Main Characters have a myriad of approaches they can employ when it comes to solving the problems in a story. The important thing when writing a successful Main Character is determining which approach they will take first.
Some people prefer to first take action to solve their problems. Others prefer to start by internalizing, adapting themselves to the problems that they face. The Main Characters Approach determines whether they instinctively veer towards the internal, or towards the external.
According to the Dramatica theory of story, this preference determines whether a Main Character is a Do-er or a Be-er. Do-ers are focused on the external, Be-ers on the internal. It’s really that simple.
The Main Characters Approach
It should be noted that this preference is just that a preference. It is not an absolute, set in stone, I-cant-do-the-other-side sort of rule. Fully realized Main Characters will solve problems both externally and internally. Theyre based on real people after all. But it is important to determine which area they venture off into first. Why?
Because this will set up the kind of dramatic issues the Main Character will face in the story. Everyone has read before how character is action or characters are what they do. These phrases represent the basic understanding that character is plot and plot is character. But on a deeper level what this really means is that the issues a character faces in a story will grow from the approaches they take. Do-ers face external issues. Be-ers face internal ones.
So if you want to figure out how to write a meaningful Main Character, it helps to know what kind of approach they prefer.
If they tend towards the external running in and taking action then the kinds of issues they will face will center on things external, like the future state of things or fighting for your country. Columbus in Zombieland is just this kind of character. His problems arise from the kind of actions he thinks he has to take in order to stay in control. The story takes him to a place where he can stop doing these things.1
If they instead prefer to adapt themselves changing who they are first then the types of issues they will face will focus on the internal, like a racist attitude, or a dysfunctional behavior. Ryan Bingham in Up In The Air is the kind of Main Character who prefers to approach things internally. His issues stem from this attitude he has that everyone else in the world is just excess baggage. The less you have in your backpack, the happier your life will be. The story allows him to grow, again, to a place where he can stop having this attitude and perhaps take some action to change things around for him.
In American Beauty, Lester prefers to take action in order to resolve the personal problems in his life:
EXT. ROBIN HOOD TRAIL - EARLY MORNING Were FLYING high above the neighborhood, like in Lesters dream at the beginning. Below us we see the two Jims, jogging. We approach them steadily. LESTER (V.O.) Its a great thing to realize you still have the ability to surprise yourself. Makes you wonder what else you can do that youve forgotten about EXT. ROBIN HOOD TRAIL - CONTINUOUS Were now at street level, FOLLOWING the two Jims. LESTER (O.C.) Hey! You guys! Still running, the Jims turn back in perfect unison to see: Their POV: LESTER, IN a baggy sweatshirt and a pair of faded old Ithaca College sweatpants, runs toward them. They slow down until he catches up, then the three men RUN together in the early morning light. JIM #2 Lester, I didnt know you ran. LESTER (panting) Just started. JIM #1 Good for you. LESTER I figured you guys might be able to give me some pointers. I need to shape up. Fast. JIM #1 Well, are you just looking to lose weight, or do you want increased strength and flexibility as well? LESTER I want to look good naked.
Lester wants to look good naked. So what does he do? He doesnt sit in the front of the mirror and repeat over and over to himself, I’m a pretty man, I’m a pretty man. Instead, he grabs his old sweats out of the back of the closet, suits up and hits the pavement, seeking out the advice of those he knows know what theyre doing. Lester is a Do-er, preferring to work things out externally first.
If you take a look at the Main Character from the standpoint that he or she is the audience’s eyes into the story, then it makes sense that their personal issues will come from what it is they do the most. It’s the area they gravitate towards instinctively, and thus, the area where they will find the most trouble.
One More Concept
In next week’s final article on Main Character, we’ll examine the idea that regardless of whether or not they prefer to solve things externally or internally, Main Characters also have a certain mental approach towards solving those problems.