My Writing Process 10: When your lead is not your lead

So we’ve been talking a lot about lead characters lately. And while they’re always important, sometimes they’re not the most important. There’s another school of thought than simply: the popular character is the lead, in which the central character involved in the plot is the lead.

This is a case in which the character traditionally viewed as the lead isn’t the lead, they’re simply a vehicle through which we view the story. It’s hard to explain. Let me try with an example:

Back to the Future
In Back to the Future, the “main” character is generally regarded as Marty McFly. Which makes sense. He’s the top billed character, he’s the one who causes the plot… But he’s not the lead. George is.

Follow me here: in three act structure; there is an inciting incident, rising action, and then a climax… And the character is different than they were before. Marty’s a great character, but he’s basically the same at the end of the story than he was at the beginning. But George goes through drastic changes over his three act structure, and his life in 1985 is better as a result. The bits where we see him in 1985 serve as a prolog and epilogue to his story, and are basically the exposition of the film ( if we’re comparing this to a novel, which we are).

Marty is simply the vehicle through which George’s story is viewed. He’s almost a narrator, though we see it through his POV rather than spoken narration.

Side note: I think that’s why the second film struggled to find its voice. There really was no main character at all. In the third film, it’s Doc Brown, and once again Marty reverts to his role as vehicle.

Batman Year OneThere are other examples too. Batman: Year One is a great one, whereas Batman is basically the mcguffen that allows for the arc of Commissioner Gordon’s story to take place. And it works to great effect.

I use it in later books a lot. It’s also helpful in Infinity: just because there are multiple characters, they each get their own arc. The strongest of these, by default, is the lead… Victor (arguably the only character involved in all 4 stories) should be the lead, but he’s not. He’s the vehicle.

So yeah, this obviously isn’t all the time. Xander is typically the lead of the Black Womb books, and there’s no attempt to hide that. But when you’re writing, think about the three act structure and who is getting development. If its not your main, make sure your plot and scenes reflect that, or the story may run the risk of falling flat.

Above all, make sure there is a lead.

Never Look Back
Matthew LeDrew

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