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What is main character syndrome? asks Richard Godwin

Blog | By Richard Godwin | Jun 08, 2023

Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, drawing, Honoré Daumier (MET, 27.152.1)

Main character syndrome is when you find yourself behaving like the protagonist of some kooky Hollywood romcom. Or maybe it’s a French arthouse movie for you, a Taylor Swift video, or a novel by John Le Carré.

You imagine all the world is your stage and everyone you interact with is a supporting player. Not a medically recognised condition, it’s a way of investing each mundane interaction with cinematic grandeur and novelistic significance.

The term gained currency on pandemic-era TikTok, when millions of bored teenagers started uploading parodic videos, gently ironising their own humdrum lockdown routines. Some are funny deconstructions of common Hollywood tropes – the montage of the romcom heroine returning to her home town, for example.

Main character syndrome isn’t confined to TikTok. It is a widespread instinct in our self-conscious, media-saturated age.

And it goes back a long way. Duffy, the sad bank clerk in James Joyce’s story A Painful Case (1914), seems to suffer from it: ‘He had an odd autobiographical habit which led him to compose in his mind from time to time a short sentence about himself containing a subject in the third person and a predicate in the past tense.’

I remember my English teacher declaring this to be the behaviour of a ‘loon’ and my girlfriend and me turning to each other to say, ‘But we do that all the time!’

Vladimir Nabokov was alert to the syndrome, too. The unhappy hero of his story Signs and Symbols (1948) suffers from a condition called ‘referential mania,’ whereby ‘the patient imagines that everything happening around him is a veiled reference to his personality and existence’.

The archetype is Miguel de Cervantes’s 17th-century hero Don Quixote, who has read so many romances about knights in shining armour that he imagines himself to be one. Keith Waterhouse reinvents the form in Billy Liar (1959).

It isn’t easy having main character syndrome. ‘No one wanted him; he was outcast from life’s feast,’ Duffy muses in A Painful Case – another of those third-person past-tense sentences of his.

But there is also something rather consoling about it too. Are we not, after all, the main characters in our own lives? Is life not rendered all the more meaningful by our noticing all the little signs and symbols?

Walk around your town, pretending to be a film star – and tell me it isn’t an improvement.

Richard Godwin