Main Character syndrome: how storytelling defines humanity

Aug. 10, 2022, 9:56 p.m.

As a writer, I often wonder where the line is between an authorial insert — think Stephenie Meyer, the author of Twilight — and an independent narrator.

Where does the line blur between a writer and their subject? How do you, as a writer, unclench the fist that is grasping your ideas? Instead of worrying that they will ruin your vision, how can you let them create their own story?

This is where “main character” syndrome comes into play. Revitalized in filtered, trendy TikToks and on Instagram over the past couple of years, the etymology of this term reaches far into the past, long before Internet trends and the curations of online personas. It originates in storytelling — humanity’s oldest known coping mechanism.

In the world of storytelling, the main character is known as the protagonist, and it is this protagonist’s goals that drive the story. Icarus’s young, freedom-fueled hubris is what leads him to his downfall. Orpheus’s drive to save his wife and his later doubt about her presence behind him is what ultimately condemns her to the Underworld forever.

The reason we connect with these stories is because of their humanity — the relatable themes that can be found within these epics. It’s no wonder that we desire to insert ourselves into these tales of love and hubris to feel immortalized in a way. But why are we so focused on ourselves?

Why do we curate our lives to fit an ideal, or watch the same movie over and over again to get a glimpse of ourselves in the characters? What is it about the human instinct that makes us revel in the anguish that breakup songs cause, or act out our own stadium tour in our rooms in the middle of the night? Why do we make Pinterest boards, write bad poetry in our phone’s notes apps and dream of futures that we know aren’t going to happen?

“Stories organize life for us,” film and media studies lecturer Adam Tobin told The Daily. “So I think on some level, storytelling is editing the world so that we make sense of it.”

I, for one, am constantly organizing my life through stories.

The terrifying, anxiety-ridden tale of me taking my first flight alone, and my immediate relief during the final descent as the ground came into view and, twenty minutes later, I walked into my sister’s arms at Oakland Airport. The exciting, very sparkly day that I spent getting ready for prom. The time when I was 14 and dropping my brother off at Stanford, crying as my parents and I drove away from FloMo.

When I hear noise from the train depot in Oakland or flight attendants speaking French in the international terminal of LAX, or when I send my brother a selfie of me doing homework while he sits in a flat in Paris, 5,600 miles away, I tuck these moments away like keepsakes, in the corners of my mind, to recall later. Some may say that instinct is resemblant to a crow with shiny objects, but I digress.

I’m sitting on the floor with a freshly done face of makeup when I talk to Janelle Olisea ’25 over Zoom. 

She is a creative — a trained videographer and journalist. She spends her spare time meticulously vlogging her experience as a Stanford student. She has amassed almost 7,000 subscribers, and her Stanford acceptance vlog has over 42,000 views.

When I ask if she ever calls herself the main character, she laughs. “I feel like other people call me the main character, but it’s a little arrogant to say it about myself,” she said.

Storytelling is an act of giving a piece of yourself away. Being the “main character,” while subjective, is inherently true in a way, because we will only ever be able to grasp the world through our own eyes. But this is by no means an excuse to stay close-minded. It simply means that we have to work that much harder to connect with others and expand our worldview beyond our own experiences. 

According to Olisea, her everyday life is filled with “pretty normal, average college things.” 

“I never expected to be a college vlogger and then when it happened, I was like, ‘Oh wait, people actually like watching me,’” Olisea said. 

When I asked if being a student vlogger has affected her everyday life, Olisea said, “Whenever I’m doing anything, [vlogging] will always be in the back of my mind … and also people around will be like, ‘Are you vlogging today?’ so I feel like it’s everyone else’s project at the same time.” 

So then by Tobin’s logic, organizing our life through stories is something we do, but not something that defines us. It can often be a coping mechanism in a hectic world. A necessary distraction. A way to plug back in — to recall memories and compartmentalize them into neat little packages. (Can crows do that?

“It’s interesting the way that we interact with stories and then we have criticism of them, and then [that criticism] creates lenses through which we can see our own life,” Tobin said. 

Tobin’s words strike me because it cuts to the heart of this story. The importance of recognizing the phenomena we take comfort in, of knowing where to be critical and where to embrace the inexplicable magic of storytelling, shows the inherent contradiction found within creatives.

This is why we can never truly separate the creator from the created. When artists put their work into the world, they are showing everyone the mud that they tracked in through the front door, the lines on their foreheads, the hands that they used to type, to paint, to take a picture, to record.

We use stories to make sense of the world, but ultimately we create, not for ourselves, but for others to understand how we make sense of the world. Sometimes, we need to let the ideas run free. We need to have enough faith in stories to take our hands and tell us who we are.

Shelby Sveiven is a high school student writing for The Daily's journalism workshop.

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