If you’ve written a novel and can’t answer this question, it’s time to rethink.
The viewpoint character in fiction isn’t the same as the main character. A viewpoint character is simply the one from whose viewpoint the story is being told at the moment. There can be many viewpoint characters. In a novel, there can be more than one main character, too, but for the most part one will stand out.
The main character doesn’t have to be the protagonist – many good stories have been written from the viewpoint of the bad guy. Sometimes an apparent side character will have the best perspective on what’s happening. Sometimes an unreliable narrator will tell the story and lie outright to the readers, who have to piece things together themselves.
The way to identify the main character is to ask yourself: for the readers, who is the story primarily experienced through? The main character is an unknowing guide, taking the readers through the experience of the tale.
While the main character doesn’t have to be in the spotlight the whole time, significant camera time will be spent on them. Their personal journey, from one worldview through obstacles, challenges and solutions to a plot resolution and a new worldview, must be compelling and engaging. We don’t have to love them and sometimes we can hate them – but we must empathize with them to some extent, and we must above all be engaged.
Think of stories you’ve loved to read. Are there any where a main character can’t be identified? Sometimes more than one – but isn’t there at least one?
Next week: Who Are You Reading?