Main Character Energy

Interiority in a world of screens

Full-text audio version of this essay.

“You have to start romanticizing your life,” a voiceover on TikTok commands. “You have to start thinking about yourself as the main character.” The brief video, uploaded last May, is shot by drone: A slowly tilting bird’s-eye view descends toward a white woman surrounded by several friends chattering on the cusp of the frame. A harp arpeggio plays. “Because if you don’t, life will continue to pass you by,” the voice continues. “And all the little things that make it so beautiful will continue to go unnoticed. So take a second and look around and realize that it is a blessing for you to be here right now.” Eyes obscured by sunglasses, the woman assumes the role of a perfectly blank character on which viewers can project themselves.

Main character energy is not a matter of being “individualistic” or singular but rather of being extremely legible

This is just one of the countless videos uploaded on TikTok since the pandemic began last year that emphasize embracing a certain “main character energy.” The meme’s viral path can be tracked: In May, @lexaprolesbian uploaded a lip-synced music video about going on a walk at the same time every day to prove that they were “the main character” to neighbors — as the lyrics put it: “Look at me — no, look away — no, please: look at me…!” The next day, @laurenisoversharing reformatted that idea as a more embodied, comic gesture: a stationary camera frames her savoring a beverage, a caption describing the cinematic trope she performs: “Drinking out of a wine glass & looking over the balcony so everyone on the beach knows I’m the main character.” Two days later, @the.quenchiest republished @lexaprolesbian’s original audio with new video, inserting her own life into the narrative described. The meme soon had a life of its own.

From the mass of these memes, a supercut of main-character-ness emerges: Main characters have an impeccable magnetism to them. They’re creative. They don’t play by the rules. They’re a little ugly but in a hot way. They’re full of themselves but humble at the right moments. They’re self-aware but unanxious. They’re not perfect, but if they stumble, a lesson is learned. Perhaps foremost, a main character emerges as someone who can pull off the paradoxical feat of conveying interiority in a world of surfaces. Main character energy is not a matter of being “individualistic” or singular but rather a matter of being extremely legible.

Part of the appeal of the “main character energy” meme lies in its tapping quiet moments of IRL self-assertion that have been lost to the pandemic. The meme inverts the “Everyday, I put on my silly little outfit and do my silly little tasks” energy of Sisyphean persistence during the pandemic into something that invokes an audience as witness. It reasserts the performing self — the self that feels most familiar and most valid — within conditions that may seem to circumscribe it.

The pandemic may have helped launch this meme, but the idea of living life as though it were a movie emerged long before social media assumed its current form. It has been co-extensive with cinema’s self-mythologization. The 1973 film Badlands illustrates this, for instance, when the protagonist (Martin Sheen) is visibly delighted when he’s described as the spitting image of 1950s tragic heartthrob James Dean. These sorts of depicted relationships within films help structure the possibilities of flattering people with comparisons to movie stars; labeling someone a Marilyn Monroe type becomes a self-explanatory compliment.

That is to say, as cinema developed, the mythic relationship with individual stars was slowly displaced by a relationship with cinema itself. One of the pivotal moments in the 1991 film Sleepless in Seattle comes when the protagonist (Meg Ryan) and her support (Rosie O’Donnell) watch the 1957 melodrama An Affair to Remember: “That’s your problem,” O’Donnell chastises Ryan. “You don’t want to be in love, you want to be in love in a movie.” The message — that life is not a movie — is left unspoken, but of course, it is also immediately negated by the fact that we witness the exchange occur in a movie. The actual message is more that we have learned how to be in movies from watching them, better than we know how to be in everyday life. As a result, we are driven to reshape life to assume cinematic form.

Cinematic depictions of the falseness of living life as a movie immediately imply the opposite: that movies can show us how not to be like movies and be real people, true main characters. They strengthen the idea that cinema supplies the platonic form of subjectivity by seeming to undermine it. The 1999 comedy Bowfinger offers an explicit version of this paradox: Eddie Murphy plays Jiff, a look-alike nonactor who has been recruited to star in an action film because the production can’t afford his brother Kit, a real star also played by Eddie Murphy, a real star in real life. (At one point, Jiff explains that he’s never been on camera but is “an active renter at Blockbuster.”) Murphy’s contrasting roles collapse the dichotomy of spectator and main character, as he plays each becoming the other.

Labeling someone a Marilyn Monroe type becomes a self-explanatory compliment. As cinema developed, the mythic relationship with individual stars was slowly displaced by a relationship with cinema itself

The gradual subsumption of life by cinema perhaps culminates in the situation recounted in the 2015 documentary The Wolfpack, which tells of seven isolated, homeschooled siblings who were introduced to the world almost entirely through movies. Such an introduction revolves not around absorbing information or historical data but, rather, the conventions by which cinema establishes a way of seeing and a way of being seen.

Pop music has also documented this relation of cinema to life over the past half-century or so. The Shirelles’ 1965 track “Shh! I’m Watching the Movie” eventually gives way to the 2009 Ashley Tisdale track “If My Life Was A Movie,” which becomes a repeated motif in hip-hop: “Life Is a Movie” by Mr. Marcelo/Curren$y in 2010, “My Life a Movie” by Lil’ Mouse in 2013, and “My Life a Movie” by Vory in 2016. In 2019, Lil Nas X’s hit “Old Town Road” features the sentiment again: “My life is a movie / Bull riding and boobies / Cowboy hat from Gucci / ‘Wrangler’ on my booty.”

While many recent pop-music depictions of main character energy draw on action films and ideas of speed, magnetism, and wealth, the dominant TikTok versions draw on conventions that comply with the constraints of the pandemic, presenting simple vignettes such as “walking around the neighborhood at 1:15 everyday,” “driving through the rich neighborhood [blasting obscure indie music]”, and “sitting on a windy hilltop staring at birds dramatically.” These brief scenes distill quieter cinematic moments more closely associated with the minor aesthetic categories of “whimsical” and “deep” that nonetheless serve to frame the main character and set them apart. TikTok users playing with the idea of “main character energy” are not identifying with individual actors or larger-than-life roles but rather with the materiality of cinema itself. They absorb its logic and distill it down.

Through a refinement of genre and other formal conventions — framing devices, non-diegetic sound, and continuity editing methods — cinema constructs an image of a subjectivity for its protagonists that is exteriorized yet private. It shows what interiority is supposed to look like from the outside. Associated with this is a specific structure of feeling that’s distinct from those constituted by other media: In the novel, subjectivity is presented as an interior monologue; theater grounds it in communal practice and builds the conventions of subjectivity around the gradient between spectator and stage. But watching movies invites a different kind of identification. Its rendition of subjectivity is structured not in language or community but in a vicarious projection into a “main character” who is centered by the camera’s focus. It is an identification not with any character’s traits but with a set of cinematic techniques, insofar as they can be applied to you, as though you were being filmed wherever you go. The world is not a stage (as per the Shakespearean cliché) but rather “on location.”

In the early 1990s, media theorist Jonathan Beller proposed the notion of “the cinematic mode of production,” building on the idea that the gesture of “paying attention” is a value-productive activity: Cinemas are factories where spectator-workers assemble film stills into coherent scenes at a rate of twenty-four frames per second. What emerges from that systematized mass viewership is the cinematic lexicon of legible emotionality, which serves as a visual language that can be exploited in advertising and deployed in other forms of manipulation. But equally important is the cinematic form of subjectivity articulated by that lexicon. Spectators learn to use certain procedures for meaning-making by looking; then, the familiar sense of “God, I feel like I’m in a movie” becomes a measure of this process’s success. We feel more real, our lives have more meaning, when we can assimilate them to cinematic convention.

Cinema shows what interiority is supposed to look like from the outside

With social media, these conventions have become means of extraction: Users can adopt jump cuts, genre play, over-the-shoulder camera placements and the like to transform their lived experience into a recognizable form of cultural capital, an awareness of the legible formulas for conveying personal importance. The techniques turn heterogeneous experience into a familiar on-screen commodity, meant to spur envy and further mimesis. “Dancing in the rain,” “playing with sparklers on the roof,” and “thoughtfully looking over the landscape” become just a few familiar cinematic tropes to channel. These tropes are blank but effective, easily abstractable from any narrative: They indicate who among an ensemble cast is most central, whose time frame is governing the overall experience, whose space is the ground reality. Reflected back into everyday life, such “main character energy” becomes a means of measuring the anxiety brought on by not feeling like the subject of your own life by default. To treat that anxiety, one must perform the visible signs of interiority oneself and have them confirmed by others. Social media platforms are well positioned for that; in that sense, they draft on the cinematic production of value to establish their own.

Each of the formulas and stylized self-presentations suggest how the cinematic condition has extended well beyond metaphor. We are not merely the star of the movie in our minds; rather we are forced to continually assert ourselves as the main character for one another in our feeds. One can no longer be socially present without taking on these cinematic forms of self presentation, which have become the default mode of being, the overriding “presentation of self in everyday life” (to borrow Erving Goffman’s term) that structures all the others. To sustain that cinematic logic as a zero-degree phenomenology, we must maintain a project of mental cinematography and sound design, inhabiting a 24/7 forever-office production house.

Subtle gestures of asserting main-character energy also serve to stave off its opposite condition: the non-playable character. Regularly abbreviated as NPC, the non-playable character has become a familiar signifier for the automaton, the AI-controlled robot with eyes glazed over to indicate that there is no “inside,” no interiority or self-consciousness. The term originated in tabletop role-playing games from the 1970s and ’80s, like Dungeons and Dragons, and moved to video games, where it applies to the occasional quest givers and AI friendlies that drive forward a game’s smaller plot points. They are coded simply, with just a few canned responses to express themselves. Today, the term NPC often circulates as an insult, especially among fascists who use it to dehumanize their targets.

One of the more widely circulated visual representations of an NPC is in the Wojak meme (a.k.a. “Feels Guy”). Wojak is usually depicted as a low-key main character — a sympathetic subject dealing melancholically with the pains of the world. With a few key alterations, he becomes the NPC variant: an abstracted face flattens his emotions; black, beady eyes replace his weary, reflective ones; and his utterances are replaced by canned, absolutist outbursts. Other NPCs reach toward his shoulder and comfort him, a unified community of drones.

Counterpoised with main character energy, NPCs point to a broader tension regarding interiority in general. If we are constantly performing the self to the ubiquitous and persistent audiences that social media platforms provide, then interiority is no longer central to selfhood and no longer assumed in the same way. Instead, our performances establish ourselves for others, and how those performances are received conveys a sense of selfhood back to us. That brings main character energy perilously close to NPC-hood. To be without visible main character energy is to be indistinguishable from the walking automaton.

The cinematic logic of “main character energy” is ultimately revealed as the dominant emotional framework for what meaningful life looks like. In a video uploaded in June, @themanuelsantos describes one aspect of this double-edged dynamic: “Sometimes, I wonder if those people who like to stare at you in the street, or go ‘chchchchchch’ to their friends, realize that they are just further emphasizing the narrative that I am the main character. I mean, why are you even speaking about me? But also, if you are walking in the street and there’s literally no one looking at you or staring at you, what are you even doing? What are you even serving? Are you even someone? How are you walking? Do you even exist? Personally, I like the attention.”

In this amazing monologue, @themanuelsantos illustrates the labor necessary to maintain a sense of self, now understood fully in the competitive terms of being a “main character.” It is not an abstraction but is shaped by very concrete norms that carry punitive consequences if defied. Pointing to those norms perhaps makes some invisible labor more visible and reveals the ways performance both creates and forecloses on the thing that it signals.

The seemingly all-encompassing nature of cinematic self-structuring, of main character energy, thus reveals something alluring about the nullity of the NPC. When our interiorities are so thoroughly excavated for extraction, qualitatively and quantitatively, a sublime quality to the NPC ontology emerges. We might make a case for the opacity of the NPC as a subject position that, beyond its nullity, affords legitimate leisure, a position from which interiorities are not regularly excavated and from which self-referential performances are not demanded. The real story is elsewhere. Perhaps the real cinematic role models are not the main characters but the blank screen before the title cards and after the credits roll.

Coco Klockner is an artist and writer based in New York. They are the author of K-Y (Genderfail Press, 2019).