Main Character and Meaning
When it comes to making your narrative mean something, a clear indication of the central character's point-of-view is paramount.
Of the four throughlines found in every complete story, the Main Character Throughline is perhaps the most important as it represents the audience’s point-of-view on a story’s central problem. Leave it out and you can pretty much count on your audience leaving as well.
The audience needs that perspective illustrated in order to feel personally attached to a story. When they don’t have it, the sense is that the story is incomplete.
There are four major questions or qualities that can be applied to a well-defined Main Character. There is the Main Character’s Resolve, the Main Character’s Growth, the Main Character’s Approach, and the Main Character’s Mental Sex.1 While the last may, at first, seem quite exciting, it really isn’t what you think it is. More on that in a moment.
For now, take a look at these choice clips of Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) and his personal journey from American Beauty:
Before diving into each concept, it should be noted that while the answers to each may appear to be binary, it is more accurate to think of them as lying on an analog scale, i.e. shades of gray rather than black or white.
Main Character Resolve
Changed or Steadfast
This question simply asks, “When looking at the end of the story, is the Main Character the same as they were at the beginning, or have they adopted a new way of seeing things?” If they stayed true to their original approach and continue to solve the story’s problem in the same manner as they did in the beginning, then they are considered to be a Steadfast Main Character. If on the other hand, they have made a significant paradigm shift and now see things in a completely new light, they are said to be a Changed Main Character.
If the idea of having a Main Character that does not “transform” bothers you, you might want to check out the article entitled What Character Arc Really Means. Along with a compelling video, it attempts to illustrate that growth does not always have to be transformative.
The Influence Character’s Resolve works in tandem with the Main Character’s Resolve.2 It should ALWAYS be the dynamic opposite. If the Main Character Changes, then the Influence Character will Remain Steadfast. If the Main Character stays Steadfast, then the Influence Character will Change. One doesn’t necessarily lead to the other, but it is important that they are dynamic opposites. Why? Because…
All meaning in a story is based on this dynamic.
If you leave it out, or you are unclear, or both the Main and Influence Characters Change, you can guarantee that your audience will have no idea what it is you are trying to say with your story. An audience measures the outcome of a story in part by the approaches that led to it.
Confuse this concept and your audience will be left confused.
For example, let’s take a closer look at the original script for the film:
My name is Lester Burnham. I’m forty-two years old. In less than a year, I’ll be dead.
(a beat of emphasis)
It's kind of exhilarating isn't it? That is how I approach every day.
INT. BURNHAM HOUSE - MASTER BATH - MOMENTS LATER
We’re in the shower with Lester. A waterproof RADIO plays COUNTRY MUSIC. He stands with his face directly in the hot spray, eyes shut.
In a way, I’m dead already.
ANGLE from outside the shower, we see Lester’s naked body silhouetted through the steamed-up glass door. It becomes apparent that he is masturbating.
Look at me jerking off while I listen to country music. I hated this shit when I was growing up.
Funny thing is, this is the high point of my day. It’s all downhill from here.
Hope no one was offended there. But you have to admit, it’s a very quick and clear way to show that Lester does not look at the world in a positive light.
Now compare that with where he ended up at the end of the film:
EXT. PARKING LOT - DAY
ON VIDEO: We’re watching the video Ricky showed Jane earlier, of the empty white PLASTIC BAG being blown about. The wind carries it in a circle around us, sometimes whipping it about violently, or, without warning, sending it soaring skyward, then letting it float gracefully down to the ground…
I guess I could be pretty pissed off about what happened to me…but it’s hard to stay mad, when there’s so much beauty in the world. Sometimes I feel like I’m seeing it all at once, and it’s too much, my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst…
It is quite apparent from these two excerpts that Lester has indeed Changed. In fact, American Beauty takes great pains to show you that he has clearly adopted the point-of-view of his Influence Character Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley). Earlier on in the film, Ricky had the same thing to say about the PLASTIC BAG, feeling that “there was so much beauty in the world…that my heart fills up like a balloon that’s about to burst.”
Most films and/or stories are not this obvious. American Beauty was and it led them to an Academy Award. Sometimes the most obvious path is the correct one.
There are three more dramatic concepts tied to the Main Character, concepts that will be addressed in future articles in this series. For now, it is important to realize that an audience expects a story to have meaning. Clearly illustrating the Main Character’s Resolve will go a long way towards making sure that a story’s message comes through loud and clear.