Do you need a main character?

IntoTheBlack

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Hello,

I am now writing daily, feels great my book is taking shape. The idea? A crew of a ship (sci-fi) find something nasty ins space (easy ;)).

The captain was going to be the main character, but now I’m not so sure. He is so distant and his purpose is to be the authority on the ship and make hard choices. Plus sticking to gender stereotypes of a man being in charge of a ship in the future does not seem right to me but the character fits his place.

My question is could the crew of a ship be the main character, who struggle to survive against all odds while dealing with their own problems. Would the reader root for them and see the ships success as it’s crew’s success or does one personality need to stand out somwhat? People do not always have a good streak and situations can always change people’s approach. This said even the worst villain can do something good.

Any help would be greatly appreciated

Best, Andy
 

Brian G Turner

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You're absolutely fine to get deeper into multiple characters if you want to, but IMO readers prefer to have a central character they can keep close to for the reader to root for.

A lot of bestsellers do this, so even novels you think are only about a single main character, can actually have a large number of POVs - Dan Brown's The DaVinci Code is primarily a story about a man investigating a big mystery, but I still counted 11 different POVs in there. However, most of these were short, and worked around the actions of the main character, so these never really distracted from the story.

In that respect, it means if you really wanted to show the captain's thoughts up close at any time, you'd be fine to dip into his POV, even if you have a different central character.

As for any central character themselves - it's their struggles against conflict that will make them interesting. However, be careful with this as it can be difficult at first to balance "challenged" with "whining" - readers respect someone who, no matter how weak, or upset, or thoroughly exhausted, will still attempt to step up to do something to help others.

As for good streaks and morality - a character just has to be interesting, rather than moral. Sometimes it's their amorality that makes them a little more interesting, because they are more likely to challenge norms and do the unexpected - done well this can make them seem brave (to an outsider) rather than foolhardy.

However, even saying that, people make mistakes. We are much more likely to forgive and sympathize with those who recognize they have made mistakes and seek to make right from them, though.

Another important concern is character development. Not all stories have this - the lead sleuth in detective novels rarely change and develop because it's more important for them to solve the mystery. However, for adventure stories I think readers expect that a character who goes from ordinary to extraordinary circumstances will change in some way - gain some insight from the experience - that makes them a little different and better as a person for it. Blake Snyder's Save the Cat does a great job of describing how character development is used in film scripts, and the advice is equally applicable to the novel.

Anyway, see if any of that is of help - and thank you for becoming a Supporter. :)
 

Venusian Broon

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Hello,

I am now writing daily, feels great my book is taking shape. The idea? A crew of a ship (sci-fi) find something nasty ins space (easy ;)).

The captain was going to be the main character, but now I’m not so sure. He is so distant and his purpose is to be the authority on the ship and make hard choices. Plus sticking to gender stereotypes of a man being in charge of a ship in the future does not seem right to me but the character fits his place.

My question is could the crew of a ship be the main character, who struggle to survive against all odds while dealing with their own problems. Would the reader root for them and see the ships success as it’s crew’s success or does one personality need to stand out somwhat? People do not always have a good streak and situations can always change people’s approach. This said even the worst villain can do something good.

Any help would be greatly appreciated

Best, Andy
Hi Andy,

Welcome to chrons.

Just to confuse matters I'd say you don't always need a central character. It does depend a great deal on your story.

I've just read Neal Stephenson's Seveneves and that is really an 'ensemble' character book. Loads of strong characters but not weighted to one individually. Works really well. Think of it like one of those 70s disaster movies - which had a cast of hundreds and most of them well-known.

Also it's set mainly on spaceships, so could be instructive to you on how he handles crew dynamics.

It's on the hard SF end of the spectrum if in case that wets your appetite.
 

The Big Peat

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There's a lot of ensemble cast stories around - it can certainly work.

However, I do think nine times out of ten, they'll elevate one character to being "the main character" simply for ease of marketing if nothing else. And the most successful recent ensemble cast fantasies I can think of (might be different in Sci-Fi) started as the story of one character and then made it about the ensemble from there.

So in short... yes, what you're talking about will work, but the easiest way to make it work is to elevate one member of the crew a tiny amount above the others and use them as our main introduction into the story. And crew, not captain, because they'll have more different relationship dynamics to play with amongst other things, although I'm talking usually easiest way and not the only way.
 

Venusian Broon

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There's a lot of ensemble cast stories around - it can certainly work.

However, I do think nine times out of ten, they'll elevate one character to being "the main character" simply for ease of marketing if nothing else. And the most successful recent ensemble cast fantasies I can think of (might be different in Sci-Fi) started as the story of one character and then made it about the ensemble from there.

So in short... yes, what you're talking about will work, but the easiest way to make it work is to elevate one member of the crew a tiny amount above the others and use them as our main introduction into the story. And crew, not captain, because they'll have more different relationship dynamics to play with amongst other things, although I'm talking usually easiest way and not the only way.
IMHO for SF the main focus is 'the big idea' and that is generally what you sell a Sci Fi story on, not so much on a central character.

I generalise of course and there are many SF books with heroes journeys and great individual characters etc.. Space Opera is closer to fantasy anyway and should have stronger character dynamics , but that's my anecdotal experience.

For ensembles you usually have an 'in crowd' that are 'main' and then a support cast so I don't usually see a need for elevating any one in particular if are going down this route.
 

L.L.Lotte

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I tend towards the fantasy side of genre writing/reading so can't really comment on SF all that much.

But I can think of an example or two from epic fantasy. Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones), for instance. At first it is hard to pick out the protagonist of the overall series. You might say that the first book is carried by Ned Stark, but he isn't the protagonist. There are three characters that fans of the series might consider protagonists, but none of them can be picked out by those fans until later on in the story, and even then, it might be that none of them are the true protagonist either. This is all because every PoV character is as deep and meaningful as the next, and they all seemingly have a large part in the story to play.

I don't think you need a central character if all the characters are well portrayed and can stand on their own. The reader will form their own bonds with their favorite character and prop them up without you having to do anything but write with depth and care.

I would consider it a benefit to the story to develop each member of the crew equally, give them all backstories, and plots and machinations. Have a personal subplot going on for each character that complements the overall main story. If you can do this well, I don't think anybody would really care who the main character is because they will be invested in all the characters.
 

The Big Peat

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IMHO for SF the main focus is 'the big idea' and that is generally what you sell a Sci Fi story on, not so much on a central character.

I generalise of course and there are many SF books with heroes journeys and great individual characters etc.. Space Opera is closer to fantasy anyway and should have stronger character dynamics , but that's my anecdotal experience.

For ensembles you usually have an 'in crowd' that are 'main' and then a support cast so I don't usually see a need for elevating any one in particular if are going down this route.
Ta - didn't really have any relevant Sci-Fi examples to draw on other than Serenity/Firefly, and wasn't sure how typical or not that is; and that I'd say fits right into your "in crowd" and "support" for the series, maybe with Mal as a main character... I think the movie positioned River more as a MC.
 

Karn's Return

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I believe it is better to have a main character. Remember that each reader is only a single individual, and in a private setting like a reader and the world they're engaging in, it's easier to relate and empathize with a singular, forefront MC than a collection. That isn't to say you can't or shouldn't have multiple MCs...just one at a time. And I would suggest you avoid doing what Tad Williams did for Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn, and that is leapfrogging too much between them, if you go the route.
 

CTRandall

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Whether you choose a single MC with supporting characters or an ensemble with several featured voices really comes down to what story you want to tell.

@Venusian Broon mentioned Stephenson's Seveneves. That book tells multiple stories centred around one main event. As such, featuring several characters makes perfect sense. Same with Game of Thrones.

Doing that in, however, in something like Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep would be a disaster. The whole point of that novel (or one of the points, at least) is to question Deckard's own humanity, so we need to be focused on him.
 

Cathbad

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I once tried to write a story with no main character. After several attempts, I gave up. Without a character as a focal point, it didn't even keep my interest.
 

Toby Frost

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Firstly, I'd suggest reading Nicholas Monsarrat's novel The Cruel Sea, about a wartime boat that hunts Nazi submarines. He handles the issue pretty well (and it's really good). The captain is definitely the lead, but the other characters are dealt with well.

It's a very difficult question to answer in the abstract (as with a lot of writing, I suspect the answer is "It depends"). I’ve been experimenting with a story with several points of view, where the narrative is like a relay baton passed from person to person. Whoever is at the head of the investigation becomes the lead character for a while. At points, the investigation runs in parallel, or characters are killed off or taken out of action, and their assistants or friends take the baton. However, this would be harder to do where everyone in a spaceship has their own skills and the decisions they can take are limited by their rank.

I think the issue of characters not being good people doesn’t matter. The important thing is that they are separate and distinct people, and it’s much easier for readers to latch onto individual people than it is for them to get a general concept of “the crew”. You’ve also got the problem with a large crew that it will seem like invincible, as one dead redshirt will be replaced by another like ants in a hive.
 

IntoTheBlack

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@Brian G Turner

Thank you for the reply, interesting idea, I think the other characters on the ship do stand on their own, this ship has a crew of about thirty. So some will be more developed than others however both the Captain (Harris) and the first officer (Samantha) tend to always be close to each other, its only when prepping for missions do they separate as Sam is more hands on. Harris tries to interact with his crew and some treat him as equal but most don't feel comfortable with the boss near by.

No Problem, this is probably one of the best forums I have come across so am happy to support it, my wife is also happy I am not bugging her for advice every thirty minutes :)

@Venusian Broon Thank you for the suggestion will check it out.

@The Big Peat - Yes will try that, maybe the captain is not a good focus - its strange as the more i write the more the relationship between characters becomes easier to predict. I told my wife that I miss them when I am not writing about them :) as she proof reads what I write I don't think she has the same attachment. I can try both dynamics as Venusian Broon said their is most certainly an in crowd, but the leader of that crowd does change.

@L.L.Lotte

Yes Game of thrones and Firefly are good parallels as you don't know who the main character is till season five and there a fewer left :)

@Karn's Return - Yes I can see that's its easier to grab hold of one MC, I will try with more, for me when the story is spanning a galaxy i just feel there is more to be told through others eyes, maybe i should mention that I cant cope with the "Hero, with unmatched good looks and an Oxbridge degree - the wealth of Bezos and the heart of a savious." No, the Captain is 5,8 balding, in his fiftys, and prbably drinks a little too much vodlka. He has problems and by having probmes feels more real to me. I am just not sure a reader would latch onto him as the guy to root for, when realy its his crew that come through.

@CTRandall Good point, I will explore, do you feel the MC can bloom towards the end or should they be consistent though out the story?

@Jo Zebedee Yes, probably the best, my wife is the one who bears the brunt of all my changes but either way I am determined to complete this book. Should it be for the story, the benefit of the reader or just for myself (Which is how all this started).

@Cathbad Do you think genre matters? Or is it the case you cannot focus as a reader without someone central to hang the story around.

@Toby Frost I have ordered the book :giggle: The crew rely on each other to do the job, their motivation is financial. If they don't work together they wont get any pay or someone may have an accident, which in space can be easily fatal.

Thank you for all the reply's, I have a lot to think about

Andy
 

Toby Frost

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There's also Chris Wooding's Ketty Jay books, which are basically steampunk Firefly set on an airship. They might be of some interest.
 

Cathbad

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@Cathbad Do you think genre matters? Or is it the case you cannot focus as a reader without someone central to hang the story around.
As a reader, I think. The story needs an anchor, at least for me. In order to 'care' about the story, I need a character/characters to care about.

The main genres I read are fantasy, horror and mystery. Two of those three usually come with at least one major focal character built in - the Detective in mysteries, the 'bad guy' in horror. In fantasy, it can easily be a group of characters.

I'm not a big fan of oft-changing POVs when I read, so I prefer a single lead character, and a single POV character, the same or not.
 

sknox

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>My question is could the crew of a ship be the main character, who struggle to survive against all odds while dealing with their own problems.

Take a look at The Expanse series. It fits this description almost exactly.
 
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