Being the Main Character

Last night I took Henry for a walk. The clock read 10pm, and the sleepy neighborhood I’ve called home for the past twenty-five years was silent and slumbering, the accumulating fog from the creek drifting up and through the aged brickwork that distinguishes Old Roseville from the rest of Roseville. I was dressed head to toe in black, as was my companion. It was cold. (Some readers will roll their eyes at a Californian calling 41 degrees cold, but that’s debate for another time.) I was walking Henry, admiring the old houses that line the series of one-way streets that make this particular part of Roseville so unique, when I found myself thinking about how I looked from an outside perspective. As we continued walking, I started writing. Not with any pen or paper, as some might think necessary, but instead in my head, where a shifting narrative was in full swing.

It was a cold, foggy, January night. He walked at a leisurely, albeit restless pace, pushing past houses that had lined his periphery all his adult life. Strutting beside him, attached by an orange collar, whose tension stressed and ebbed with each and every step, was his dog, whose surprise at being summoned for a late-night walk was overshadowed only by his anxiety at it being cut short; needless to say, he was on his best behavior.

The man who walked him (walked being a loose word here; everyone walks themselves, really) was hardly a man at all. He possessed all the necessary requirements to be considered one. He grew facial and pubic hair and had for many years; he had gone through school, a process continuously added to every spring and fall; he could drive a car; he could drink alcohol; he could enroll in the military (though he never would); his largest concern was debt and money—perhaps the largest qualification necessary of all; but despite these soaring stats, if asked, he would likely shudder at the notion of being called anything close to “adult.” 

He was, in his mind, severely underqualified for the job.

On this particular time of night, he was dressed in contrasting colors that resembled his conflicting pedigree: orange, white, and black made up the assortment of mismatched items adorning his body. Orange was his beanie, which was snug, and new, having been a gift leftover from the holidays; white were his trainers, which were not as new, and not as white as he remembered them being (although in the dead of night, any white, even a ruddy, strain-bedecked white, is of the purest whites); and a mismatch of conflicting assorted garments, those being a pair of sweats, a thermal, and a trench coat—the last of which being added as a last-minute necessity, for fear of looking anything close to ordinary.

To any onlooker, the man walking his dog looked as if he might have walked into a NYC (that’s New York City) fashion week event as a cutting-edge hipster; or perhaps be mistaken for a hip, tech-mogul billionaire; or a nobody tiktoker; or, perhaps even likelier, a hobo.

Now, I will admit that this is not precisely what I concocted in my head whilst walking, but that’s not so much the point here. As a writer (and I would assume other writers can attest to this) often the way we make characters (and fiction more broadly) is by imagining the ordinary, and then adjusting it, tilt by tilt, until the overall distortion is enough to be considered fiction, and the character has enough quirks to be considered interesting. We add flavors of oddity to the mundane, making it less so. We take ideas of normalcy and corrupt it with the strange, with the other. We do what we feel is necessary to make a character interesting, often relying more on the normal than the fantastical; and, often, it begins with ourselves, it begins with what interests us.

Lately (lately?) there has been a lot of talk on the internet surrounding the idea of being the main character. I debate using the word lately here, as too often I am late to comment on a trend (the time having been spent considering how I feel on a given subject, until I’m ready to put forward an opinion). I wanted to talk about it here today because from what I’ve seen, there tends to be a good deal of criticism towards those who do this, who act as if they’re the main character of their own story. Something about this criticism always confuses me, because it seems so natural to say that yes, of course they are, of course we all are.

That is not to say that egocentrism or narcissism ought to be encouraged (I doubt anyone would say it should), but I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive: I believe someone can acknowledge and even embrace being the main character of their own story, while concurrently being considerate of the macro world that surrounds them. This is because in order to be the main character, you must understand that your life, and what makes it mean anything, is contingent on the outside world and its influence. If you are the main character, then surely there is a larger story, a plot, at hand.

In stories (in this case, traditional stories; not those cutting-edge medias res stories everyone likes to make these days) the beginning often features a mundane character living a mundane life, and does not begin to pick up in terms of pace or interest until that character’s world is opened wide (a great example of this is Tolkien’s The Hobbit, for obvious reasons). The truth is that our viewpoint of this world, whether we like it or not, is limited to a single perspective. We can only view the world through our own eyes and see our hands and arms, our legs and feet, and call them our own. We are, in essence, the main vessel through which we filter and experience the external world. Here, the concept of we can become a tad bit ineffable, but really that is straying away from what I want to talk about today.

Being the main character does not necessarily mean an individual is thinking only of themselves and their story; rather, to see yourself as a main character demonstrates an appreciation for your place in the overarching world, the story that surrounds you. Just as we may be our own main character, and the people who surround us are side-characters, so too are we at the same time serving the role of a side-character in another’s story. To be one, you must understand that you are another.

I think it can be healthy to see yourself this way. Just as we romanticize the mundane, so too ought we embellish our lives with notions of importance, with moments of magic. When I walked through the fog and strolled past the houses and denizens of my small town, I was, in every conceivable sense of the word, a character. I decorated another’s life with my presence, just as their existence decorated mine. None need be given priority over another; we all work in tandem to make the story interesting.

So, next time you find yourself doing something cool, or recognize a moment in time that would make a compelling scene, seize it! Let yourself sit in that moment, arrested, as the main character, with the knowledge that only you can see yourself that way, only you are your own main character. And for any writers who may read this blog, allow that knowledge to inspire you to write characters (especially side characters) whose relationships to one another are not relegated to their causal relationship to the main character, but instead considers their lives amidst the whole of the story. Every character ever experienced the world through their own eyes. Consider that. I remember as a child always watching movies and seeing other characters (even the most irrelevant, fleeting ones) and wondering what the world looked like to them. In my mind I would make up stories for how they would see the world, or that scene they were in, and it often made for a more interesting experience of absorbing fiction.

But really it’s not fiction, is it? It’s the world—all of it.

And we’re all characters in it.

So, let yourself be the main character.

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