A basic question for every story is this: Who is the main character?
Today, many novels alternate POV characters, especially in first person. Or, the novel has an assemblage of characters. This rarely works because the reader needs to have some home base from which to view the story. The choice of a main character affects the story in many ways. When the main character is also the point of view character, the reader sees the world through the main character’s eyes. Everything is colored by his/her POV and we understand that this is a biased story. Another character would have told it differently.
When the narrator is an observer, such as Watson telling Sherlock Holmes stories, it’s still important to know that Sherlock is the main character. That is the character who must solve the story problem, who changes in some way because of the story events, and who ultimately stays in the reader’s hearts. We like Watson, to be sure. But it’s Sherlock who enchants us.
How to Decide on the Main Character
There are two strategies which can help you decide on the main character.
Who Hurts the Most? Science fiction writer Orson Scott Card says the main character is the person who hurts the most. This strategy means that you’re reaching for the most emotional story you can possibly tell. The story events must impact the main character in such a way that s/he is devastated, challenged, disappointed, crushed, betrayed and so on. And yet, in spite of the deep hurt, they manage to solve the story problem themselves and find a way to deal with the emotional struggle and come out a new person.
It may mean a vital change in the main character role. Perhaps, there’s a family tragedy–let’s say a child drowns. Who hurts the most? The person who wasn’t watching the child, or the mother or father? Or perhaps the doctor who tried to revive the child? Only you, the author, will know the right answer. Why did you plan this particular story problem and who is the likely candidate to be overwhelmed by the story’s events?
Who cannot be eliminated? A second strategy is to start eliminating characters. Do this methodically, trying to tell or imagine the story without characters in turn. When you come to a character who cannot be eliminated, that’s probably your main character. In other words, this story demands certain people. In the story of Cinderella, we could eliminate the prince, the king, the queen, the father, or the fairy god-mother. But we need Cinderella and the step-mother. Without those two, the story dies. And of those two, who hurts the most? Of course, it’s Cinderella.
Once you’ve chosen a main character, you should think deeply about the character’s emotional arc. If Cinderella starts out selfish, she should end up as more generous. Think of character qualities possible for your character. Then consider the opposite side of that. Usually, the character begins with less admirable traits and ends with more admirable ones.
Selfish to Generous.
Apathetic to Passionate.
Sloppy to Organized.
Indifferent to Committed.
Within the context of your story, who hurts the most? What character cannot be eliminated without destroying the story? How does the main character change and grow? Once you know these things, you’re well on your way to a stunning novel.