Defining the Phenomenon of the “Main Character”

A few days ago, one of my fellow cabinmates from Camp NaNoWriMo posted what might seem like a mundane question but actually sparked my interest.

How do you define a main character versus side character?

Before I answer that question, let me first explain why this is important. First and foremost, it’s important to try and pick out one… maybe two… character that get the most attention. Some books can work with three or more main characters, but the more you add, the harder it is to juggle them all. The second reason it’s important to pick out your main characters comes when you’re trying to explain your novel to an agent or publisher in a book blurb or quick synopsis. You don’t have much time to work with, which means the more characters you have to add in and explain, the harder it is to fit your story’s explanation into the time frame that you have to properly explain it.

Now, back to my original question. You may think the answer is obvious, and when you look at all of the people in your book, most of the characters are easily labeled as a “side/supporting/minor character.” Perhaps for a lot of authors, the answer is always obvious. You have one main character and a whole slew of supporting characters.

But it’s easy to label a character as “main” when you’re writing from, and only from, the protagonist’s point of view. What happens if you have two or more perspectives? George Martin has a famously large cast of perspective characters, and after the end of the first book, it’s hard to guess who the main characters actually are. (My bets are still hedged on Jon and Danaerys, but only time will tell.) You have a handful to pick from, but if you could only pick one, could you do it?

It’s a well-known fact that point of view characters are almost always the main characters. Why? Because they’re the ones we see grow the most. The question, then, is if you have more than one point of view character, are all of those characters main characters? Or can you only have one? I know that in my own novel, I have two first person perspectives contending for the title of “main character.” After due deliberation, I managed to pick one, and this is how:

I would not define a main character as one that is the most developed, because your novel’s sidekick(s) and antagonist(s) and any other major players should be just as developed as your main character. This means that, if you’re purely going off of levels of development, you might actually have quite a large handful of characters to choose from.

Instead, I would personally define a main character as one who gets the most screen time (or page time, in this case), and the one who goes through the most development. Even sidekicks and antagonists should change during the course of the plot, but your main characters are the ones who should lose everything, and the ones who figure out what they’re made of by the end of the book.

This is why the ones with the most page time tend to be, no should be, the main characters: you’re going to need a lot of time setting up who they were before, what they lose, and how they end up surviving their terrible times.

***

Have I missed any important parts of what makes up a main character versus a minor one? Feel free to expand in the comments, or to post your Camp NaNo progress. I haven’t quite written yet today, which is why I have no progress to report.

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