The Hero vs. the Main Character

Grotesque statueDo you ever feel your interest in your own writing is renewed after reading a good piece of someone else’s work?

I’m not sure what it was–the tone, the setting, or simply the quality–but after finishing a WOTF contest winner from 1993, I burned to dig out one of my unfinished short stories for a rewrite.

I had at least six versions of the particular fantasy story already, yet I hadn’t identified the Big Problem. Each version had a beginning, middle, end, and transitions, but something didn’t fit.

With renewed faith that I’d find a solution–I can make this story as good as Elizabeth E. Wein‘s “Fire”!–I started another rewrite. Somewhere in the fourth scene, I finally recognized the Big Problem: I’d convinced myself the hero and main character were the same, and they aren’t.

The story isn’t about the hero, because he doesn’t make plot-driving decisions after the inciting crisis. My goal is for readers to want the hero to achieve his goals–that’s why he’s the hero–but the focus is on another character. It’s this other character’s emotions and actions that result in the hero’s success or failure. It’s this other character who I want the readers to care most about, even as they’re cheering on the hero.

The other character is the main character. He’s an antagonist to the hero, but he’s more interesting. He suffers in more ways than the hero can. He has more power to make decisions and more freedom to act.

After my realization, I started adding scenes to show more of the main character making decisions and taking action.

I feel that I’m on the right path. Thanks go to Wein for creating an inspirational story.

Do you have or know of main characters who aren’t heroes?

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12 thoughts on “The Hero vs. the Main Character

  1. Most of the heroes I’ve liked have been main characters and I can’t really think of any books that are exceptions to this – though I know I’ve read them. I guess I prefer stories where I follow the hero along.

    1. Thanks for the comment and tweet, Cassandra.

      Combining the hero and main character is generally efficient, because readers can identify which character to support. Unfortunately, my hero isn’t able to tell his own story and my main character is too solidly in the shadows for me to count him as “the good guy”. I hope my story’s big enough for the both of them.

  2. Actually I feel interest in my own work diminish when I read other people’s work. This might be because my work is fundamentally flawed – being careless and silly. And my characters always start out as nincompoops, and accidentally find the inner strength to become heroes. It’s a running theme of mine.

    1. Thank you for coming into Shadows, Tooty Nolan. I hope you enjoy the fresh air of the mountains.

      My running themes are more common, which might explain why other people’s work inspires me. What do you do when you need a writing boost?

      1. My main problem is finding the time to write. I think if people saw the kind of condition in which I have to write, they’d wonder how I ever get anything done. My time is not my own.

  3. Ann, you’ve really got me thinking on this one. I guess I’ve always assumed the mc was the “hero.” So now I have to take another look.

    I believe when I read someone’s writing I admire, I’m initially discouraged, but then I’m inspired to try harder.

    1. Good link! I hadn’t seen this article before. To any readers who are up to it, the article and its comments make for an interesting discussion.

      I think I first learned that the hero and MC can be different from Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction. (The link goes to Google Books.) I expect that Card wrote a similar explanation in Characters and Viewpoint, which I haven’t yet read.

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