“The main character is an—”

“The main character is an—”

I was looking at a goodreads bookshelf and noticed that one of mine was on the shelf. I also noticed it was on a few other selves, including one labeled “Main-character-is-an-asshole.” My first response was to argue with it (just in my head, because if there’s one thing I know about being an author, it’s don’t argue with the readers), because first of all, I try to never write assholes, and secondly, I was pretty sure the main character of this particular piece was a sweetheart. A complete and total sweetheart. I could not imagine how anybody would characterize him as an asshole.

Fortunately for me, I was thinking about this in the bathtub, which always puts me in a pleasant meditative mood. Especially with our “exceptional drought” going on! These days, I only do spongebaths most of the time, really only doing a proper (but reduced) bath a bit more often than every seven days. So when the time rolls around for a real bath, I am very relaxed and thoughtful! So I laid back in the hot hot water mulling over what makes a character an asshole or a sweetheart…

And then I realized I had an even more interesting question in front of me, because the fellow I was calling the main character is probably not the same person that the reader was calling the main character when they shelved my book. And that was intriguing. Because although the story does shift points of view, I was pretty certain that the person whose opinion the reader was most likely to identify with was the total sweetheart’s and not his somewhat grumpier, less eager love interest.

So how had the reader come up with a different assignment from me? And what constitutes a main character anyway?

Romance readers and writers like to speak of the main character (often abbreviated MC) and the love interest (often abbreviated LI). They speak confidently of these two story roles even, in my experience, when the points of view carry equal weight in the narrative, take up equal space on the page, have equal billing in the blurb. Is there a rule about how these roles are allocated? Probably, but I did not find it in my navel. I came up with rather flimsy notions like “the main character is the one whose story we are most invested in” and “the main character is the one whose construction of the world they live and romance in is the most real and interesting to the reader.” I almost said the main character is the one who grows in the story, or maybe the main character is the one who overcomes the most interesting obstacles in the story, but what about the story where a person is being courted by a lovable and reforming rogue? I’m pretty sure that I’ve seen a story like that where the love interest is very clearly the rogue and the main character is very clearly the straight-arrow that the rogue reforms for. But how was it clear to me?

And if it was so clear to me there—well, if it was so clear to me in my own story that the love interest was the more difficult person in that case, but it was apparently equally clear to at least one reader that that character was the main one—what does that tell me about the characteristics of these two story roles?

I’ve got no answer for you. However! I can remind you that you still have till October 24th to comment on this thread over here to enter into a drawing for a free copy of my book Outside!

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