Something transformative is happening across the Internet. The protagonists that lockdowns built are retiring from the game, trading in the responsibility and glorified mess of main character syndrome to adopt something a little more playful: side character energy.
Following the formulaic tropes of rom-com character hierarchy, people of the Internet are leaving behind their Carrie Bradshaw goals for the carefree and detached — but aesthetically on point — vibes offered by the Samantha Joneses of the world.
Led by TikToker Lola (@lolaokola), the screenwriter went viral for her denouncement of MDS, explaining that she no longer wants to deal with the trappings of character development and insidious narcissism. “The vibe is: beloved side character with great outfits and funny one-liners,” she says. “I will not go through any character development, nor will I grow as a person.”
“I’m here to be funny and sexy. Period”
Naturally, thousands jumped on board, with comments demanding a “one-dimensional” summer and cementing the start of their “Karen from Will & Grace wave.” And of course, comment sections have been awash with Hollywood's favourite side character: Judy Greer.
So, why are we ditching the starring role?
As one R29 writer explained, main character syndrome (MCS) describes a situation wherein “people think of themselves as being the top-billed star of the feature film that is their regular lives.” And during such turbulent times, it’s no wonder people wanted to reframe their problems as mere narrative hurdles, all part of a bigger, more idealistic picture that ultimately leads to a happy ending.
“People with Main Character Syndrome think life is a movie and embrace the memes that encourage this outlook, saying things like: 'you have to start romanticising your life',” writes Michelle Santiago Cortés. But while ‘side character energy’ was originally used as a self-deprecating term to describe people who feel they take a backseat in the more eventful lives of their friends, the concept is now being embraced, and we're beginning to clock that life's a little lighter when you take a step back.
Characterised by being untroubled and brimming with witty rejoinders, traditional side characters tend to be the self-assured ones, the support characters who don’t need to engage in the dramatic character arcs because they're perfectly content with their independence — not to mention they tend to make better choices because of their impartiality.
A byproduct of the pandemic, MCS was somewhat of a coping mechanism — because with so much going on, if we weren’t romanticising life then we were at risk of being overwhelmed by it. Our dependence on social media throughout lockdowns certainly drove the rise of MCS, compelling us to craft our lives as attractive stories people will want to follow. But the confusion, uncertainty and moral pressure of being the main character is exhausting, and we’re kind of over it. Where in lockdowns it felt like things didn’t really matter without an audience, we’re now removing ourselves from the spotlight.
We’ve been actively working on ourselves for long enough. Staying active, informed, polite and taking the high road at every turn. We deserve a break, a solid era where, ideally, our only responsibility is to look cute, be appreciated for our comedy and dish out inconsequential advice for other people’s problems. We don’t want to be noticed by the flawed love interest or pushed hardest by a boss who ‘sees something’ in us, and we certainly don’t want to engage in unnecessary drama when there’s low-stakes fun to be had instead.
Sure, it's still nice to believe that life serves us with adversities and hurdles to grow from, in order to keep from spiralling, but after the last few years we’ve had, we think everyone’s had just about enough ‘character development’ for a while. Hence, we're bidding adieu to the character arcs, intentionally sidelining ourselves in life’s winding plots.
Bottomless cosmopolitans and light-hearted amusement aside, the crux of it all is that side character energy is a choice and not the result of people railroading you into backup dancer territory. Sometimes, when we surround ourselves with rampant main characters, we can indirectly be pushed to become the supporting stars in the lives of our friends. As psychotherapist Abby Rawlinson MBACP told Well + Good, “When you’re not tending to yourself, feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem often show up.”
“There’s definitely a dance we do in healthy, balanced relationships where sometimes we step back and lift other people up,” she says. “But when we need to, we’re still able to step forward into the spotlight.”
Embracing side character energy is not about trivialising your problems, accepting defeat or viewing yourself as unworthy of attention, but just about owning your time on this silly little planet and not taking your journey so seriously. So go on, pour yourself a cocktail and brush up on your innuendos because it’s the season of the side character.