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The Problem With “Main Character Syndrome”

Posted on July 5, 2012 AT 08:57pm

I’ll start off by describing what I mean by my phrase “Main Character Syndrome” or MCS for short. I use this phrase to describe when a given TV show, movie, or video game introduces a protagonist that is one dimensional and lacks character depth. This is generally a lot more noticeable with television where a character learns a lesson/moral and yet repeats the wrong behavior only a few episodes later.

I understand that giving your audience a blank slate of a character is useful so that the viewer/player can relate to what that character does or that the viewer/player can fill that character’s shoes. In games especially, the ability to relate to the character you are controlling is crucial; I want to see a story unfold with a dynamic character that grows and matures not a piece of wood or a mirror.

A list of a few well known characters that I give the diagnosis of MCS:

Tidus from Final Fantasy X – Tidus is often described as more lively than the protagonists of the previous FF games. I would strongly disagree, I feel that Tidus is flat, cliche, and unbelievably dramatic when in comes to the challenges he faces throughout the game. Also, Tidus is shown as a ‘average kid’ type of character; I don’t want play that, I want to be the ‘loner badass,’ like Auron.

Twilight Sparkle from My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic – Twilight is a great example of a character whose character growth is not sustained for more than one episode at a time. The show is structured to teach young children a life lesson during each episode that the characters learn as well. One example is that Twilight learned to be less worrisome of the aspects of her life that she can’t control, yet continues to worry in later episodes.

A list of a few well known characters that I think do a great job of avoiding MCS:

Commander Shepard from Mass Effect – Shepard is a great example on how to make a character dynamic and influenced by the player’s actions yet given predefined depth. The actions and decisions of the player define how Shepard goes about solving a problem or dealing with a given issue, but the game also has some sections where the player has no control and see who Shepard really is and how he/she acts.

Jack from BioShock – Jack is another example of a character that is relatable and yet influenced by the story that unfolds around him. Your actions do affect the outcome of the story, but the gripping climax and character defining moments are still the same.

MCS can be found easily enough, but can it be avoided in the first place? I would like to think that if a good writer would catch that their protagonist was suffering from MCS that they could give the character more defining qualities or focus on showing the viewer strong character growth. This way the view can connect with the main character while still feeling that the character feels real.

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