One 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.
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.