Main character syndrome is illustrated by a spotlighted book with blank pages in the place of a movie theater screen, suspended in front of an audience.

Main Character Syndrome and the Beauty of ‘Performance’

The popular idea that we are all writing our own stories may seem self-centered, but it can inspire us all to act gracefully.
July 25, 2021
6 mins read

To celebrate turning 14, as per tradition, I hosted a book exchange between myself and a few of my closest friends. I came away with a fantasy novel titled “The Name of the Wind.” Upon a strong recommendation from the book giver, I started it that night and was quickly sucked into its stunning world, so much so that I finished it sometime around dawn. My biggest takeaway was, as a supremely self-confident adolescent male, that we all have the ability to control and form our own “legend” that exists in the minds of the people who surround us.

I entered high school a week later, and with no older siblings to have made the splash before me, I decided it was my duty to begin building my own personal mythos. On the first day of school, this undertaking commenced: I strove to form my hand-crafted reputation as I performed in orchestra, math, English, science and extracurriculars. My goal was undisputed domination, similar to the main character of “The Name of the Wind,” and I did everything in my power to achieve it. In hindsight, this feels awfully symptomatic of the newly trendy diagnosis known as “main character syndrome,” popularized through memes and satirical TikToks but symbolic of the often mocked self-obsessed nature of Gen Z.

Urban Dictionary defines main character syndrome as such: “When someone thinks they are the main character of their life. Usually comes with a side of individuality complex, quirky style and a self-centered point of view.” There is an understanding that Gen Zers possess an all-too-acute knowledge that they are the main characters of their own stories, and a similar feeling that some of us think we are not only our own main character, but the main characters of others’ stories as well. Although most references to the condition are tongue-in-cheek, even humorous callbacks to the semi-real diagnosis reveal an underlying concern or aspiration: Why is it that we — Gen Zers or simply people in general — are so obsessed with being the “main character”?

A few years after the debacle that was my freshman year of high school, I realized I strongly believe that nearly everything I do or anyone else does can hold a degree of aesthetic splendor. Sometimes it is tangible: In my introductory computer science class, for example, 10% of each project grade depended on the ever-elusive “style” of the code you turned in. Other times it is far less easy to pin down and quantify: As I, a novice, watch the best climbers at my local gym work on their immensely difficult projects, I recognize those who climb beautifully and those who don’t, but often have no justification for such strong feelings toward their climbing styles. Whether reading, writing, solving math problems, climbing, biking, running, cooking or doing literally anything else, there is a radiant way to do it.

At the bakery where I work, the owner, a seasoned practitioner of bread and pastry, constantly tells me and the other assistant bakers to “look professional” while we work the oven. No matter how good the product looks or tastes, while shuttling bread and pastries through the oven, it is still important to look like we are making elegant food, too. In all things, the aesthetic, the “how” of how you do something, is key. I believe that nearly anything can be done magnificently. Tied directly to this, I believe that we should all strive to do everything we possibly can as beautifully as we can manage.

When referring to the skill with which one completes a task, the word often used is “performance.” “How did he perform on the test?” “She’s a high-performing athlete.” “They perform well under pressure.” The word, when searched, holds two definitions, one centered around task completion and the other on presentation to an audience. This double meaning solidifies my belief about the aesthetics of doing.

At any moment, I am a performer. I “perform” tasks, both completing them and presenting a beautiful product as I do so. As I shape a baguette, I am not simply folding, pressing, rolling and stretching dough: I am moving with either grace or ineptitude. I am the main character of each tiny act, and there is no audience needed.

Beauty does not need to be perceived to exist. There is a deep satisfaction found in performing a piano piece to a perfectly empty house or clearing a technical passage of trail on my mountain bike alone at sunset. Although unperceived by an outside audience, the grandeur still exists, and that is enough. We each are the main characters of our own stories, as long or short as we wish them to be, and whether or not they are read, seen or heard, a recognition of the “performative” nature of life can remind us of the value of striving for brilliance in all the little things we do.

I no longer believe that I need to act a certain way to present myself as the biggest fish in whatever pond I am in. I’m not subconsciously attempting to establish myself academically and socially and I’m happy to not feel the pressure of performance as crushingly as I did when it felt like my entire sense of self was predicated on academic, musical or athletic success.

Instead, the concept of main character syndrome helps me relish performance in a different sense. I lean into each moment’s opportunity to perform a small act beautifully, whether it is in a kitchen, on a trail, in front of a keyboard or on the climbing wall. I perform for myself and for the world in a larger sense than for any set of eyes.

The satirical obsession with main character syndrome says something about what TikTok, memes and I really think; it tells me that I am the protagonist of an unnarrated and often unread story. Despite that, the perception of telling a story is what inspires me to perform, and the beauty in performance is what makes each everyday task and activity something to care for.

Mason Cannon, Columbia University

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Mason Cannon

Columbia University

Hailing from the Southwest, Mason is an avid baker, recreational cyclist and committed indie-head. Although he is unsure of what he will study, he is interested in writing, math, computer science and English.

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