Monday, July 22, 2013

A main character needs someone to care about

We put a lot of focus on our main characters, developing them, coming up with backstory, etc. While we do this, it is important for us to ask who is special to this person. It's not just that people need social connections (though I do think there are too many loners in fiction). It's also that when the main character cares about somebody, the reader is more likely to share that care, and to take the story to heart.

When we're writing, we can easily get totally into the world you've created, the situation and its complexity, and all the details associated with that. Sometimes while we're concerning ourselves with that, we forget the personal stakes. This is a mistake.

As stakes go, saving everyone in the world doesn't work that well. At least, not all by itself.

I was watching The Matrix Reloaded the other day, and when I came to the scene where Neo meets the Architect, I realized precisely what it was that made Neo different from all the Ones who had come before him. They all cared deeply for the survival of the human race, while Neo doesn't care nearly as much about the human race as he does about Trinity.

Think about it. The Architect offers him two doors: one which will allow him to keep humans alive through horrible sacrifice, and one which will cause them all to die but let him save Trinity. If he were concerned mostly with the lives of all humans, this would be a no-brainer. But I guess the Architect hasn't read his literature, or is too much of a machine to get it even if he has.

Bad move. Of course Neo is going to go save Trinity! And thus the outcome becomes something different from what happened in all the previous iterations. And the audience is likely to agree with Neo's choice, because that choice is personal.

I found myself looking for a similar personal form of stakes when I was writing my short story, "Mind Locker." Hub Girl, the main character, has a gang of kids she is in charge of, and she needs to make sure that they aren't being targeted by the Locker of the title. As I was writing it, though, I realized that she had a special relationship with one of the gang members, Big Fisher. It's not a romantic relationship, but she cares about him, and gives attention to that fact, through the whole story. One of my critique partners felt that Big Fisher really helped her understand the way that Hub Girl cared about protecting her gang members. That's because he's a specific example, someone to focus on in the large gang - but it's also because his relationship with Hub Girl is personal.

Who is your main character, and what does she (or he) care about? Who might she/he care about enough to take risks? Who has that personal connection that will motivate the main character as she/he goes forward?

It's something to think about.



  1. Just watch out the person the MVC cars about doesn't end up getting fridged.

  2. It's easy to approach this from a few angles. Is this person your character cares for aware of your character's existence. Is he a geek pining after the prom queen? Do your dude and his will-be spouse know each other, but just as friends? How do they become more? Did they just meet on a blind date and it was love at first sight, but their magical even holds a tragic turn for one or both of them?
    Is it a "gonna getcha" or "damn, I lost ya"? Maybe the character is trying desperately to get over the loss of someone that meant the world to them. Look at Ewan and Nicole in Moulin Rouge. I've seen that show a dozen times and his sobs still tear my heart out :'(

  3. Wow. It's one thing to think about raising the stakes, but I can see that it's quite another angle when the stakes are a human being. This would seem like such an obvious truth, but reading it here just made my brain light up.

  4. That was the best thing I could think of to get my current MC to make a couple of the choices he needs to make to advance the plot. The desire to protect someone can take on all kinds of interesting angles, from making someone confess to a crime he/she didn't commit to doing something out of character in its awfulness.