How To Choose A Main Character

In a novel, the main character must go through a life-changing event that transforms them by end of the book. (For more read What Is Character Change and How to Create Character Change.) With that in mind, it should be easy to know who is my protagonist, right? Just build the novel around whoever has the biggest change to make! Except in my current WIP I’m not sure who that is. Both potential heroines will change by the end, but who should lead the story?

This wouldn’t be such an issue if I wrote in the omniscient 3rd person. But I really want the story to be in 1st person, hence the need to make a choice.

Now you’re probably thinking I can just write it from both their perspectives. Problem solved! But multiple POVs should only be used for two reasons: 1) the characters have very different ways of seeing the same situation, and/or 2) the characters inhabit separate plotlines. A good example is Sister Wife by Shelley Hrdlitschka – three girls with contrasting views on their polygamous community. And each girl has her own story to tell, though they overlap a lot.

That’s not the case in my story. Sure, they see things differently because they are separate people, but not enough to warrant telling the story from both their POVs.

So I came up with some questions to try to figure out who would be the best Main Character, Taryn or Eve:

Q: Which character’s life is changed most by the story’s series of events? A: Taryn.

Q: Who wrestles the biggest demons? A: Taryn.

Q: Who has the ability to save the day? A: Both.

Q: Who is actually trying to save the day? A: Eve.

Q: Who propels the action of the story forward? A: Eve.

Q: Who will rise from the ashes at the end? A: Both. Or just one. Wow, this could go either way.

Q: Who has the goal that is easiest to root for? A: Eve.

Q: Which character is the best window into the story? A: Depends on the genre.

After the first questions, I was pretty sure Taryn was the main character because her demons are bigger and therefore her change should have a greater impact on the reader at The End. But the next few questions made it apparent that Eve leads the story and is easiest to root for. However, the last question was a revelation: different genres require different main characters.

If I was writing a coming-of-age story, the main character’s change would trump all. But I’m not. I’m writing a mystery thriller, and for that type of story the character who has less information makes the best “window” because the reader can experience her fear and frustration as she figures out the mystery.

Therefore, my main character has to be Eve because Taryn knows too much.

Laying it all out like that makes it seem obvious, and I’m embarrassed to say that took me months to figure out. Oh well, another thing learned in the seemingly endless quest to be a better writer!

Anyone else ever have trouble choosing your main character?

 

Author: Heather Jackson

Heather is a freelance screenwriter, game writer, and novelist based in Toronto. For more, visit her website at heatherjacksonwrites.com or follow her on Twitter @HeatherJacksonW

5 thoughts on “How To Choose A Main Character”

  1. I almost always write ensemble casts, as opposed to “this one person’s story”, so I’m pretty good at picking out who the main character is. These questions are awesome, though, because sometimes you DO get stuck.

    It’s also great if you want a specific character to be the main character, and you’re trying to make sure their journey lives up to the task.

    For my series (at least, the one I thought of when I started reading this), I elected to use third person to ease the struggle a bit (though there’s still a clear main character), because there was simply too much I had to be able to reveal to the audience–one character’s POV wasn’t going to cut it.

    My current WIP is in first person, though, and I do love being in the character’s head so thoroughly.

    Great post! I’m definitely bookmarking this for future reference 🙂

    1. So glad you found the questions helpful! I cut my teeth on TV writing, mostly ensemble casts, so perhaps that’s why I build a situation first, add characters later, and then struggle over who truly leads the story. 🙂

  2. Really does sound like you have a challenge there, especially since you feel you can’t use multiple POV’s. Hope Eve turns out to be the protagonist you need!

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