main character energy

Would someone who is NOT the main character sit alone and pensively watch the sunset over the vast and open canyon? I thought not.

“Main character energy” is a phrase that’s cropped up online recently. Wow, look at her! She has main character energy, someone will write. She is the fully realized protagonist at this point, another will chime in. It’s generally commented on videos where the person is especially enigmatic. Their energy radiates. You can’t stop watching them. Part of you wants to be them.

We are all our own main characters, even if it sometimes feels like we lack agency. This is something we inherently know. We say things like “the rest is still unwritten” (thank you, Natasha Bedingfield) or “we’ll see what the next chapter holds,” using colloquial phrases that imply our life is a narrative constantly being created.

We survive by telling ourselves stories, both big and small. This year, I’ve been more interested in the small narratives that define our lives.

In a TikTok video I watched the other month, this woman talks about how she grew up as a theater kid and was never a sports person. As an adult, she impulse bought a soccer ball, started kicking it around, and realized she really enjoyed it. I feel like I’ve gone through my whole life telling stories about myself, she says into the camera. They’re stories I’ve been telling myself for so long, I forgot they were just stories. . . . What if you’re wrong about yourself?

I took Physics 2 in college and I still remember that first day of class. Engineering majors took calc-based physics, while pre-med students took algebra-based. I had taken zero math courses in college, and the only other science class I’d taken was astronomy, which was less math-focused and more conceptual. I’d tested out of Physics 1, which was cool but really just meant that I hadn’t touched the hard sciences since high school. I was nervous and underprepared. That first day, I walked into the lecture hall full of pre-med majors, noticed my friend in one of the middle rows, and took a seat next to him. He looked at me quizzically and then smiled. What are you doing here? he asked. It was a valid question. I was an English person. The narrative that I was bad at math and a humanities person, not a science one, was one I told myself and other people too. Why on earth was I there?

What if you’re wrong about yourself?

The narrative that I’m not a science person is still one I’m working against. I don’t have the academic background in it, but I like it; it’s interesting and there are several subjects that I am fairly well-versed in. I’m an English person masquerading as a science person, I’ve said when people have expressed surprise at my life trajectory and my recent work in outdoor education. Quite honestly, it’s a stupid thing to say. Why can’t you be both? Why isn’t it more normal to be interested in a vast array of subjects, to a be a multitude of people all at once (shoutout to everyone who gets the Whitman reference)?

If I ever need a smart, nonfiction book, I am going to ask you, my coworker told me the other day after seeing the past three books I’ve read during my breaks. That comment caught me off guard. A nonfiction person. A science person. These have not previously been in the narrative I tell about myself.

What if you’re wrong about yourself?

On a larger scale, I’ve also been questioning the cultural narratives we tell ourselves. The biggest lie I’ve uncovered this year in my own life is the myth of stability, which is funny because if you’d asked me what I wanted back in February, I would’ve said exactly that. But COVID changed a lot, and my own belief in stability and certainty is one of them. I feel like my ideas of what my life should be like and what I want are sometimes less rooted in my own feelings and beliefs and more in those of the people and world around me. Thirty is an inherently meaningless number, yet I struggle to liberate myself from the idea that there are certain benchmarks I should have hit by that age.

What if you’re wrong about yourself?

The artist Ryan Stadler has this cool art series about banned books where he takes the entire text and alphabetizes it. It’s the same book, the same words, but much of the meaning is lost despite every component still being present. What is perhaps most fascinating about his portrayal is not what is absent, but what remains. You can still tell whom the main characters are by how many times their names are present. You know there was love and heartbreak and that Alaska meant a lot to someone for some reason. The original context is gone, but you create your own. You find meaning in the ordered randomness. In Alaska For Looking, an interpretation of the novel Looking for Alaska, Stadler shares his favorite line in his new alphabetized version: sob sobbing sobbing sobbing sobbing sobbing sobbing sober sober sober sobriety, which says a lot without really saying anything at all.

That’s how I feel about my own life right now. I am the main character, but I can’t make sense of the story. Everything is alphabetized and I know all the plot elements are there, I know good things will happen, but I can’t make figure out what those things will be or what they will look like. There are some days where I feel like I am decidedly in the wrong novel, and others when I feel confident about my direction and the choices I have made. I envy the people who can map their lives so linearly, who know who’ll they’ll be a year from now and what they’ll want (*cough*Clare*cough*).

But it also excites me that I don’t know, that I am susceptible to change. My life is richer because of its flexibility, because of my ability to be fluid and to change my mind. Sometimes it is hard to see that as a gift. Sometimes it is hard to view my life without superimposing traditional narratives over it.

What if you’re wrong about yourself?

The thing about main character energy is that it isn’t always captivating. People use the phrase to describe the moment when they’re driving into the sunset and Lord Huron is blasting through the speakers and they just broke up with their girlfriend, and wow, look at how free they are, look at how the land welcomes them with open arms, look at all that wonder that lays ahead. And that’s the scene in the book, in the movie, that you remember. That’s what sticks. But what you fail to recognize are the quiet lines, the moments that exist between scenes, the mere second of darkness that exists on the screen before a new colorful image takes its place. You read the line, and autumn bled into winter, a desiccated shell of the vibrant summer months in a second. You, the reader, move on. But the main character doesn’t. They have to live those months, those moments that are not glamorous, the scenes that the movie and the book only lightly touch. They have to live it all.

(Side note: Would love to link to the TikTok video mentioned above, but figuring out how to link to TikTok via WordPress is above my paygrade. Sorry.)

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