks is not only OK but speaks of someone who has a history and a personality beyond the pages.
Another exercise is to take a moment in your story where your protagonist won. It can be a fight, an argument, a test, anything. Now, write an alternate-universe version of that scene where the protagonist fails. Does it still work? Who else succeeds in place of your protagonist? Does it match that other character's motivations, if any? Their desire to win? Does it have narrative punch, or does it play out like that 'Game Over' scenario where the story just grinds to a halt and can't progress any further, like a checkmate? If the latter is happening, then your protagonist is still too much like Truman Burbank from the Truman Show: work your supporting cast's motivations up so that not only can failure for your protagonist work but also make sense. Like a race, the other racers aren't there as lifeless obstacles: they want to be victorious too.
If you really want to take this exercise to the extreme, try it out with the final and most pivotal confrontation with the antagonist. Envision a 'bad' ending. If you can write a bad ending that makes sense, that sees the antagonist achieve his or her own aims, then congratulations, you have a real corker of a story on your hands. Your story's tension will be real because the possibility of failure not just believable but plausible.
It may be an obscure piece of advice, but bulking out your characters so that all members of the cast consider themselves the most important person there has a great number of benefits to your story, and it's well worth trying it out. When every character considers themselves the main character you create a richer world, a more believable cast and a more satisfying story. A
n all around win.