This last weekend, I was an at excellent live action roleplaying game. The theme was a pulp adventure, so there were lots of high stakes and drama, but one thing that occurred to me as we ran through the adventure is that there were approximately 25 main characters in this story. They were all unique characters with their own motivations and depth, and watching us all funneled through a storyline was quite the interesting experience.
LARPs are an art form all their own and nothing I say here should be taken as a criticism of it, but it got me to thinking about story media in which there are singular–or at least smaller sets–of stars in the show, and how we define them.
One of my particular weaknesses in building characters is that I like to make plain Janes who have interesting people they support around them. I think this tends to be because I, personally, prefer to be in the role of a supporting cast and crew (which I’ll talk more about next week). That’s all fine and good in life, but when you’re building a star for a particular story, you’re looking at a different spectrum of qualities.
For example, one of my first LARP character ideas for this game was a young woman who had basically been raised on an salvage/mercenary airship, who had an eccentric godfather as the captain and lead of this crew. She was a sometimes adventurer, and otherwise jill-of-all-trades support. I mulled over this idea for a few weeks, but knew it was missing a spark. Ultimately, I realized she was a support member for a cast of more interesting NPCs who would not appear in the game.
Now, in her own story, she could emerge as the star of the show, or perhaps I could take a deeper look at the cast and have someone else emerge as the star of the show and let her remain as support, but none of this would have worked well in a LARP, in which there are 25 stars of the show–each with their own wildly divergent personal storylines. So I’ve kept the idea for a later story.
In an archaeological fantasy novel I was plotting some time ago, the main character was a concubine who had a secret an archaeologist very much needed. I puttered on this story for a while as well, and eventually when talking to a friend, she succinctly said, “So your main character is basically just a plot device?” and I realized I needed to take a deeper look. In that case, I decided she would make better support cast to the archaeologist, who had more at stake in this story.
Even in an ensemble cast, such as the trio from the Harry Potter books, there is a primary character, even if the supporting characters are just half a step away. Harry, in those books, has the most going on, and he has the highest personal stakes among the trio. In the Lord of the Rings, there is a huge cast, but eventually they are broken into smaller groups with their own emerging leaders. I’d say Samwise Gamgee and Aragorn emerge as the stars of the show when all is said and done. (And I suspect others have convincing arguments for other characters in the lead.)
It’s possible to have multiple stars of the show, but I believe one is likely to be slightly brighter than the others, and the star is not always the Point of View character. Sherlock Holmes and Doctor Watson are classic examples of this: Watson is the point of view because he is someone the readers can identify with, whereas Sherlock is not.
All that said, how do you find the star of your show?
1. Which protagonist has the most stakes or personal investment in the story?
2. Could story/end result happen without that protagonist?
3. Are there specific, important things that character does in the story that can’t easily be replaced by or delegated to someone else?
These might not be the only litmus tests to define your star of the show, but they should help you get on your way. Do none of your characters “pass” the test? Or one specific one you want to be your star? Consider the star qualities, and rework that character so he or she can shine.