Main Character Syndrome

Main character syndrome is a term used to describe characters which clearly stand out as main protagonist characters. Symptoms include:

  • Unnatural hair or eye colors
  • An “emo swoop” (hair styled so that it covers half the face, yet is still considered attractive)
  • Character is significantly more attractive than literally anyone else in the story
  • Tragic backstory – family is most likely dead, character was enslaved, character was raped, etc
  • All the good guys love them, and the bad guys hate them – character may have self-esteem issues
  • Character has never, ever, in his or her life made a mistake – alternatively, character makes so many mistakes he or she is incompetent
  • Lots and lots of angst
  • Character is “special,” but there’s no real explanation as to why

Do not be alarmed if your character displays some of these symptoms. Some of these traits are normal and necessary to make a character interesting and to create tension. Consider rehashing your character if he or she displays three or more of these traits. Immediately seek help from trusted readers if your character is “special” with no real explanation as to why.

Jokes aside, main character syndrome is a term I and my writing group are quite fond of. We don’t always use it disparagingly (though Bella Swan from Twilight is pretty badly sick with it), but it’s generally not a good thing. D&D characters are often guilty of it, as are anime and comic book characters. In tabletop roleplay, MCS can be incredibly annoying, but forgivable if it doesn’t detract from other players’ enjoyment (that includes the DM; if the DM isn’t having fun, noone’s having fun). In genres as tropey as anime and comics, a little bit of MCS is understandable.

In the realm of literature, main character syndrome is a little less forgivable, though some of these traits are acceptable as long as they are relevant to plot or character development. Many writers call characters suffering a severe case of main character syndrome Mary Sues. And, as I’m sure many of you readers out there know, Mary Sues are like cancer to good stories and can kill a book’s chance of ever getting published (Twilight apparently being the exception).

So to conclude, my darlings, watch your main character syndromes. You could be ruining your story without even meaning to.

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