Nuts & Bolts of Main Character Analysis
There are hundreds of philosophies about how to determine the central character and chart their arc for your writing project. From Plato to your next door neighbor blogging on the internet, you'll find hundreds of ways to handle main character development.
And this blog is no exception.
But with billions of people on the planet, I've always been a firm believer that dispensing information from my own personal experience may find someone out there that resonates with it and can use it for their own endeavors.
With that being said. Let's get on with today's blog!
In musicals specifically, every dramaturg, producer and director will tell you that your main character has to "want" something. Anything - but if your character doesn't want something, then you have no story.
I disagree, but that is another entry. I've wrestled with this opinion for decades and only recently have begun to understand essentially what that means.
Your main character has to give us - the audience - a reason to care, a reason to watch your story.
Simple. I know. But in practice - it's a lot harder than it first appears.
I've read countless books on it and can tell you that it's all a big mushy pile of thoughts, opinions and philosophies that swirl around in your brain when you set out to create that character. Sometimes, you are able to harness the info and use it to succeed. More often, you know the rules but aren't able to effectively apply them. At least that has been my experience.
In musicals, we tackle this with the "I Want" song. This is typically a song or a section of a song where our main character comes forward and tells us specifically what they "want" and then we delight in how they get it. Or don't get it.
Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady tells us early on that "all I want is a room somewhere." Aside from the fact that this statement proves to us that we should be highly detailed in what we wish for, it also sets the stage for why we care about Eliza - we can all relate to wanting security.
Leo Bloom in The Producers wants "to be a Producer" and again, he doesn't specify that he wants to be a successful producer, only that he wants to produce.
Seymour Krelborn in Little Shop of Horrors wants "out of the gutter" like his counterpart Audrey who wants to be "somewhere that's green."
Jimmy from Reefer Madness longs for a "Romeo and Juliet" romance with his high-school sweetheart Mary Lane.
Charlie Price from Kinky Boots is finally taking "step one" after a lifetime of passivity.
I can give hundreds of more examples. What this proves is that indeed, you need a main character that "wants" something to write a successful musical. At least, successful in the eyes of the mainstream.
But I put forth, that it's not enough for your main character to want something and get it in the end. I think highly successful musicals have characters that start out wanting something, but through their trials and tribulations, they find something else they want. Something more aligned with them, something not necessarily material, something that changes the world.
Tracy Turnblatt wants to dance on the Corny Collins show. We'll refer to that as her "false goal" meaning - it's a goal, but not her ultimate goal. By obtaining (or not obtaining) the false goal, the main character is able to see the ultimate goal whether they recognize it or not. Through Tracy's steps to be on the show, she learns of a bigger problem - segregation. In the end, she is instrumental in changing her world by integrating the two populations.
Jean Valjean longs to be free during the French Revolution. This false goal carries most of the story, only to be shed in the end when he dies and truly becomes "free" however, he leaves a legacy in the lives he touched and thus redeems his earlier actions.
So to summarize, your main character should have a goal that during pursuit, falls away to reveal something more important, more human and able to change the world of your story.
Now how do you go about that?
Take a look at this graphic:
I created this graphic to help me visualize how to develop my central character from her starting point to her ending point. Particularly, the trials that require her to become her ending point in order to move forward.
Main Character Starting Point
This is how your character is first shown to the audience. I list traits here such as "Quiet. Passive. Polite"
This is the first time the character comes up against a force that requires her to change. Most often this encounter is not initiated by the character. In fiction, this would also be known as the Inciting Incident.
Some examples: Charlie Price's Dad dies in Kinky Boots
Seymour Krelborn finds a strange and interesting plant in Little Shop of Horrors
I list out the main trials of the story that the main character will have to face in order to discover her Ultimate Goal.
This is a trial that has to be faced, but it is different from the others and the most important trial that will force the character to see her Ultimate Goal. You could say, this is the trial that broke the camel's back and forces her to change something about herself.
In this trial, the character will confront one final trial that will require her to use new skills to defeat. This will be a test to see if she understands what she needs to change about herself to reach her goal and her Ultimate Goal becomes the reward.
Main Character Ending Point
Here I list how the character will change throughout the story. Traits such as "Active. Has found her voice. Participant."
Using my current project, here is what this analysis looks like:
I've filled the outline with the main character from my current project.
Now, to use this tool, I will make sure my main character displays everything in the Starting Point bubble at the beginning of the show and when she is forced to use her new skills of the Ending Point box during the trials she faces.
I can also review my trials and ensure that they require her to use new and different skills.
There is one more element we can add, which helps us determine the main characters' "Want" as it exists at the beginning of the show...
I've added "WHY" near the top.
The Why is the reason your main character is the way she is. Maybe she had severe trauma early in life, or maybe she is haunted by a dead relative. No matter what the reason, list it here.
This is your seed for your "I Want" song.
When I set out to write the "I Want" song for this character, I was caught up writing it based on her End Point Box instead of her Starting Point Bubble and when it wouldn't come out right, it discouraged me. You cannot write your "I Want" song based on how your character will change because they don't know the change is coming. Your song must be focused on how the character is and what she wants right NOW.
This graphic was able to show me that. Here is a modified version for my current project:
There you have it.
A visual representation of your main character path through your story. Call it an arc, call it an outline, call it trash. Whatever you call it, if it helps you, like it helped me, then use it!
Click here to download a free worksheet to develop your main character visually!
Alan Saunders, WRITEineer.com
Friends told me I was late to the game for writing musicals, even though I've been writing them almost my entire life. so this blog is my journey into writing professionally for the stage.
Check out WRITEineer.com for how-to articles and resources for writing your own musical for the stage!