I saw a film the other day. Admittedly, I was only partially watching it over the top of my computer (my usual state of watching films, since I’m not a big film person unless it’s something I really like), but I think I saw just about everything.
So what gets to me, and why I’m writing about it, is that in this particular instance, the main character might as well not have been there. Not that the MC had no personality, just that they did nothing. All the way through the film, it basically went a bit like this:
Plot: Oh hey there MC, I’m gonna do something you don’t like. (Hint, hint, you are a main character, hint.)
MC: Oh. Okay. Sadface.
Plot: Yo, MC? That thing that you don’t like that is happening? You could maybe do something about that. Other characters, like, look up to you and stuff.
MC: …I don’t think so… that would be scary.
Plot: Hey, MC! People are dying out here…
MC: Um, but, like, the handful of people I care about aren’t dying right now. And, doing stuff is hard. And scary.
Plot: HEY MC I’M GONNA HIT YOU!
MC: Oh. Ow. That hurts. But I’ll go along with it.
And in the finale…
Other Characters: Hey, MC! We got so sick of waiting for you to do anything that we started the revolution without you! Life’s finally gonna get better in the long term!
MC: I hate you all.
So… what was the point of that, exactly? Why didn’t we spend the film watching Secondary Character 3 or whoever, who was actually doing something interesting during all this time, instead of sitting very still and doing whatever they were told by Evil Bad Guy? Because that would have been a much more interesting film.
Fundamentally, one of the primary things that makes a good story good is the characters. And if the focal character, the main character, the linchpin around whom the story revolves, never does or says anything… it’s difficult to get involved, to want to care about them, to want them to succeed. (Also: succeed at what, exactly, when they’re doing nothing?) When the evil overlord is burning down villages, do we want to watch one of his subjugated peasants who bow and scrape at his every word, or the brave knight who takes up her sword against him even if it means her sure and certain death? Do we watch the person who looks sad while carrying out their orders, or the heroic resistance member who smuggles out the condemned from under their very nose?
Main characters are often punching bags for the universe. They’re the lightning rod on which Plot strikes, and it’s rarely an overly good experience for them. But the reason they’re the main characters, and not secondary characters, is that they punch back. We want to know how they react, what they do. To see them fight, and push back against the world when it tries to crush them. To be a light in the darkness, or maybe just to punch out that jerk who keeps hitting them. To strive for what they want, even if all they want is to be left alone, or something so utterly selfish they aren’t really any better than the antagonists. That’s part of what a story is about, and that’s why we watch them, rather than Joe Q Bystander who lives next door. Maybe most of us, in our everyday lives, can be like Joe Q Bystander — but we all have more inside us. And we tend to want to be more than we are, not less. If somehow we were propelled into a position of Being Punched By The Plot, we tend to want to believe we’d do something, anything, in return.
Fundamentally, a story is about how one or more characters react to a variety of events, and usually how they then proceed to play off one another, each striving to get whatever it is that they want. So if the character who in this instance is the sole focus of the story does nothing… then the story, in a fairly major way, is about nothing.
At least, that’s what I think, and found frustrating enough to write a post about. What do you think? What have I missed?