Choosing the Star of Your Story

sigourney weaverOne of the best things about being a fiction writer rather than a movie producer: You don’t have to deal with your characters’ diva personalities or their agents arguing for top billing. You decide who is the star and who is the supporting cast, and you don’t have to pay anyone you edit out (you don’t actually pay any of them, but that’s not what this post is about).

Yet how do you know if you have chosen the right star? I’ve read a few blogs recently that discussed making sure your main character is one readers will want to follow. That is, you should make the most interesting character the star. It’s sound advice… that I disagree with. Sometimes.

My only rule for a main character is that he has to want something. He has to stay alive, get the girl, get revenge, get the dog, defuse the bomb, save his soul, or find his keys. Or he wants the wisdom to make a difficult choice. In other words, What He Wants is the thing that keeps the story going. While he certainly can be the most interesting character, he does not have to be the most interesting or even the most likeable one. As long as we can relate to him, somehow, on some level, he can be the star.

Sometimes I prefer the most interesting – or shall we say intriguing – character to be the one intimately entangled with what the hero wants. The intriguing character often has secret or knows something the hero does not. Think of the movie Alien, about a bizarre and deadly biomechanical organism running loose aboard a deep-space mining vessel. The hero, Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), is not particularly interesting. She’s confused and scared just like the other crew members. Except one of them: Ash (Ian Holm) clearly knows something about the creature and why it is on the ship. In this scenario, information is the key to staying alive. Ash has it, and Ripley wants it. Watch the movie and you will see he is the most interesting character.

In my forthcoming micro-novel collection, The Nightclub of Lost Souls, the title story features a main character attracted to a mysterious woman in danger. We know a lot about him and nothing about her, except that she has a dark past. What happened to her, and what is the nature of the threat? You’ll have to read the story, but the fact that she is mysterious and he is not makes her more interesting. At the same time, if we make her the main character, the story loses its intrigue.

Every story is different, of course, and sometimes the main character is the most interesting or has to be because it is a character study. In ensemble pieces, the most intriguing character is not always integral to the conflict. I’d say that Han Solo is one of the more interesting people in the Star Wars universe, but Luke probably would have found a way to [SPOILER ALERT] blow up the Death Star without him.

han solo

So how do you decide which character gets top billing in your stories?


Thanks to Jill Weatherholt for inspiring today’s post.

And thanks to Norwegian hair-metal band TNT for today’s related theme music.  Dang it. Tony Harnell had some serious singing chops. You’ll have to follow the link to YouTube.

17 responses to “Choosing the Star of Your Story

  • nrhatch

    Good point. I can think of any number of stories where the main character is NOT the most interesting.

    • ericjbaker

      Sometimes she just has to be most like the reader. In how many chick Lit books does the heroine have all her shit together and never screws up at work or in her love life because she is so spectacular? None.

  • wantonwordflirt

    Excellent post. I must say I agree as well, many times the main character is not the most intriguing.

  • Jill Weatherholt

    I’m honored to be mentioned in this excellent post, Eric…thanks! I’ve read several books lately where I cared more about the secondary characters than I did about the main character. Like you, I want my characters to want something, but they must overcome insurmountable problems and pay a hefty price before they get it.

    • ericjbaker

      Thanks for continuing to write thoughtful, well-composed posts!

      There’s definitely a difference between a main character who is kind of ordinary and a main character who is not interesting. It has something to do with the skill of the writer, I surmise.

  • Arkenaten

    The vocalist of this eighties(?) band sounds a bit like the bloke from Queensryche.

    I like the character with the secret. In my writing, he/she is always my ”secret weapon”. It’s as if we are the only ones that really know what’s going on. It’s great fun to write like this.

    • ericjbaker

      The thing with Geoff Tate from QR is that he tends to sound whiny at times and melodramatic at others. I think they are remembered better than bands like TNT is for the relative substance of their music. I find Tony Harnell from TNT to have a better range and a more open-throated singing style, but their tunes were fluff.

      I like to write a character with a secret that even I don’t know. Once it reveals itself, I look more clever as a writer than I really am.

  • Lara S. Chase

    I agree the main character is not always the most interesting, but should it be that way? Is the author just not putting the work into the main character that he/she should? Protagonists are often the last to develop any kind of personality because it’s harder to write an interesting straight man than a zany sidekick.

    • ericjbaker

      It depends on the talent of the writer, I suppose. If the main character of every story is Tony Stark, it’s hard for readers to connect. Frodo Baggins, Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, et al… these are people who start out bland and only become interesting when their true heroic natures come out due to circumstances.

      Thanks for the comment and the insight!

  • Janna G. Noelle

    Interesting ideas. The MC may not have to be the most interesting character, but s/he should probably be the most interesting to the writer. Otherwise one might run the risk of secondary characters trying to take on a larger role than they’re meant to, and derailing the entire story.

    • ericjbaker

      Indeed. There’s a reason that “discovering the power within” stories are so common and so beloved. You take a person who is ordinary, like the reader, and make her become a hero. She becomes interesting because the reader relates to what she is going through.

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