TikTok is teaching Gen Z what it really means to be the main character
If you don't know what being the main character means, you're probably not the main character.
Driving with the windows rolled down and your favourite music blasting (extra points if it’s at sunset). Running into the ocean with your friends. Stargazing. Having a solo dance party in your room. Watching fireworks. Riding a bike at night with someone you care about. Those are the moments of fleeting yet intense elation that people recounted in the comment section of a TikTok video by user @pilardejesuss, in which she asks to “describe a time you’ve felt like a main character in a movie.”
Clips about being or feeling like the protagonist of your own story -- as well as “romanticising your life” -- abound on the video platform. At the time of writing, #maincharacter has 4.7 billion views on TikTok, with #romanticizeyourlife boasting 14.4 million. While it’s difficult to pinpoint the start of the trend, Distractify suggests that it started taking off with a video released on 11th May 2020 by user @lexaprolesbian, in which she creates a playful song about letting everyone know she’s the main character in her neighbourhood. Since then, Gen Z has been doing what they do best: building a whole internet phenomenon out of thin air.
But what does being the main character mean, exactly? And more importantly, how can you find out if you’re the main character, or just a supporting role in your own life? Well, the concept can be broken down into three intersecting aspects. Firstly, for 21-year-old TikTok creator @jonathantanigaki, it’s an energy that someone gives off, a “natural pull of attention” that anyone can radiate and which can be immediately recognised in others. “You’re the main character” and its variant “you’re Heather” — meaning that you’re the popular girl everyone wants to be — are ubiquitous compliments in TikTok comment sections. Secondly, being the main character is a mindset, a lens through which to see the world that encourages you to confidently take charge of your personal narrative. Finally, it can also be, and often is, a way to gently poke fun at your own narcissism.
Depending on what TikTok’s algorithm presents your FYP with, the tone of main character content will oscillate from inspirational to relatable, from earnest to ironic. On the more wholesome side, there are countless ‘motivational’ TikToks inciting you to seize the day, embrace the one life you were given, and do the things that scare you. “I think the idea of romanticising your life as if you are the main character in a movie can be very empowering,” says 19-year-old Isabella. “It makes you realise that you’re in control of your life and that you get to choose how to live it.”
Perhaps the epitome of inspirational main character content is a now viral soundbite from Ashley Ward, which was created on 26th May 2020 and has since been used in over 93,000 videos. With a harp melody in the background, she says: “You have to start romanticising your life. You have to start thinking of yourself as the main character. ‘Cause if you don’t, life will continue to pass you by, and all the little things that make it so beautiful, will continue to go unnoticed. So, take a second and look around, and realise that it’s a blessing for you to be here right now.”
Lovely, right? Sure, but, as with every trend on TikTok, also very easily parodied. A voice effect mirroring Ashley’s sound was recently made available, allowing users to run wild with spoofs of her motivational advice. Once you encounter those videos, you know you’ve crossed the bridge from the earnest to the more ironic side of main character discourse. That’s where you’ll find a whole host of lighthearted, slightly self-deprecating, and relatable videos — including jokes about romanticising trips to the kitchen for yet another beer, being the extra in a room full of main characters, and various tribulations counting as “character development”.
But no matter how different they are, all iterations of the trend hint at a foundational idea: we all feel like the main character in our own lives, at least sometimes, and we certainly want to think of ourselves in that way more often than we’d like to admit. “I think it’s a subconscious part of who we are as humans to think we are always the centre of the universe,” says Drew, 19, a student at Wofford College, South Carolina. But is that mentality normal? Is it an example of how younger generations are embracing self-love and self-respect, or a worrying slide into self-obsession and narcissism.
For Michael Karson, a professor of psychology at the University of Denver, figuring out where you fit within your environment is integral to successfully navigating that environment, and learning how to manage your life. “I think it's natural for people to question whether they are important enough in their own narrative, and natural for people to learn how to blend their own narrative in a network of relationships," he says. So while the terminology might be specific to 2020 internet speak, then, feeling like the main character is nothing really out of the ordinary in the wider spectrum of human behaviour.
Karson clarifies however that while normal, it’s actually “not that common”. So why did the trend become so popular? Ashley Ward has a theory about why her sound blew up so much: “I feel like it inspired people to look back and reminisce on life before quarantine while also reminding them to make the most of life no matter the circumstances.” The fact that the main character discourse took off on the app around May, when lockdowns were in full force across the world, is indeed not incidental. Nostalgia for past adventures is a predictable response to your world suddenly and indefinitely shrinking to the four walls of your house.
Finding the magic in the mundane can also become a creative way to cope with a world that’s become overwhelming. 17-year-old Diana, says that romanticising everyday activities, like her skincare routine, not only adds “a little spice to life, it also helps with loneliness and anxiety. “I think it's a way to fill this emptiness in us that questions what the point of life is,” she says. Understanding the things you go through as following a narrative arc that will necessarily bend towards a resolution can also be quite comforting. Feeling like the main character reminds Diana that challenges are temporary and ultimately fixable: “It makes my anxiety about all my problems slowly dissolve.”
However, Karson worries that — no matter how helpful it is in riding out an epidemic of 2020-induced existential crises — a protagonist mindset could, if left unchecked, “exacerbate narcissistic tendencies and encourage selfish attitudes.” And in a year when we’re encouraged to spend more time thinking of protecting others, and rediscovering the importance of collectivism, that’s probably not a good thing. Creators themselves, however, disagree. “Being the main character in your own life doesn't mean you can't be a supportive co-star in somebody else's,” says Ashley.
And perhaps she’s onto something. Thinking of yourself as the star of the show, either earnestly or ironically, isn’t necessarily synonymous with relegating other people in your life to the background. What the trend indicates isn’t self-absorption as much as it is a search for connection. Through providing inspiration and entertainment around a common experience, TikTokers don’t seek to steal the spotlight; they strive to share it.