Storytelling school

Main Character Syndrome: How Storytelling Defines Humanity

As a writer, I often wonder where the line lies between an author insert — think of Stephenie Meyer, the author of Dusk – and an independent narrator.

Where is the line blurred between a writer and his subject? How, as a writer, do you loosen the fist that grips your ideas? Instead of fearing that they will ruin your vision, how can you leave them create your own story?

This is where the “main character” syndrome comes in. Revitalized in filtered and trending TikToks and Instagram over the past couple of years, the term’s etymology goes way back in time, long before internet trends and online character curations. It has its origins in storytelling – the oldest coping mechanism known to mankind.

In the world of storytelling, the main character is known as the protagonist, and it is that protagonist’s goals that drive the story. Icarus’ youthful pride, fueled by freedom, is what brings him down. Orpheus’ drive to save his wife and his subsequent doubts about her presence behind him are what ultimately doom her to the Underworld forever.

The reason we connect with these stories is because of their humanity – the relatable themes that can be found in these epics. It’s no wonder we want to insert ourselves into these stories of love and pride to feel somehow immortalized. But why are we so focused on ourselves?

Why do we organize 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 human instinct that makes us revel in the angst of breakup songs or plays our own stadium tour in our bedrooms in the middle of the night? Why do we create Pinterest boards, write bad poetry in our phone’s note apps, and dream about futures we know won’t happen?

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

For my part, I constantly organize my life through stories.

The terrifying and anxiety-provoking story of me taking my first flight alone, and my immediate relief on the final descent when the ground appeared and, twenty minutes later, I walked into my sister’s arms at the airport in Oakland. The exciting and very bright day I spent getting ready for the ball. The time I was 14 and dropping my brother off at Stanford, crying as my parents and I left FloMo.

When I hear noise from the train depot in Oakland or flight attendants speaking French in the international terminal at LAX, or when I send my brother a selfie of me doing his homework while he’s sitting in an apartment in Paris, 5,600 miles away, I store these moments like memories, in the corners of my mind, to remember later. Some may say instinct looks like a crow with shiny objects, but I digress.

I’m sitting on the floor with a freshly made up face as I talk to Janelle Olisea ’25 on Zoom.

She is a creator, videographer and journalist by training. She spends her free time meticulously vlogging her experience as a Stanford student. She’s amassed nearly 7,000 subscribers and her Stanford acceptance vlog has over 42,000 views.

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

Storytelling is an act of giving a piece of yourself. Being the “main character”, while subjective, is inherently true in a way, as we will only ever be able to grasp the world through our own eyes. But this is by no means an excuse to remain closed-minded. It just means we have to work a lot harder to connect with others and expand our view of the world beyond our own experiences.

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

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

When I asked if being a student vlogger had affected her daily life, Olisea replied, “Every time I do something, [vlogging] will always be on my mind… and also people around will say, ‘Are you vlogging today?’ so I feel like it’s everyone’s project at the same time.

So according to Tobin’s logic, organizing our lives through stories is something we do, but not something that defines we. It can often be a coping mechanism in a hectic world. A necessary distraction. A way to reconnect – to recall memories and compartmentalize them into neat little packages. (Can crows do this?)

“It’s interesting how we interact with the stories, then we critique them, then [that criticism] creates lenses through which we can view our own lives,” Tobin said.

Tobin’s words strike me because they go to the heart of this story. The importance of recognizing the phenomena that comfort us, of knowing where to be critical and where to embrace the inexplicable magic of storytelling, shows the inherent contradiction in creatives.

This is why we can never truly separate the creator from the created. When artists bring their work into the world, they show everyone the mud they stalked by the front door, the lines on their foreheads, the hands they used to tap, paint, take a picture , to register.

We use stories to make sense of the world, but ultimately we create, not for ourselves, but for others to understand. How? ‘Or’ What we make sense of the world. Sometimes we have to give free rein to ideas. We need to trust stories enough to take our hands and tell us who we are.