105: Main Character Energy
Applying the principles of great storytelling to a life of meaning
There's a Gen Z / Tik Tok meme that talks about being the main character in your own life. It's associated with taking a more active role in your life rather than just playing supporting character (the best friend or sidekick of the hero).
It turns out there's a lot of parallels between the kinds of stories we love to consume and what we must do to live a successful and meaningful life. And that's because we seek stories to understand the world, each other, and ourselves, in order to learn and grow. So let me present to you, four storytelling principles translated into lessons for living a life with main character energy.
“Make your characters want something right away even if it's only a glass of water." — Kurt Vonnegut
1. Worthy Goals
In fiction: the main character has a goal and actively pursues it. They may initially hesitate or refuse the call at first, but inevitable they make a decisive commitment to honor their desires. They take the red pill, ask the cute boy/girl out, and set forth to Mount Doom.
In real life: we cannot just let things happen to us. We have to cultivate with Michael BG calls "worthy goals", goals that are thrilling, important, and daunting. And then we must chase those dreams with courage and intention.
"Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of." — Vonnegut, again.
In fiction: the main character faces many obstacles and challenges along their path. They must confront things that frighten them, make difficult choices, and endure pain even humiliation. Facing these trials changes them, but even as they improve, the difficulty and the stakes of their challenges grow as well. No struggle, no story.
In real life: we have to expect things to be hard. Setbacks are inevitable and are in fact what create opportunities for us to rise to the occasion and prove our mettle. Worthy goals are ambitious and not easily attained. Easy successes are easily forgotten.
"Having crossed the Threshold, the Hero faces Tests, encounters Allies, confronts Enemies, and learns the rules of the Special World ... The Hero needs to find out who can be trusted. Allies are earned, a Sidekick may join up, or an entire Hero Team forged. Enemies and Villains are encountered. A Rival to the Hero’s goal may reveal himself." — Christopher Vogler
In fiction: the main character builds relationships with many people: allies and companions, mentors and teachers, and of course rivals and antagonists. Each of these relationships helps the main character in their own way, through encouragement, aid, guidance, or as an example to define what the main character stands against.
In real life: we cannot reach our worthy goals alone, especially when we know we're going to have many troubles and problems thrown our way. We must seek out those who can instruct or advise us, surround ourselves with people who value us and share our dreams, and resist those who would take us off course.
“The Covenant of the Arc is the screenwriting law that says: Every single character in your movie must change in the course of your story. The only characters who don’t change are the bad guys. But the hero and his friends change a lot.” — Blake Snyder
4. Internal Conflict
In fiction: the main character does not simply face external conflict (and in doing so, reach their goals), they also have internal conflict. Wrestling with this internal conflict is what allows them to have a character arc where they finally learn to trust others, believe in themselves, find beauty in small moments, live outside of society's expectations, go with the flow, or love their imperfect selves. In the end it is this internal growth that matters more than the external victory.
In real life: we have to remember that the external markers of our success: the career progress, the love interest, the victory over a rival, the financial gains, or the epic trip around the world are not the real prize. What provides durable meaning in our lives is resisting stagnation and evolving into better versions of ourselves. The hardest and most rewarding work is done within.
Jason Shen | Cultivating Resilience Newsletter
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