The Leading Role
Humans are simple creatures. We crave love and attention — the feeling of being fawned over for whatever we do and say; it probably is something that has been embedded within us since the moment we were born, with relatives or strangers gushing over how adorable we were as a baby. Then, we became older and realised that maybe, just maybe, the world doesn’t in fact, revolve around us. Nonetheless, that does not stop some from picturing themselves as the main character of their own lives.
As of late, the ‘main character phenomena’ has been popularised by TikTok, emerging during the pandemic as a way of coping while being alone and away from people. Multiple TikTok videos portraying the idea of main character energy — how to be the main character, my main character moment or comical reenactments of the syndrome have been gaining traction among netizens. The main character syndrome can be defined as identifying oneself as the protagonist in their own life story and considering those around them, well, side characters.
In all likelihood, each of us may have or will experience a main character moment in our lives. Regardless, there are some who view their lives through rose-coloured lenses and believe that they just might be a stylish lawyer like Elle Woods, the book-smart good girl who gains all the attention like Rory Gilmore, or even the wealthy playboy who’s secretly a superhero such as Batman.
For this article, Echo would like to explore the various main character ‘personas’ that people take on — alluding themselves to be something more than just a small speck in this space which we’ve come to know as: the universe.
What leads to main character syndrome?
It is plainly discernible that TikTok has played a huge part in escalating this trend to what it is today. The idea of romanticising one’s life has become a trend among many TikTok and Instagram influencers with the main character tag garnering 8.6 billion views on TikTok, while on Instagram, the #maincharacter tag has surpassed over 172,000 posts. Many experience the fear of missing out (FOMO) and are inclined to go along with the current trends — hyping up the ‘main character energy’ trend.
Evidently, one who portrays themself to be a main character is assumed to be narcissistic, delusional and a teeny bit self-obsessed. They can be so wrapped up with their lives that they fail to place importance on the people around them, who are presumed to be taking on supporting roles in their life. Naturally, they tend to feel that the problems faced by other people are more miniscule compared to their own.
On top of this, some may feel the pressure to obtain external validation — to feel good about themselves, increase their self-esteem and to feel belonged. Some of the main character things featured in TikTok videos include sipping wine while leaning against a balcony, kissing in the rain or reading in the train and hoping that somebody would fall in love with them. Most of these are clearly Hollywood-inspired clips, with rom-coms being the main source of inspiration.
All the same, main character syndrome is not necessarily only influenced by selfish thoughts. For some, it may be a means of escaping reality and imagining that life may not be that awful after all. Challenges faced in life are deemed as obstacles to overcome, which might just lessen the weight on one’s shoulders because it no longer seems as burdening as before. However, it could become severe if they lose reality for a much longer period, in turn losing their identity as individuals.
According to Helen Llewellyn, an independent healthcare public affairs consultant, the syndrome may only have a temporary benefit of bolstering one’s self-esteem, as others have to go along with the whole facade. In a nutshell, main character syndrome causes one to become someone they would like to be, instead of just being who they are. Being genuine to oneself is to focus on who you are now.
The Many Faces of the Main Character and Their Implications
p.o.v.: you’re a quirky main character in an indie coming-of-age film
Sunlight peeks through your curtains, casting a warm glow on your face and causing your eyelids to flutter open. You hop into the shower, and can’t resist singing at the top of your lungs into a shampoo bottle. Neighbours be damned. Then, you pull on a baggy sweater (thrifted, of course) and high-waisted jeans, before putting your hair up into a messy bun.
On the train, you catch up with your best friend, whom you’ve known since kindergarten (he has a crush on you, obviously), while sipping your oat milk latte. You walk into class (fashionably late), and spend most of the lesson staring out of the window, wishing you could be frolicking in the grass instead of being slumped in a chair. Then, it hits you; you’re in control of your life and there’s no reason why you can’t do what your heart desires (and there won’t be any consequences thanks to plot armour, right?).
So, you walk out of the classroom and the room begins to fill with whispers as everyone turns to look at you. As you step out of the building, you breathe in the fresh morning air and call your best friend, who drops everything just to join you. The rest of the day is bliss; swimming in the ocean, driving around the city, visiting an art gallery, going on all the rides at a carnival, and even crashing a wedding (who cares if you ruin the happiest day of someone’s life). You sneak into your room in the dead of night, and jump into your bed, pulling your phone out to edit and post all the pictures you took today on social media. But, the illusion shatters when you hear raised voices and muffled cries coming from downstairs; the consequences of your actions.
Is there a better respite from the monotony of our day-to-day lives than social media? When you spend most of your time stuck in a stuffy classroom or a cramped office, reaching for your phone can feel like coming up for air and escaping the clutches of reality. It is incredibly common to come across creators on TikTok who preach about living life like a main character, or influencers on Instagram who post pictures of their seemingly perfect lives filled with beautiful clothes and incredible places. This can cause one to reexamine their own life and question their choices; making them wonder if acting like the main character would also give them a happy ending.
Thus begins the journey of changing the things that make you unique to fit the mold prescribed by strangers on social media or to emulate a fictional character from a movie, TV show, or book. This can range from little things like stopping to smell the roses on the way home or drastic measures such as abandoning your responsibilities to ‘live life to the fullest’. Although main character syndrome has its pitfalls (and has birthed plenty of hilarious memes), it can be incredibly beneficial in healthy doses. This is because it can help you view your struggles and triumphs in a different light and allow you to make the most of every opportunity – and obstacle. For instance, let’s say you missed your bus on a rainy morning. Ordinarily, this would put you in an irritable mood but a main character wouldn’t let such a setback dampen their spirits. Perhaps they will borrow an umbrella from a cute stranger and strike up an interesting conversation with them. Then, maybe they’ll have fun jumping over puddles and dancing in the rain on the way to their destination. The possibilities are endless!
“I used to feel like my whole life was an acting job, doing an impression of the people I saw on television, which was just a projection of a bunch of equally screwed-up writers and actors. I felt like a xerox of a xerox of a person, you know what I mean?” – Bojack Horseman
However, the main character trend on social media pushes the narrative that there is something inherently wrong with your life and that you should take steps to correct this by becoming an entirely different person. This can cause one to lose sight of their authentic self and simply become a collage of fictitious characters. Dissociation from reality and the need to be in the spotlight at all times could also be a gateway to narcissistic personality disorder, causing one to neglect their responsibilities to others and expect ‘supporting characters’ to be at their beck and call at all times. And, if your loved ones don’t feel like they are being valued, they may not stick around for much longer.
Some may even use main character syndrome as a shield to avoid dealing with the unpleasantness of reality. However, acting like a main character is an unhealthy coping mechanism as it only distracts you from your troubles, not make them go away. Hence, one would simply be feeding into their own delusions as they thrive in an alternate reality, becoming a phantom in their actual lives.
p.o.v.: you’re a damaged main character in a gritty drama film
You wake up with a pounding headache, reaching for the pills on your nightstand and washing them down with a swig of alcohol. The streets below are rampant with thugs and prostitutes, and the chirping of the birds is drowned out by the blares of the police sirens. You pick up a dirty pair of jeans and an old T-shirt from the floor, not bothering to comb your hair (you look like a mess, but a hot one, of course).
Your parents are god knows where (and you don’t care), and there’s no food in the kitchen, so you head out into the freezing cold on an empty stomach. You plug your earphones in, and listen to angsty music about how nobody gets you as you walk to school. In class, you bring to life the dark images in your head on the pages of your notebook, barely paying attention to the teachers (who fail to see your potential) but knowing all the answers to their questions (you don’t even have to try).
As you make your way past the sea of students in the school hallway, their laughter ceases as they whip their heads to shoot you (judgemental) stares. You tell yourself that you’re better than each and every one of them, that their ‘perfect’ lives are ‘boring’ and that deep down you know you are destined for greater things. So what if you’re poor and alone? You’ll prove them all wrong and one day, they’ll be on their knees, begging for your forgiveness.
Another popular manifestation of the syndrome on social media is that of the somewhat ‘unhinged’ or ‘broken’ character who is cast aside by society and forced to jump over countless hurdles before earning a happy ending. Unlike the first trope, which portrays seizing control of your life and chasing your own utopia, this trope is far darker as it sees the deeply-flawed protagonist going down a self-destructive path and refusing to change as they believe that their suffering will be vindicated in the future. And, while the first trope is often seen as annoying and silly, this trope is usually considered relatable and endearing.
Although it can be argued that these posts create a safe space for discourse on mental illness, they could be especially harmful to those grappling with or vulnerable to psychological issues such as anxiety or depression. For instance, some creators on TikTok tend to romanticise self-destructive behaviour and downward spirals, an example being posts inspired by the TV show, ‘Fleabag’; creators post about how they are ‘entering their Fleabag era’. Although some have applauded the show for its honest portrayal of womanhood and grief, this trend sees people wanting to emulate its protagonist, who often sabotages her relationships, makes impulsive decisions, and struggles with personal insecurities and emotional baggage. In an attempt to emulate deeply flawed main characters such as Fleabag, one may engage in increasingly erratic and outrageous behaviour for the sake of the ‘plot’; plunging themselves into life-and-death situations just to receive the attention they so desperately crave, but lack.
Moreover, one may develop masochistic tendencies when trying to embody this character, causing them to fetishise their sadness and romanticise their hardships. For instance, you may start viewing your mental health struggles or financial troubles as a necessary evil; thinking that they are a part of your character development, designed to push you towards your goals. Thus, one may be predisposed to wallowing in their sadness instead of seeking a way out of the abyss; letting their negative thoughts consume them instead of accepting help from others.
p.o.v.: you’re amazing just the way you are
You wake up with a jolt at the sound of your alarm, groaning as you climb out of your bed and reach for your phone. You’re pretty exhausted, but a text from your friend puts a smile on your face and you feel a little bit better about the rest of your day. You pull on your favourite skirt and the sweater your mom bought for you last Christmas, saying goodbye to your family before leaving for campus.
The rest of the day is just a supercut of arbitrary and seemingly insignificant moments; being stuck in traffic for an hour, laughing at your friends’ jokes until your stomach hurts, eating some sushi at the convenience store with your significant other, tripping over a dustbin on the way to class, getting a B on your last test, playing fetch with your dogs, and listening to a popular song.
As you climb into your warm bed at the end of the day, you’ll soon forget, you realise that you are perfectly content with your life – just the way it is.
Although the main character syndrome isn’t all grey skies and thunderstorms, it is important to remember that there are no cameras watching your every move and that you are a real human being, with thoughts and feelings that no writer or director could possibly understand. So, it’s perfectly fine if your highs don’t feel as good as they look in an indie film ,or if your lows aren’t as dramatic as they are in a gritty TV show. You don’t have to be the main character, just be a main character in your own story!
Written by: Poorani & Priyanka
Edited by: Caitlin