[00:00:00] Hello and welcome to the Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe, a podcast for artists and storytellers about changing the world for the better through story.
[00:00:11] Today, what I want to talk to you about is how you can make sure that your main character drives the action of your story because this is a fundamental problem across the board.
[00:00:22] I constantly am reading screenplays or evaluating manuscripts. Where the main character is passive, at least part of the time. Not always, not the whole time sometimes. Sometimes they are passive the whole time. But usually, they're not always. And yet, they're passive too often. And I think it's because people don't quite get what it means, what it looks like. What does it actually look like if your main character is the one driving the action of the story?
[00:00:57] So I've come up with 10 examples or 10 sort of criteria that you can use to test whether or not your character is doing these things and that means that they're active. They're not actually passive.
[00:01:13] So, for example, number one, a character is driving the action of the story when they are the ones who are getting the ideas. They need to be the ones who are coming up with the ideas. They're like, hey, you know what? Let's try this. Or, hey, I have an idea. Or a theory. Or an action step.
[00:01:35] They're the one that is coming up with the plan. They're the one who is figuring out who to connect with. They're the one who is figuring out where to go and do the research. Or to search for clues.
[00:01:48] Often what happens is that I see main characters who have all of these supporting characters around them who are making the suggestions.
[00:01:57] Well, why don't we do this? Well, why don't you do this or hey, you're invited to come to this event and oh, okay. And then our character just goes along instead of our character going, you know, there's that conference there I think I want to go to that Well, why? I don't know. I think there's going to be some people there that maybe I'm going to want to meet. Let's go. Let's figure it out.
[00:02:20] Now sometimes, and this is a good thing because this is number two, your characters have to recruit other characters to help them. By the way, that makes them active. Your main character is active if they're the ones doing the recruiting.
[00:02:36] They're the ones putting the team together. They're the ones figuring out who they need as allies to be able to accomplish whatever it is that they need to accomplish. That's a good thing.
[00:02:47] Which means, of course, that every time you bring in an ally, that character needs to have their moment where they get to save the day.
[00:02:56] Because otherwise, why did they get brought on? They can't just be an ornament. They actually have to have that moment where their knowledge or their expertise or whatever it is that they bring to the table is useful enough that it saves the day. But here's the real crux. It has to make your main character look real smart to have brought them on. See, they had to have recruited them for a reason.
[00:03:21] So in that moment, when Tom Cruise is in Mission Impossible and he's doing whatever thing he's doing. All of a sudden, the fact that Simon Pegg is able to do X, Y, and Z makes Tom Cruise really smart that he has Simon Pegg on his team and he's the one who brought Simon Pegg in.
[00:03:42] So Simon Pegg has to have his moment in the sun, but it's ultimately Tom Cruise's idea to bring Simon Pegg in. Are you with me?
[00:03:50] Okay, number three. They're the ones who have to be picking up on the clues.
[00:03:57] So, if they go to investigate something, they're the ones that notice, Huh, this is interesting. Uh, I noticed that, did you see that big ol oil spill in the back? Well, that's kind of suspicious. I think we should check that out. And somebody else might say, well, why?
[00:04:16] I mean, we know that, you know, he hauls oil in his big truck. He probably just had an oil leak. Eh, I want to check it out anyway because that looks like something different. I'm making this up. The point is, they're the ones that are noticing the things that are important.
[00:04:34] If you don't have a main character who's noticing those things, but the other characters are noticing, you don't need your character. And by the way, it doesn't matter what your genre is. This isn't just about people that are investigators, or cop shows, or thrillers, or whatever the case may be. This is no matter what genre, there are things that need to be noticed.
[00:04:57] Maybe your main character is noticing that Marge just isn't feeling well today. And she hasn't been feeling well for a while, so what's going on? What's going on?
[00:05:08] They have to be the ones who notice things. They're the ones who are noticing the clues. They are the ones having the insights and picking up on the things that are important in the story that are ultimately driving the story. Okay.
[00:05:24] Number four, they're the ones that are taking it upon themselves to do something.
[00:05:31] See, that's the thing. Main characters are the ones who are compelled to take action. That's why it can't be everybody else who's taking action. They have to be the one who are taking the initiative. They have to be self-starters. They have to be compelled to figure out what needs to be done.
[00:05:53] He's the one that sees the problem and by God, he's the one that takes the initiative. He is the one who takes it upon himself to do something. And by the way, that's what heroes do, and all of our characters should be heroes in the making, and they either fail or they succeed at the end of the story.
[00:06:12] Number five. He's the one or she is the one with the right super power to potentially pull it off.
[00:06:22] See, I've been arguing for some time that your main character must have a superpower. They must have a superpower. And all that means is that they have some unique skill or insight or knowledge or ability to do something unique or better than anybody else can. They are the ones with the superpower.
[00:06:44] What is your character's superpower? What gives them a leg up? What makes them uniquely suited to be able to do this thing? Right? To do this thing, whatever it is. To win! That's ultimately what the question is. What can they do that nobody else can do? Or what can they do better than anybody else can do that can ultimately make them win?
[00:07:07] Because if your character doesn't have that ability, then why are they the main character? They are the main character because they have something uniquely suited to this particular problem, this particular situation, that makes them the person that has to be there.
[00:07:27] They have to be there for the thing to turn out right. If they're not there, it's just not gonna work. So what is their superpower?
[00:07:38] And it's because of that that they're the ones seeing the insights. And it's because of that that they're the ones recruiting the right people. And it's because of that that they're the ones taking action and picking up on the clues and getting the ideas and finding ways to implement their vision.
[00:07:55] Okay, number six. They're the ones making choices about what to do next, where to go, who to talk to, what problems might come up. foreseeing the future and going, you know, if we go that route, here are some of the potential problems that we should avoid, or we should also have this so that when we open the door to the quantum theory, I'm making this up, if we open the door to the, you know, this other alternate reality, there's going to be such an influx of, of magnetic pull that it might suck the reality of our world right into a black hole and blah, blah, blah.
[00:08:38] So, here's the thing that we need to prevent that from happening, or whatever. Or, they, of course, recruit the expert, who then, they are smart enough to go, Hey, what are the potential problems before we open up this hole that we can alleviate?
[00:08:55] But, this also brings us to number seven. They are the ones who are influencing the events of that world, even if they're not in charge.
[00:09:06] See, that's the thing. Our main characters aren't always the ones that are in charge. A lot of times, they are taking orders from other people, and that puts them in a tricky situation. The problem is you can't have a passive character simply because they're not in charge.
[00:09:21] A great example of this is the new Maverick movie with Tom Cruise. He is still at the same low level that he always was. He never advanced in rank, and yet he still has to be in charge of influencing the events.
[00:09:39] How does he do that? Well, for one, he has a superpower. He is one of the top three skilled pilots, maybe in the entire world. One of the only guys who could maybe plan the particular mission that he's being tasked with. Which is why he's put in charge and he thinks outside of the box.
[00:09:59] See, that's the thing. Not only is he skilled enough as a pilot, but what gives him his real superpower is that he doesn't conform. It actually gives him a leg up. He doesn't think like the powers that be. It's also what kept him from advancing in rank. But in this particular case, that's the guy you need. He's the guy with the superpower to pull off the mission.
[00:10:21] But also, he has to influence the events. So at the very beginning, he finds out that the program he's working on is going to be shut down in favor of the drone program, and yet by God, Hey, we're not shut down yet.
[00:10:37] Let's go ahead and move the test up. Let's do it. And they're like, No, we're not ready. Well, no pain, no gain. It's now or never. They're going to shut us down anyway. So we might as well take the risk before we're permanently shut down.
[00:10:48] So he takes action anyway, in the face of consequences to himself. He's going to take the consequences.
[00:10:56] He's willing to take the heat for whatever his decisions cost, which means number eight, he's the one taking the risks. The stakes are high, but it's going to cost your character something personally to take that action.
[00:11:12] If it works, wonderful. If it fails, he might go to jail. Or worse, he'll die. Or worse, the people below him will die. And that's something he can't live with.
[00:11:26] Which is why the stakes are high. He has to protect the people around him, which is why he has to take radical action.
[00:11:33] Okay, number nine. That means that they have to have something to lose. They have to have something to lose. That's where the stakes are, right? If they fail, what happens?
[00:11:46] It has to be more than, oh, I get demoted. That's just self-sacrifice. Your main character has to be willing to take that risk. Okay, if I lose, okay, it affects me. I lose my life, no big deal. The real acid test is, what happens to everybody else? If I lose, what happens to everybody else?
[00:12:06] So even in a movie like As Good As It Gets, where the issue is whether or not he is going to gain his soul, right? This is his last chance to connect with human beings. If he doesn't connect to other human beings, ultimately, he's losing his own soul and he will live and die alone and it will be a really sad existence. But more than that, those people need him and he is uniquely suited to help them.
[00:12:37] So if he fails to connect with them, they also are going to suffer because of his inability to rise above his limitations. So it affects and impacts more than just him. But it needs to also impact him. Or, you know, or her, depending on who your main character is.
[00:13:01] Number ten. Are they the ones that are learning? Are they the ones that are growing in all areas?
[00:13:08] Now, yes, they have to grow and change over the course of the telling because that's what a main character does.
[00:13:16] The heart of every story is a personal paradox, which means it's about your main character coming to terms with some great pain, their wound that they have in their past. They have to face that thing and overcome it once and for all. That's just story. That has to happen.
[00:13:35] But also, you can ask yourself if they're the ones gaining the knowledge. If they're the ones gaining the insight. If they're the ones who are gaining the clues. If they're the ones gaining the asset. If they're the ones gaining the enemies. If they're the ones, all of those things. Are they the ones who are learning or growing or acquiring over the course of the telling? If they are, then there's a very good chance that they are active.
[00:14:04] It can't happen because they're passive. It has to be directly as a result of the steps that they are taking.
[00:14:13] So that's the thing. Your main character has to be making choices. They have to be taking action steps. They have to be seeing things that need to be done and then figuring out how to do them. Even if they're getting contrary orders. Which often is the case because what that does is it just raises the stakes and now the risks are higher because if they fail they're in big trouble, but so is everybody else.
[00:14:40] So a character who's given orders to step down can't step down if it means that the world might end up imploding because of some, meteor that's flying straight to Earth. Of course they're going to have to keep working. Even though that means they're blowing up their own career. They have to just, okay, I'm gonna do that anyway. It's the risk is too great.
[00:15:06] Okay, I hope that this has been helpful to you. This is, this is good stuff here. This is good stuff.
[00:15:15] You want this. This is really, really key stuff for you to look for and to compare to your own story and make sure that your character is doing all of these things. All of it. No matter what your genre or the type of story you're telling.
[00:15:30] So, I want to thank you so much for joining us on The Storyteller's Mission with Zena Dell Lowe. May you go forth inspired to change the world for the better through story.