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In this pop cultural moment that has been circulating TikTok for the last year, “main character energy” means channelling that point in the movie where the hero has found their groove and is *living*. You’re the first person player one in your game of life.
It makes sense that we crave this chance to assert our claim on our own narrative. Recognizing ourselves as the “main character” grounds us in an unpredictable world.
Kyle Chayka of the New Yorker described this trend in July 2021, then at three million views for just one video alone, like this:
"Over the past year, on the strength of that one TikTok video, which has more than three million views, the “main character” archetype has become part of Internet vocabulary, a sort of social-media update to the “Type A” personality. It describes any situation in which a person is making herself the center of attention, the crux of a particular narrative, as if cameras were trained on her and her alone. The term can be used appreciatively, acknowledging a form of self-care — putting yourself first — or as an accusation, a calling out of narcissism: a person dressing too extravagantly for a casual event, for example, is trying to be the main character. Main-character moments are those in which you feel ineffably in charge, as if the world were there for your personal satisfaction."
According to this popular interpretation, being the main character is defining and celebrating your own prerogative. It’s the embodiment of “to thine own self be true,” (as said by Shakespeare’s supporting character “that Polonius guy” — no, not, as Clueless main character Cher knows, as said by the main character Hamlet).
Main Character Energy is all about taking up space, embracing your aesthetic, and being the leader of your own life.
The thing is, one year out we’re still mostly seeing main character energy pop up in social media as as an editorialized highlight. We see you “unbothered. moisturized. happy. in my own lane. focused. flourishing.” — but we’re only seeing a moment in the timeline.
Almost every story that has remained memorable through time has something in common.
In the tales of Greek demigods, prophets in the Bible, Shakespeare, Star Wars, the kids in Stranger Things, and countless more, there is an inspiring narrative the main character undertakes that endures.
You might have heard of Joseph Campbell, scholar of comparative myth and religion, who calls this recurring story, or mono-myth, “the Hero’s Journey” in his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces.
We can’t seem to get enough of a hero who:
faced with a great threat to the world as he knows it, must leave home and travel,
taking on challenges that confront and develop his strengths,
until a final, seemingly impossible showdown forces him to find the ability within himself to save the day,
and return home to repair or change the world.
This story isn’t exclusive to high fantasy, grand myths, and dashing men.
The Hero’s Journey persists throughout popular culture, playing out across time, gender identities, and in a million different settings.