Who Does Your Main Character Work For?

A little white back, my wife and I saw The East, a 2013 film starring and co-written by Brit Marling:

Marling’s character infiltrates an off-the-grid terrorist organization that’s been striking out at corporations that have gotten out of hand. One is responsible for an oil spill, another for despoiling a town’s water supply, and a third for releasing a drug onto the market that has horrible side effects. Part of what makes the movie interesting is that Marling isn’t a cop or a crusading journalist, but rather an agent for a private security firm. It made me think about the importance of who your main character works for in a story and what it means for their development (or lack thereof) as a character.

A lot of stories are about main characters solving some kind of mystery, figuring out the solution to some problem. It’s no surprise, then, that lots of stories have main characters whose jobs require them to solve those mysteries – cops, private detectives, journalists. It gives them not just a motivation for getting into the problem in the first place but a destination as well – an arrest, the confirmation of a dark secret, an expose article. But it can also give them interesting limitations, blinders, or obstacles to overcome.

The natural job for a character like Marling’s in The East would be a cop of some variety – a person tasked by society with taking down bad guys. A person who should, at least in theory, be motivated to serve justice and help people. We’ve seen that story before, however, so making Marling’s character a private security operative boxes her in interesting ways since she’s not working for society in general, but for specific clients.

There is a scene, for instance, where she winds up in a middle of a plot the group is pulling that will poison dozens of people at a drug exec’s party. When she realizes that and calls her boss for guidance, she’s gently reminded that the drug company is not their client, so she shouldn’t try to stop what’s happening, just keep gathering info for the client that actually hired her. It creates an extra amount of tension over what she’s going to do and why, which I thought worked pretty well.

I’ve been thinking about this as I work on the sequel to Moore Hollow.

Yeah, so, I’m doing a sequel to Moore Hollow, the first of many, I think (currently now being worked on around the final volume of the Unari Empire trilogy, Heroes of the Empire).

For the books going forward, Ben Potter, the disgraced journalist who is the main character of Moore Hollow, permanently relocates to West Virginia and throws himself into investigating the area’s rich tradition of beasties, legends, and general weirdness. In the second book, though, he hooks up with a lawyer to help represent a particular client. That will give him different motivations and restrictions than his normal work as a paranormal journalist. I hope to explore how those roles are different as the series goes forward and Ben sometimes does and sometimes doesn’t work with that attorney.

Of course, those choices don’t always work for every reader/viewer. Consider this view, from a review of The East:

Yet the biggest issue with The East is that Batmanglij and Marling so thoroughly rig the script in the environmentalists’ favor. By casting Marling as a corporate spy instead of a government agent, it sets up a fatally compromised situation where her bosses have the same profit motive as the companies being jammed. So choices that might be made in the name of justice are instead a matter of loyalty to one set of values that’s clearly more compromised than the other. Environmental activists like the ones in “The East” live by a code, but the same can’t be said of Sarah’s employer. Going native is easy when you don’t have to follow the letter of the law.

But for me, it’s precisely that lack of direction that makes the character (and her journey) interesting. In the end, I think she finds a lot of commonality between her employer and the would-be do-gooders.

What I’m saying is that, oftentimes, our main characters born out of what they’re going to do in our story. Still, it’s useful to think about the context in which they’re going to do it, which includes how they’re making a living. It can open up some interesting storytelling avenues.

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