Thursday, February 4, 2010

MCs and relatability

Conventional wisdom holds that a main character must be, to a certain extent, mainstream. We equate mainstream with relatable. This seems to run a spectrum, though, and follows age lines.

In very young children's lit the MC is often superlative in many ways. In fairy tales, he or she is wittier, braver, or luckier than most. In addition to their amazing talents and gifts, they usually have bigger than average problems of the wicked witch variety. Transition to middle grade and the same holds. I love Artemis Fowl. But he is absolutely not normal. He is extremely wealthy, extremely smart, and only gradually (over the course of several books) does he seem to be plagued by anything remotely resembling a normal kid's problem. Even when the MC starts off "normal", ie: nothing special at school, problems at home, whatever, in middle grade the superlative rule still applies. Harry Potter is socially normal, struggles with regular adolescent woes, but he's a hell of a wizard and very brave. Percy Jackson? Turns out he is a demi-god of the highest order. Gregor the Overlander discovers he is a berserker who might have shamed the Visigoths with his battlelust.

By the time we transition to Lit Fic or Women's Lit the MC must be extremely normal with an exceptional problem or story. They need a job or spouse that does not fulfill all their greatest hopes and aspirations but a hurdle that will allow them to overcome this mundane drudgery.

Somewhere in the middle is YA. Right now, the trend is toward very "I could be that guy" MCs, which makes them very relatable. Their problems, even with the current crop of supernatural twists, revolve around uncertainty about the MC's convictions and place in the world.

The tension arises from normal people in exceptional circumstances or exceptional people in normal circumstances. If you have an exceptional MC in an exceptional circumstance, the only other avenue for tension is that the MC does not realize he or she is exceptional. Like Sookie Stackhouse: a waitress who considers her ability to read minds to be a disability because it inhibits her ability to have a normal relationship with a peer.

Somewhere in the equation, though, exceptional always crops up. How do you make the MC relatable and exceptional at the same time? Give them a blue collar job? Average looks or intelligence? Unhappy with their weight? Whatever it is, my favorite books have it. I'm not a huge consumer of chick lit but Jennifer Weiner is amazing at the normal people/exceptional circumstance combo. So is Mary Kay Andrews. Successful mystery and thriller authors also seem to have the secret handshake into this club.

How do they do it?


  1. Practice, with an underlying current of natural talent.

    The writer also has to be willing to take risks. When Stan Lee came up with Peter Parker, an unpopular teen with real life problems, he met resistance. But he knew that's what was needed to balance out Spider Man. He went with his gut, and went against the trend.

  2. So you think all the emo/angsty heros are Stan Lee's fault?

  3. I love Artemis Fowl and Percy Jackson too. But they too follow the tragedy struck kid story line. There isn't an MC these days like Iron Man. He has everything - money, fame, girlfriend. He does what he does, because he wants to do it, for the rush of it. And not because fate is driving him into it.

    But being normal in some ways does earn sympathy votes. Like most super heroes have love issues. ;)

  4. Oh, Aniket! So is sending my blogger comments to spam for some reason and I had no idea you had stopped by!

    I like best the guys who are super awesome with a, as in singular, flaw. Achilles prototype. Plus, the uber physical perfection is a great backdrop for emotion. Seems like everything's perfect but they still have travails. In a weird way, it illustrates the truth that happiness comes from within no matter what the without has going for it.

  5. he knew that's what was needed to balance out Spider Man. He went with his gut, and went against the trend.

    Work from home India

  6. kanishk: Spider Man rocks. Stan Lee must have gotten something right!

  7. Great, provocative post!

    I think inherent in the idea that a particular MC's story is being told is the idea that they are somehow exceptional. The very fact that we'd be willing to follow one person around for 300 (or more) pages means that they are above the crowd in some way, that they--forgive the pun--have a story to tell.

    I think to some extent this means that uniqueness is baked into the structure of stories from the get go. Even if a MC's problems are normal, their awareness and understanding of those problems have to be exceptional because they have to be understood by the reader.

    The balance issue that Rick points to is important also. IMHO, a MC who is so exceptional at everything that nothing ever challenges him is as boring as the unexceptional nerd who would never be a MC in the first place.

    Thanks for putting this one up! I enjoyed the read.

  8. Tkx, Jon Paul!

    Yeah, too much of a good thing and you've written yourself into a conflict corner. Hence, Achilles' heel and Superman's kryptonite.

    I've also been looking at settings as an additional character. This applies more to movies and graphic novels, I think, but especially in a post apocolyptic story the setting takes on a character quality. Heart of Darkness, too. Seems more common for the setting to be adversarial, contributing to conflict.