There was a movie that came out relatively recent to the writing of this blog post. I won’t name the title, but it was a sequel to a very popular film and I remember how it was sort of expected that you were really supposed to love the main character. This was a person torn between good and evil, having to decide which side to land on. Most people were really smitten with this person. I wasn’t, though I couldn’t figure out why. Their story and this supposed inner conflict and contention between sides just never really gelled for me. It took me forever to put my finger on it: it was a matter of connection.
For me to enjoy a story, I’ve found that the MC needs a connection to the world, so that I can see their conflict through the eyes of someone who cares for them.
My problem with this particular character was that they had no family, no real allies, and no love interest. We’d gone through an entire movie with this person, and while the audience had bonded with them on principle of their MC-ness, the character seemed to have left much less of an impression on their own world. For me, as a viewer, this seriously took away any concern over where they landed on the good vs. evil, light vs. dark spectrum. Their choice didn’t ultimately effect anyone individually. It was said to have world-changing gravitas, but we never truly saw anyone “of the world” who would be affected by that choice.
I think this is indicative of something that an MC needs in order for their actions, choices, and conflicts to really hook the reader or viewer. It can’t just be all about them and the universe. A man walking across the desert and deciding to drink all of his water at once is not half as emotionally riveting as a man and his brother walking across the desert, when the man has to decide whether to drink his ration or give his brother a better fighting chance.
Humanity does not exist on an isolationist plane. While there are those who prefer to be alone, we are still, to an extent, defined by the company we keep. This is even truer in a fiction setting than in reality. If a completely-loner character is making choices that ultimately effect the universe, that can be too large of a scope for many readers to grapple with – especially as the MC is vacillating on the decision. It becomes a cold “what if,” a future choice with future consequences that may feel too vast to be truly relateable. But if you shrink the focus down to the effect of that choice on the MC’s best friend – whose heart is shredded and stomped as the MC deliberates over which side of the line to come down on – it’s suddenly a personal conflict. We connect to the friend’s pain, and it becomes our own, and then we’re drawn more deeply into the scenario.
A very good example of this is the arc of the Punisher character in the second season of Netflix’s Daredevil. I had my share of issues with the show’s second season, but I thought Frank Castle’s arc was executed flawlessly, thanks to Karen Page. While Frank was an isolated character who, for the most part, ran his own game countercross to Daredevil – leading to a should-he-shouldn’t-he conflict regarding Frank’s choices – Karen was the balance. Karen saw both sides, and became emotionally invested in Frank. This, in turn, made the viewer see Frank’s humanity, not just his kickass persona – Karen was our window into the grieving man trying to avenge his family while still deeply entrenched in his sorrow and shame regarding their deaths. Without Karen’s insight into Frank’s struggle, and without her heart to fight for his humanity, we’re left with Matt Murdock’s self-righteous outlook on the Punisher’s actions…not a favorable or sympathetic viewpoint, with the risk of making Frank seem utterly one-dimensional and irredeemable.
The point is that a man is not himself an island. Every MC needs at least one connection to anchor their actions in reality, and to give the reader a lens through which to see the consequences and fallout of those actions in-story. A richer narrative is nurtured when you ensure that your MC’s choices, from the mundane to the self-sacrificial, have an effect on both the micro and macro levels. For that macro level, it may indeed involve world-changing consequences. On the micro level, consider having a family member, love interest, or friend – even just one – who can be the reader’s eyes, ears, and heart into the story…and into the MC themselves.