Do You Really Need A Main Character?


Screenwriting 101: Main Characters Provide The Point Of View From Which Stories Are Told.

It might seem like an obvious question. But do you really need them? The short answer is yes. But not always. Not having a main character may generate tantalising  stories, but will ultimately disorientate your audience.

Consider “Resurrection”, a TV series about a a group of long time dead residents returning to their small town of Arcadia. There is an American version as well as its French inspiration “Les Revenants” (trés art house version).

Prevailing wisdom dictates we need a main character for the audience to follow. A point of view if you will. Even in variant strains of ensemble casts, there is still a main character which acts as the nucleus for the supporting characters. “Friends”, “Seinfeld” and “Family Guy” are typical examples. Even if a particular episode isn’t about them, the main character still drives the action.

But rules have exceptions.

Returning to our returning dead examples, the high concept of  these shows has taken over the role of the main character. The central question of “What would happen if dead people returned?” is the central theme, but it’s also the surrogate character in that it drives the action. Granted a concept can’t experience an arc, but it can be explored in terms of its catalytic effect on other characters. It’s analogous to traveling angel characters in movies such as “The Terminal”.

In typical ensemble casts stories such as “Love Actually”, there is a central theme, such as different types of relationships. Multiple story lines emerge with character arcs intersecting at various points. These are character based, low concept stories.

In our examples of the returning dead, the concept is more important than character. Characters are merely conduits to illustrate the concept. If you watch “Les Revenants”, examine the emerging themes. If you committed suicide, do you have a right to a second chance at life? If you were murdered, should you seek revenge against your killer? Then there are the red herrings (or goats in this case) which simply define death as a logical extension of life, without any moral judgement. The goats drowned in the lake. There is no value in coming back to life.

The absence of a veritable main character is something I generally don’t advise; not even to veteran writers. It causes a shift in audience focus, because they don’t know which character to follow. The story consequently becomes more experiential, meditative, seminal and cerebral, rather than a narrative exploration of human character and emotions.

Making a conscious decision not to nominate a main character also makes it difficult to maintain longevity in a TV series. Viewers generally tune in to see what their favourite main characters are doing rather than to watch a concept. However, you may be able to get away with it in short run TV series.

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One Comment Add yours

  1. varakawa says:

    What do you make of Downton Abbey? I think it’s an ensemble series, but both Hugh Bonneville and Michelle Dockery have been nominated for awards as best lead actors.

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