The Main Character Problem

It’s difficult to make main characters work in other-world-type fantasies.

In this case, I’m calling “other-world-type fantasies” stories in which the main character is transported or shown another world they didn’t think existed.  Narnia falls into this classification, as does Harry Potter, and many other middle grade fantasies.  The reason for this is simple: the middle grade reader likes to have a character who lives a familiar kind of life.  For this reason, MG main characters usually begin the story in school, or playing a sport, or just living their normal lives in a normal place, reeking of normality.  It gives the reader something familiar.

However, things are going to become a lot less familiar.  The reader, of course, wants this to happen too.  They didn’t pick up that MG fantasy to hear about little Timmy doing his homework– they picked it up to hear about something out of this world, which is exactly the point of the story.

Now, of course, little Timmy has no idea his life is about to change so drastically, and that’s good for the introduction.  You want him to seem familiar.  However, you also want to get across the unfamiliar aspects of the story in the very beginning, so the reader has a promise to count on.  How do you juggle this?

It all comes down to the same concept I explained in my last post: show impending doom, then go into the character and how awesome they are.

Except… in this case, it’s a little bit twisted.  The character is young.  The character is inexperienced.  The character might not be that awesome just yet.  Little Timmy’s greatest concern is getting his homework turned in on time, and it’s kind of boring– but that little concern is crucial to making little Timmy seem familiar.  So, again, as with capable characters, show the impending doom and then introduce the character in all his familiarity.

Now, a lot of problems come with this.  First of all, if the forces of evil are prepared to pounce on little Timmy, and we don’t know who little Timmy is yet, who cares?  They can have him!  It’s one less annoying kid for us to worry about, and he really didn’t have all that much going on anyway.

This was the problem, I thought, with the beginning of Michael Vey: Prisoner of Cell 25.  They begin with an ominous phone call, in which two unknown but undeniably evil people discuss what they’re going to do with this mysterious kid, Michael Vey (the main character).  At that point, no one cared whether Michael lived or died– we aren’t all such paragons of virtue that discussing death is a hateful act.  We don’t know Michael yet.  We don’t know what to like about him, what to dislike.  He could be a horrible person for all we know.  At the moment, we’re giving everyone the benefit of the doubt, including these two bad guys.

Obviously, something that foreshadows the fantasy aspect of the book while involving the main character isn’t always going to cut it.  You do need, however, something that foreshadows that fantasy aspect, and the slow reveal that often occurs in these books isn’t going to work either.

So I think, in this case, it comes down to what emotion you’re trying to incite in that beginning scene.  Are you trying to incite curiosity, as in Harry Potter?  The main character as a baby being delivered on a flying motorcycle to his new home, after some unspeakable thing happened– well, that’s weird.  That makes a promise that the questions will be answered, and we’re intrigued about this character.  Are you trying to incite horror about the antagonist, and curiosity about what he’s doing?  The Rithmatist by Brandon Sanderson does a pretty good job with that.  The prologue is from the perspective of a young girl being chased by otherworldly creatures.  The main character is not featured, but the big problem of the novel is– who is this antagonist, how is he doing all this stuff, and how can the main character stand against such an evil person?  Instead of pitting the ominous forces against the main character immediately, we are shown this young girl and the antagonist simultaneously and forced to choose which one we like better.  The main character has no idea this is happening, and yet we see who we’re rooting against, and why.

Am I saying you need a prologue?  No and yes.  You don’t need a prologue, just like you don’t need a character who detests rutabaga.  But who knows?  It might be useful.  Especially if you plan to introduce the weird parts of your story little by little, as is the habit in other-world MG fantasy.  Introduce the weird parts first, incite an emotion and promise something good to come, and the go to your main character and show why everyone should like him.

Now, that’s only one half of it.  I know, I know, I thought I was wrapping this thing up too.  However, the main character in this sort of thing can’t just be a victim of circumstances.  Just because you just did cool stuff in the prologue doesn’t mean you can just relax for the rest of the introduction.  Of course not.  The main character needs to feel real, and likable– sure, they have the legions of darkness chasing after them, but that doesn’t make them likable.  Nor does it give them permission to be perfect.

One of the most easily overlooked things about writing MG main characters are their conflicts.  They’re going to have plenty of conflict later, we think– when they meet the antagonist, they will have conflict galore.  Unfortunately, that doesn’t matter in the introduction, because they haven’t met the antagonist yet.  They still need conflict.  Don’t leave them without it.

I really hope this post isn’t just a formula to begin an other-world MG fantasy, but that’s what it feels like to me.  I apologize if that’s the case– please don’t follow this to the letter.  However, be mindful of the promises you need to make to get the reader to actually read.

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46 thoughts on “The Main Character Problem

  1. I’ve been struggling with this recently as I try to think up of a good way to introduce my “other world” to the readers. I’ve always found it tricky to show the otherness (I admit, it’s one of my weaknesses), even if it’s a simple as, say, the character is a werewolf or has an ability to control fire. And other worlds? Wooo. Thanks for posting! I’ll keep your post in mind as I try introducing other world stuff to the story. Hopefully, it won’t be too boring.

    1. Hopefully not. I really hope this post helped and didn’t hurt with all its rules and musts. I don’t want to force anyone into a place they don’t like. But if this really did help, I’m glad!

      1. Don’t worry, it didn’t hurt at all. 🙂 Rules and musts remind me of my tasks so I don’t meander around in a lot of things that I do. I hope I get some spare time soon to mess around for an hour of two so I can do some trial and error work!

      1. I think I see what you mean. Make a promise of the fantastic (in it’s literal meaning) things to come. My problem though is that prologues tend to bore me and I generally skip over them (and goodness know that I am not in the MG age range). I realize that part of that is style of the author.
        But promises can be made in just sentences, right? You shouldn’t need a whole chapter/prologue to lay them down?

      2. Promises can be made in mere sentences, yes, but they aren’t hooks– they’re more of hints. Hints are promises, but they aren’t the reason you keep reading. For this sort of thing, you need a scene at least. But if you can do that scene in the main character’s eyes, good for you.

      3. So, making sure I understand, it is alright for this scene to be a different POV from the one I use in the rest of the book?
        Also, can you think of an example I which this is done well besides HP and The Rithmatist?

      4. Yes, you can definitely use a different POV. For instance, The Emerald Atlas uses a third-person omniscient prologue to do this, while the rest of the book is in third-person omniscient. I didn’t really like that book, but whatever.

        Mistborn did this. The first we ever see of the world is Kelsier doing good. I can’t remember whether or not it’s from Kelsier’s viewpoint (I think it is, maybe), but it’s a good example. Ruins of Gorlan did it, with a prologue from Morgorath’s viewpoint. Percy Jackson and the Lightning Thief did it without breaking viewpoint.

      5. Thank you! I remember Mistborn and Ruins of Gorlan well and will be reading both again. Now all that’s left is to think of a hook…

  2. Hmmmm. Well, that’s interesting to think about. How does one introduce a “weird” setting AND the main character, when the main character does not happen to know about the weird setting yet?

    Thankfully, I have not had to deal with this yet, but who knows–it could happen, and hopefully I’ll remember this if the time comes.

      1. Oh. Sorry. I was reiterating the question you were asking and answering in your post.

        I shall try to remember not to do that again…my apologies.

  3. Good post. I’m not writing an Other-World-Fantasy, BUT my MC does go through a huge change in circumstance, and the introduction has given me a little trouble. I like what you said about giving the MC conflict right from the start. I’ll have to remember that.

    Love the line about a character that detests rutabagas.

  4. I kind of have the opposite problem. My story is set entirely in an other-world, even the beginning, so I’m trying to figure out how to introduce the “weird” setting and the main character(s) at the same time—and everything just keeps getting too complicated.

    1. Oh, but that’s easy. Where does the main character fit into the weirdness of the world? Show that, or if they fit in a familiar place, engineer a situation that will stick them in a weird part of the world.

  5. Hmmm… interesting…
    My story is a bit unique, I think. The MC is a stranger both to the culture of the country he’s lived in all his life and the culture of his own people (though his inherent philosophy tends to follow the latter. ;-P)

  6. I don’t think I face the problem of introducing another world. I’m not writing MG fantasy. My trilogy is based entirely in a place of my own invention, so all I had to do was specify the magic system. Which is a challenge in itself, anyway. I fear that describing a magic system is something you have to be very careful with. It can turn into an info dump with just the slightest slip-up.

    By the way, I hope you don’t get offended, but I thought this post was a little confusing. Maybe it’s just me, but I had to re-read it a couple of times to understand it properly. (Perhaps it’s also because it’s been years since I’ve read MG fantasy…)

    1. I’ve been in that position as well. I think the easiest way to do it is to make sure you’re explaining the magic system while using the magic system. An action scene where the main character uses his/her magic would be more conducive to explanations, actually (as long as you keep them short and to the point), than would a dull scene. Yes, you can easily go into info-dump mode, but this is better than nothing.

      No, I’m not offended. I still have trouble understanding this concept myself, so I don’t really expect it to be that clear when I explain it. I apologize, though.

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