(Originally published May 11, 2016)
It’s finally feeling like spring in my hometown, and that means all kinds of new life. Right now, that even extends to my writing life, where I’m starting to cultivate new story ideas and figure out what to write next. An exciting stage, yes, but also kind of a perilous one. And so, of course, I turn to my books.
One of my go-to books on craft is John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story. Truby does a fantastic (and extremely thorough) job of helping writers develop not only their main character, but their secondary characters and the web of relationships that exists between characters.
Character is, of course, essential to story. For many of us, it’s the very first thing we know about a story, the very seed that starts it all. But even those of us who fall into this category would do well to double-check that we’ve picked the right hero for our story. We often figure out just the right narrator and consider carefully whether we’ll tell the story in first or third person, past or present tense. But do we always double-check to make sure we’ve actually chosen the right main character?
Truby uses the term “hero” in place of “main character”, and if we temporarily set aside the implied gender restrictions of that term, I think it’s apt. By one definition, a hero is “a person who…is regarded as a model.” This is what we hope in our stories: that the reader will consider our main character as a model for their own life and emotions, and thereby invest themselves in the hero’s journey and put themselves in the hero’s proverbial shoes.
In Truby’s words, the hero should be “the most fascinating, challenging, and complex.” He suggests asking yourself the following questions to determine whether you’ve truly chosen the right hero for your story:
- Who do I love?
- Do I want to see him/her act?
- Do I care about the challenges s/he has to overcome?
Often, the choice of main character is obvious. Think Harry Potter, Katniss Everdeen, Elizabeth Bennet. But sometimes truly interesting main characters come about when they’re somewhat unexpected.
Scout Finch instead of Atticus in To Kill a Mockingbird.
Joel Espen from Emily Wing Smith’s haunting and powerful The Way He Lived, who has died before the story starts and is only seen in others’ recollections.
John Wheelwright in A Prayer for Owen Meany. You’d expect Owen Meany here, right? Yet Johnny is not only the narrator but the main character as well.
Even the very unexpected facet of James Sheppard in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.
For me, these stories are all memorable in part because the main character wasn’t quite who I expected them to be—but was exactly who they needed to be. That makes me wonder if it might be time for a little main character shake-up of my own.
What about you? How do you make sure you’ve chosen the right main character? Any great unexpected main characters to add to the list?