In psychology, Main Character Syndrome is described as being… well, it actually doesn’t exist as a diagnosable mental illness, at least not in the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual. As it turns out, “Main Character Syndrome” exists only in the overactive — and healthily deluded — minds of the internet’s many self-identified protagonists. But while Main Character Syndrome — a situation wherein people think of themselves as being the top-billed star of the feature film that is their regular lives — might sound like the kind of distorted sense of reality digitally averse boomers warn everyone under the age of 30 about, Main Character Syndrome is also an important coping technique — and it’s how we’ve collectively chosen to process this past year.
People who have Main Character Syndrome think life is a movie and embrace the memes that encourage this outlook, saying things like: “you have to start romanticizing your life.” It’s a departure from reality, and it’s little wonder that “main character” can also be used as an insult to describe a person who thinks everyone is as obsessed with them as they are with themselves. It’s become so common, in fact, that people who are insecure and feel like they’re becoming a parody of their own personality, have even started declaring that they are #NotTheMainCharacter — the latest main character trend to take over TikTok.
Whether you resist or embrace the designation of “main character,” what’s clear is that, during the pandemic, main character memes have helped us to accept life’s highs and lows as entertaining plot developments, to consider our misfortunes proof of the importance of our story, and to justify indulgence as being key to our archetypal hero’s journey. It’s no coincidence that the earliest main character meme to go viral came out in May 2020: a TikToker had “hunkered down” in her childhood home and her daily walks through her neighborhood served to remind her — and her whole block, apparently — that all this is her story. “This is the time that I walk through my neighborhood, to remind everyone in my neighborhood that I’m the main character in this neighborhood,” they sing, in the video. “Look at me! No, look away! No, look at me! Ah!”
But to call Main Character Syndrome a recent trend would erase years of meme history and centuries of narcissism in our culture. While Main Character Syndrome is a predictable byproduct of modern life, with social media prompting us to build a character our followers will like, people have thought themselves the protagonists of the fictionalized story of their lives for ages, since the first (y/n) of fanfiction was created, since the first novel was written, and even since the first people gathered around campfires and talked about their days. But what’s special about Main Character Syndrome now is how inclined we are toward being self-referential; it’s as much a meme as it is a thesis of this moment.
The funniest, most relatable, and laser-accurate main character memes are the ones that remind us of all the ways our teen, tween, and childhood selves truly thought we were living in a Disney Channel movie. Yasmine Sahid is a 24-year-old creator based out of L.A., and she’s largely responsible for the success and longevity of the main character meme. “We've all had that main character moment in our life that we just... we don't want to acknowledge,” she says. Sahid’s top hits include “me landing home as the main character of this tiny town” and “coming home from my liberal arts school as the ‘alternative’ main character.” She explains that it’s the clumsy attempts to fit in that make a main character annoying. “In every fanfiction you read, in every movie,” Sahid explains, “all the attention is drawn to that person and that's why she gets into her shenanigans because she's trying to blend in — but then One Direction noticed her.”
Another pioneer of the main character TikTok is @DaiseyGorgeous, whom Sahid cites as an inspiration. Best-known for the Debby Ryan-style hair tuck he does to the tune of Lana del Rey’s “Mariners Apartment Complex,” his main characters explicitly want to attract attention — they just want to hide the fact that they’re trying so hard. In school halls, in library stacks, at the mall, at the airport, the main character meme teaches us that every part of our existence is performance, and where there is a performance, there is an audience.
This past year, online became the most COVID-safe place to live out our every thought, vice, conversation, decision, and purchase. We all became more watchable than ever and everything we did was documented and packaged into data to be distributed to hundreds, if not thousands of eyes — or more. Being seen meant we still existed outside of the constraining walls of our homes. Suddenly, even Netflix's innocuous “Are you still there” message stopped giving only Big Brother vibes, and also, maybe, provided actual comfort, a reminder that someone was out there. It was like the meme where we all talk to our assigned FBI agents through our computer cameras had come to life.
Being watched — surveilled, stalked, followed — are all nominally “bad things,” and yet, we love being noticed. The “main character” meme indulges that desire to be seen — its relatability comes from how we all want a cute crush to lock eyes with us as we drudge through life, we want celebrities to spot us at concerts, we want to be singled out for being exceptional. After all, without an audience to witness it, does the main character make a sound when she falls into her crush’s arms in the cafeteria? We all crave some confirmation that, yes, our lives only seem to be ordinary and unremarkable, but they’re actually part of a greater story — the greatest story ever told.
Main character memes cut across platforms to unveil the shakiness at the core of our identities, the kind of uncertainty that only a hero’s journey can cure. It doesn’t matter if we don’t know our personal aesthetics, career goals, or genders, all main characters begin their stories as a huge question mark — just like us. Not having the answers is fine as long as the plot keeps moving, for the sake of our viewers’ entertainment and our own validation. Because if people (or corporations or governments) are watching, that means we matter. We wake up every morning with the very basic understanding that there is a reason for us to keep going — or, at least, for the show to go on.