The Problem With Making The Universe Revolve Around The Main Characters

When the universe revolves around the main characters, things tend to go wonky pretty fast. Here's how and why - and what you can do to prevent it. And then, if you're really really determined to make the universe revolve around your characters anyway, how to do that well!

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What does it look like when the universe revolves around the main characters?

First of all, let's establish just what it means to have the universe revolve around your characters, and what exactly it looks like. In a universe that revolves around its main characters, just about every plot event kicks off as a direct result of their actions and/or their simple existence. Rarely (if ever) does anything start for reasons that have nothing to do with them.

Here's an example of the difference using how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's handled Sherlock Holmes and James Moriarty versus how Steven Moffat handled them. Doyle's Holmes is not the center of his universe, but is instead an organic part of it. Moffat, however, made the character the center of the universe as often as not. A good example is how each version ended up in trouble with James Moriarty.

Doyle's Sherlock Holmes unwittingly made himself a nuisance to Professor James Moriarty when he solved a number of crimes that he had masterminded. Moriarty decided to take action against Holmes and attempted to kill him. Thus, the world does not revolve around Doyle's Sherlock Holmes; instead, it simply responds to his actions as one might expect it to.

On the other hand, Moffat's Moriarty becomes obsessed with Sherlock Holmes when he realizes that Holmes's intellect matches his own. He begins setting crimes in motion designed to attract Sherlock's attention so he can toy around with him. So whereas Doyle's Holmes made himself a nuisance to Moriarty (however unwittingly), Moffat's Sherlock simply possesses a quality that catches his eye. Thus he is is reduced to little more than a satellite character for Sherlock. (While it is mentioned that he has a massive criminal network and serves as a "consulting criminal," we never actually see anything he does that isn't related to messing with Sherlock and making him miserable.)

For another example of protagonist-centric universes, we also often see universes revolve around their main characters in many poorly-written OC-starring fanfics. While there's nothing inherently wrong with making an OC the star of a fanfic, these particular stories put the OC into the center of things in ways that make no sense and make for weak (if nonexistent) plots. A common formula here is that the canon protags discover the OC, realize that the OC is incredibly special, then allow her to to live with them. There they will protect her from the bad guys who want to kidnap or enslave her, and/or train her in their ways. While this is entertaining enough as personal wish fulfillment, it tends to leave the story with numerous issues that make it nigh unreadable to anyone else.

In the next section, we're going to examine the exact issues and problems that making the universe revolve around your protagonists tends to create.

Potential problems with making the universe revolve around your main characters

Universes that revolve (or begin to revolve) around their main characters often run into at least a handful of the following problems at some point or another:

The world feels small. What makes a setting feel truly big isn't the actual scale covered, but the scope. A multistory franchise that takes place all over an entire galaxy but ultimately revolves around the angst and drama of one single family might be large in scale, but it's tiny in scope. A single city where many disparate people and groups make things happen might be small in scale, but huge in scope. If you want your world to genuinely feel big, it needs to have lots of things going on that have nothing to do with each other.

The world seems boring. If nothing interesting happens that doesn't directly connect to the main characters, then it's reasonable to infer that the rest of the universe is a pretty quiet and boring place, which makes it pretty lackluster when you stop and think about it.

The world loses plausibility. Settings like this often inadvertently imply that the only people who ever get up to anything worth writing a story about are the main characters and those who are directly connected or interested in them. Are we really supposed to believe that only this tiny handful of people have the ambition and nerve to be interesting?

Additionally, these kinds of stories often require antagonists to be obsessed with protagonists for flimsy or trite reasons. A common one is wanting revenge over something that happened way back in childhood. Another one is being infatuated with the protagonist. Supervillain stories often have antagonists wanting to enslave the protagonists for their powers, rather than just hiring superpowered mercenaries or building devices that imitate their powers.

It also happens often that antagonists who were originally designed with solid motives often start ignoring them to continue making trouble for the protagonists. Thus characters who began as well-developed individuals gradually turn into little more than walking plot devices with no consistent personality or motivation.

Other characters may end up way too preoccupied with the main characters as well. They may give them more attention, praise, and assistance than they honestly deserve, or that makes sense for them to give under the circumstances. The fact that they have lives and concerns of their own are largely forgotten. They might even fail to get hurt or angry with the main characters when said main characters betray them or let them down. This isn't how real people typically behave. Real people get hurt and angry and sometimes suffer psychologically damage, especially if the betrayal/letdown was severe, or if betrayals/letdowns happen on a regular basis.

Another way it can strain credibility is by making everything tie back to the main characters in ridiculous and improbable ways. Once Upon A Time is really bad about this: for example, the Wicked Witch of the West is the long lost sister of the Evil Queen from Snow White, the Evil Queen was the sea witch who gave Ariel her legs, and Peter Pan is the Beast's father. (Yes, you read that last one correctly.)

The main characters become horrible people. In worlds like these, it can be hard to create conflict without having the main characters start it themselves, whether intentionally or on accident. If they start things on purpose, it makes them look selfish and callous. If they start things on accident, it makes them look incompetent. If they get so caught up in their own personal dramas that they start to ignore their actual responsibilities and jobs, it makes them look both selfish and incompetent. If too many bad things happen as a direct consequence of your main characters' actions (or lack thereof) people might start to wonder why someone doesn't just put them out of everyone else's misery already.

The main characters can't truly be heroes. There's nothing heroic in cleaning up a mess you made because you were selfish, mean, or incompetent. In fact, it doesn't even meet the bare minimum of being a decent human being, because the bare minimum of being a decent human being is trying to avoid making the mess in the first place. So if your characters are simply cleaning up after themselves, they are in no sense heroes. Likewise, while your characters are always justified in doing whatever it takes to protect themselves from weirdos with creepy obsessions, doing so doesn't make them "heroic" in the sense of a hero as someone who tries to save and/or avenge others. If you're trying to frame your characters as heroic figures, you'll want to be mindful of this.

Genuine epic drama becomes impossible. Epic drama concerns large-scale things like the fate of the world or a people. Petty drama concerns small-scale problems like personal betrayals, romantic rivalries, and other such shenanigans as you often find in celebrity gossip news. The more the universe revolves around your main characters, the pettier the drama tends to become, as it's hard to come up with drama that isn't in some way personal. And if this drama does escalate to threatening the world as we know it, you don't have genuine epic drama so much as a bunch of people who are so selfish and short-sighted that they won't think twice about putting the entire world on the line for their petty desires. (And while it's not always a problem if the antagonists are like this, it can be pretty hard to root for protagonists who are this self-centered.)

How to write a story without making the universe revolve around the main characters

Assume the universe is an imperfect place. Assume that things like natural disasters, financial and material shortage, ineffective governments, and suchlike happen fairly often. Assume that people experience heartbreaks, misunderstandings, and falling-outs. Assume that some people live in homes that need maintenance and don't have the money or health to do it themselves. Assume that some people are the victims of bigotry. Assume that groups of people come into conflict with each other for any (if not all) of the reasons they come into conflict with each other in real life. Assume that people hear conflicting news and rumors and don't always know what to believe. Assume some people deliberately write propaganda. When the world is imperfect, there is lots to improve - and therefore, lots to do.

Assume the universe has interesting things to find and discover. Maybe there are archaeological discoveries to be made. Maybe there are alien people to make contact with. Maybe there are scientific surveys to be done. Maybe there are ancient caves to explore, or hidden worlds behind strange doorways, or cures for horrible illnesses to find. Exactly what all it should be depends on the kind of setting you're creating, but you should assume that there's plenty of variety in it. This will give scientists and adventurers plenty to do with themselves.

Assume that lots of people are getting up to things independently of each other. Assume that the universe is full of people (and/or other assorted entities!) with no real connection to each other who want to do and have things. Assume that they have the means and gumption to go after them. Assume that there's a fair number of them who just don't care who gets hurt along the way, or outright just want to hurt someone. Assume that there are plenty who aren't willing to hurt others as a general rule, and mostly just want to have fun or do something interesting or useful with their lives. Assume that some of these people need help or just want to bring someone along for the company.

Make your protagonists the kind of people who get up to things. Maybe they're the kind of people who see suffering and feel compelled to ease it. Maybe they're curious about the world's mysteries and want to solve them. Maybe it's their actual job to solve and fix problems of some kind, and this job of theirs puts them into some unusual and interesting situations. Maybe they've been commissioned to discover the meaning of an ancient monument, or maybe they want to fight an oppressive regime. Maybe they've just been made aware that the world is weirder than they ever knew and want to know more. There are many, many things you could do. What ultimately matters is that there's a lot going on and a lot of things to do, and that your protagonists have the means and motive to get involved.

Decide what your protagonists are going to accomplish. What are they going to go and get done in this big, imperfect, complicated universe? What are they going to change? What will they fix? What will they discover? What will they put an end to? What will they start? Once you work this out, it's pretty easy to line out a solid plot that doesn't require the universe revolving around them.

Figure out what kind of resistance your protagonists going to face along the way. For example, of your protagonists start trying to topple an oppressive regime, the regime obviously isn't going to like that and will try to stop them. If they go exploring ancient ruins, they might run afoul of bad weather, dangerous animals, or bandits. If they're trying to invent a new technology, they might find that someone else is trying to do the same thing and is more than willing to try and sabotage your protagonists. If it's their job to solve crimes, they're probably going to run into some dangerous types who would like to make them stop however they can.

Know that it's okay to introduce new adversaries along the way. Remember the world is a big, complicated, and very imperfect place where lots of things happen independently of each other. This means that there's no end of people for your main characters to potentially run into conflict with. Take some time to stop and think about who all might be out there that they could possibly run into at some point - or who might run into them! Then instead of using the same old villains over and over until their lives revolve around the main characters to the point of absurdity, you can incorporate some of these other people.

Resist the urge to start tying everything in together. At some point it might be tempting to retcon every challenge and adversary your protagonists have faced into part of a grand scheme laid out by that One Big Adversary. Don't. In addition to most likely creating numerous plotholes, this instantly transforms a rich and colorful universe into one that has nothing better than give your protagonists a hard time. It takes away the rich and beautiful complexity you've built up and replaces it with dry, boring uniformity. Yes, it might give audiences a brief rush as they see that everything connected to each other "all along," but it comes at the high cost of cheapening everything the main characters have done and discovered so far and leaving you with all of the problems that having a protagonist-centered universe creates.

Assume that not every major problem in the universe needs to be fixed by your main characters. Finally, assume that while your main characters are often useful and important people, there are many other people out there who are just as competent and motivated to tackle things, and that they deserve just as much respect and recognition as your main characters. You should also assume that some of them have at least some skills and expertise that your main characters lack, making them even more qualified to handle certain problems. Finally, assume that most of them don't see their own work as much more than doing what needs done or doing pays the bills, or doing what makes them feel fulfilled and happy. This way, you're less likely to end up with a bizarrely helpless and complacent universe that worships your main characters simply for being reasonably motivated and competent. How To Avoid Elitist Overtones In Your Fiction.)

But is it possible to make a universe that revolves around the main characters that works?

The philosophy around here is that there are very few genuinely bad ideas, but there are infinite ways to execute them badly. A universe that revolves around the main characters is no exception.

This kind of thing seems to work best when it's done with a staunch refusal to grant the main characters protagonist-centered morality, a diligent effort to maintain plausibility, and a keen sense of when to stop making everything about the main characters, and the guts to face some pretty dark subject matter without being callous or flippant about it. When this is done, things can get very interesting.

A Series of Unfortunate Events is a good example of how this can be done well. Although just about everything revolves around the Baudelaire orphans and their inheritance, every character in the story has a solid reason for being here and their personalities and motives are never compromised. No one is inexplicably helpless, either. The antagonist's motive to steal their fortune is simple, yet plausible; every facet of his character builds him up as exactly the kind of man who would go to the incredible lengths he goes to in order to get it. The Baudelaire orphans themselves are thoughtful toward others and often do their best to help them - even if it means putting themselves at risk. The loss of human life is treated as a tragedy to be mourned, not an unfortunate little oopsie that no one could help. And finally, the story doesn't go on for so long or become so needlessly convoluted that it starts losing plausibility.

This isn't to say that your own protagonists need to be cinnamon rolls, because they don't. But you need to be honest with yourself about what kind of people they actually are, and frame them accordingly. You might also take a look at Tips For Writing Lovable Jerks for tips to help you keep them from getting too repugnant.

However your characters are supposed to be seen, you might take a look at "Is This My Character's Fault?" - A Flowchart, Character Morality & Ethics - What Separates Your Heroes From The Villains?, and Ethical Considerations For Fantastic Situations - Are Your Sci-Fi & Fantasy Heroes Ethical People?. Make sure you look at How To Make The Nameless, Faceless, & Minor Characters In Your Story Feel Human To You. No matter how much the world actually does revolve around your characters, and no matter what kinds of people your characters are, other people's lives and safety shouldn't be valued less than the comfort and happiness of the main characters.

And these pages might be relevant to you:

Tips For Writing Fanfiction With An OC Protagonist
Grail Character Syndrome: How To Be The Center Of Attention And Yet Be A Total Bore
Tips To Keep Your Characters In Perspective & Make The Right Impressions With Them
Character Infatuation & Over-Identification - Do You Have These Problems?
Points To Remember When Worldbuilding

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