Fiction Writing: 3 Crucial Points For Your Main Character

By: Steve Dempster

The main or lead character in any story is a lynchpin and has very definite qualities. Miss one of these and your story may well grind to a halt! This article takes a look at three crucial aspects of the main character.

The main character in any work of fiction is the one around which the entire story revolves. He or she must possess certain values or abilities if your story is to work, yet many aspiring writers miss one or more of these vital points and become frustrated when their story fails to work as it should. Let's look at these three key ingredients to our main character:

1. The main character is the one who suffers most as a result of your story's events.
2. The main character is the one who has the power to change things within the story.
3. The main character is the one with the freedom to change things if they so wish.

In more detail:

1. Let's say that your main character, Jake, suffers most in your story. He has the freedom of choice to change this suffering but not the power to make it happen. Pretty soon your readers are going to realise that Jake is inept and weak, can't change a thing and that he must, in the end, surely fail.

2. If on the other hand Jake is the one who suffers most and possesses the power to make it stop but lacks the freedom to do this, the story will fall flat on its face because Jake cannot act and the plot can go nowhere.

3. Finally, if Jake has both power to change things within the story and the freedom to do so but isn't in jeopardy or doesn't suffer, the story will lack any form of tension. Jake will also lack any real motive to make any changes you have him perform as he isn't under any threat or duress. In this scenario the reader is left wondering why Jake has to do anything at all and usually gets bored pretty quickly!

What does this tell us as writers? Answer: that the main character must have a truly proactive role within your story - or he simply cannot be the main character! However, does this make the main character the protagonist? Usually the answer is yes, provided that the main character also acts in a proactive manner.

The protagonist must make things happen. If in your story you merely let the main character react to what his adversary, 'the opposition' (the bad guy) is doing, you risk the bad guy becoming the protagonist and your main character slipping into what is essentially a secondary role. This is a danger if the bad guy is particularly charismatic or has very powerful dominating character traits.

The danger here is that the bad guy becomes the lead character, an 'anti-hero'. This is a very, very difficult line to follow and I would not advise beginners to go down this route. The anti-hero can work if handled expertly - think of Paul Kersey in 'Death Wish' or Lestat in 'The Vampire Chronicles'. Both are anti-heroes but both work due to the expertise of the author. If you have any doubt as to your abilities to pull this off, stick to a good guy hero!

Therefore the main character must seek his story goal, overcoming the bad guy who seeks to thwart this. He must call the shots as to what happens in the story, driving it by being proactive. Incidentally, the bad guy isn't there just to cause your hero trouble - he has to have his own goal that, to him, is just as valid as the one your lead character has or he risks becoming a 'cardboard cut-out' villain whose only role within the story is to give your hero trouble.

This set-up, with main character as the good guy and also acting as the protagonist, is the most popular in fiction simply because it works so well. All other types of main character require a much greater effort to make them work well (if at all) and so seldom work effectively unless handled by a very skilled writer.

In conclusion: for beginners, choose the easiest set-up for your main character as descried above. Learn to do the simple things well - after all, a straightforward plot with good, strong and conventional characters will for a beginner ultimately produce a better finished work than trying to manipulate character types and work with a difficult, laborious storyline. Keep it simple and write it well!

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