Friday, July 12, 2013

Does Your Main Character Want to be Your Main Character?

by Bill Johnson

The recent documentary Twenty Feet from Stardom features back up singers who never make it across that twenty feet on the stage to become stars. The personalities of the singers offer insight into the kind of characters who are found in novels, both successful and not.

The main thrust of Twenty Feet from Stardom is that a number of highly talented singers never achieved stardom in their own right, singers like Tata Vega and Darlene Love, who sang hits songs for Phil Spector that did not credit her (the group singing the songs, The Crystals, lip-synced the songs).

All the singers are talented, but watching the documentary it took a while to get a feel for them and what they wanted out of life. I found three types.

Singers who were happy to be back up singers.

Singers who were ambivalent about doing what was required to try and be a star.

And singers like Darlene Love who keep trying to make it as a recognized star/vocalist. When she finally escaped Phil Spector and was signed to a contract with a different recording company, they sold her contract back to Phil Spector.

But she kept trying, and of all the singers, I felt the most empathy for her. When she was knocked down, she got back up. When she was knocked down again, she got back up.

She had no ambivalence about what she wanted.

Taking in her story, I felt great empathy for her as a person. I wanted to know more about her. I’d like to meet her.

The singers who were ambivalent about being a star I found interesting but not compelling.

The singers who were happy to be back up singers I found interesting in a historical context.

I have the same reaction to ambivalent characters in novel. The more they come across as life-like and not larger than life, the less I care about what happens to them.

When I ask about ambivalent main characters in a novel, I'm often informed by the author that they created a diffuse main character to be life-life by design.

The danger of creating an ambivalent main character is that the author creates a character who is a mouth piece for the author’s ruminations, which is just as exciting as it sounds.

Ambivalent main characters in genre novels are generally the death of those novels. They tend to stand aside ruminating about what’s happening while the minor characters act with passion to shape an outcome.

If you’re an author being consistently told that too much of the action of your story is happening off stage, have you picked the right main character?

If you’re being told that your main character ruminates too much in place of taking action, are they the right person to be your main character?

Writing a good novel is tough. Writing a good novel with a weak main character is generally a fool’s errand.


 To read some of my longer reviews of popular movies, visit my website or check out my writing workbook, A Story is a Promise. Or, find me on Google+ and tell me what you think.