So You Think You’re the Main Character
From Tiktok to "Cat Person" to autofiction, everyone wants to be at the center of the story
If you enjoy reading Electric Literature, join our mailing list! We’ll send you the best of EL each week, and you’ll be the first to know about upcoming submissions periods and virtual events.
Last week, Slate published an essay by a writer who claims to have inspired “Cat Person” by Kristen Roupenian, the viral 2017 short story. Alexis Nowicki says that the story contains details from her life and previous relationship, all used without her prior knowledge or consent. The Slate piece has rekindled an ever-smoldering conversation about the definition of autofiction; a genre that exists at the disputed border between fiction and nonfiction.
Roupenian never classified her short story as a work of autofiction. “It has always been important for my own well-being to draw a bright line, in public, between my personal life and my fiction,” Roupenian wrote in an email statement to Nowicki. But as soon as “Cat Person” was published, people were quick to ascribe autobiographical intent. Due to the story’s discourse-adjacent themes, as well as the gender of its author, the piece was routinely described as an essay or an article. Some readers assumed that the writer was using personal experience as a launch pad for a #MeToo take.
For Roupenian, the blurring of herself and her protagonist wasn’t just an issue of willful misreading. Because of the reactions the piece provoked, it became, in her mind, a matter of safety. “I have always felt that my insistence that the story was entirely fiction, and that I was not accusing any real-life individual of behaving badly, was all that stood between me and an outpouring of not only rage but potentially violence,” Roupenian told Nowicki.
In her essay, Nowicki describes the unsettling experience of realizing that she was the star of someone else’s story. She argues that “Cat Person” was an invasion of her privacy, explaining how acquaintances recognized her in the piece and made false, hurtful assumptions about her past relationship, based on a partial, fictionalized portrayal. Of course, Nowicki’s disclosure doesn’t take any of the focus off Roupenian. Instead, both the author and her muse went viral, becoming publicly exposed in ways that they could never have fully consented to. They’ve become the main characters of a new story, one that’s overpowered the original fiction.
I started binging TikTok last summer, during the peak of the pandemic and early days of the app’s “main character” trend. In these videos, creators emphasize, or imagine, that they are the main characters in their lives. This could consist of plugging oneself into an established TV or movie trope, or dramatizing a totally mundane moment. In one video, hashtagged “maincharacter,” the creator jokes about walking away from friends for a moment “to be the unique one.” Images of him sitting alone, dramatically staring off into the distance, flash over a Lana del Rey song. The caption on another clip reads, “I literally just ran through the field with this song it was cinematic it felt like nothing could stop me and I felt like the main character.”
It makes perfect sense that, at the height of quarantine, teenagers began inserting themselves into other, more compelling narratives. For the past year and more, as coronavirus cases waxed and waned around us, everyone has been talking about time—how it moves and how we move inside of it. Quarantine time was, somehow, both abundant and in short supply. For those of us privileged enough to stay home, days passed slowly, full of desolate hours, while months slipped by.
But this was never an issue of time so much as an issue of plot, or story. Time didn’t abscond, wasn’t passing slower or faster; we just lost our daily distractions from its passage. In The Art of Time in Fiction, Joan Silber describes time as an “agent” of plot. A character makes a decision and then time passes, forcing consequences. Seasons pass, and seed-choices bear fruit. What was missing from many of our quarantined existences was not the experience of time passing, but rather the presence of plot, of one event leading to another. This absence was at stark odds with the causality of the world beyond our quarantine bubbles. Out there, decisions, actions, fleeting moments of contact and exposure, all had serious, even deadly consequences. If we were lucky, we could afford to live in a room, in an apartment, where nothing much happened. Time moved forward, but didn’t yield the gifts or the consequences that we’ve grown accustomed to. Without narrative movement, and so little to do or decide, it became harder to see ourselves as the architects of our own lives.
Stuck in a plotless existence, with no action rising or climax in sight, TikTok users transformed themselves into characters compelling enough to carry such a story. On TikTok, reimagining your life as a work of art, and casting yourself in the starring role, is called romanticization—or delusion. In the literary world, we call it autofiction.
In autofiction, as on TikTok, artists position fictionalized versions of themselves against carefully constructed backdrops. These two genres exist at the intersection of solipsism and craft, a place where the “authentic” self is performed for a mass audience. Both forms seek to elevate the mundane, depicting experiences that nearly everyone can recognize. We read other fictions to escape or experiment, to meet characters we admire, lust after, or abhor. But a work of autofiction promises something closer to a home: a consciousness not unlike our own, navigating the mundane turns and sharper edges of our common world.
As some of us emerge and others stay enclosed, we can all relate to autofiction more easily than ever. At the heart of these novels, which often decentralize plot or outright forswear it, is a writer typing in a still room. In Patricia Lockwood’s recent novel, No One Is Talking About This, her fictional stand-in quips, “The plot! That was a laugh. The plot was that she sat motionless in her chair.” In last year’s Drifts, Kate Zambreno describes the novel she is writing, the one we are now reading, as “a memoir about nothing.” In between thinking about writing her book and thinking about how she is failing to write her book, Zambreno’s protagonist cries and masturbates, watches movies and windows and neighborhood cats. While not technically pandemic novels, these works of autofiction arrived just in time. Like a main character video, they allowed us to imagine that our plotless lives might still have meaning. They suggested that there was still art, or at least the potential for art, in all those dark pandemic days, the ones that felt like we were just barely existing.
Of course, most of us know that our lived realities do not merit fictionalization. But autofiction, like social media, can be aspirational (and just a bit delusional). If authors can be main characters, then maybe we can too.
Inherent to TikTok, and perhaps autofiction as well, is the notion that main character is a desirable role. We all want to be stars, social media assumes. We want to stomp down the street to a film score, to never be without flattering lighting, adoring fans, or a wind machine to blow our hair. And when it comes to fiction, who wouldn’t want to be both the artist and the muse? To be reassured not just that your life is worth reading, but that your internal narration and witty asides are actually the stuff of literary greatness?
But there is a downside to starring in your own fiction. In the past, novelists have largely been able to avoid the kind of stress, exhaustion, and exposure that routinely plagues social media personalities. Unlike lifestyle influencers, writers of autofiction have maintained an air of mystery. They’re not in the business of teary-eyed confessionals or incessant life updates. No matter how personal their work, they’ve always been able to cry fiction.
In his 2014 novel 10:04, Ben Lerner deliberately blurs the lines between his “real” self and his fictionalized narrator, who shares his name. 10:04, like Drifts, is simultaneously a novel and the account of crafting said novel. The protagonist, like Lerner himself, is attempting to expand a story that he wrote for The New Yorker. As events unfold, we’re constantly led to question the veracity of the story; whether these things actually happened to Lerner or are just plot points he’s considering.
At one point, rhapsodizing about his novel in progress, Lerner writes, “I’ll project myself into several futures simultaneously.” How fun, and how convenient. It’s the oldest trick in the action movie: flood the enemy with dupes, dummies, and clones. They’ll never know which one is real, and you can creep past all those doppelgangers to emerge unscathed.
In a recent interview with Bomb, Kate Zambreno says that she “writes narratives in which there is an I who is me and not me.” Zambreno adds, “The tradition is not something I’m inventing.” That’s true, of course: autofiction, by any other name, has existed for centuries. But writers are now expected to post a kind of autofiction daily, in addition to their published work. For young writers and journalists, maintaining a social media presence is increasingly non-negotiable. In addition to any fictional avatars they might want to manifest in their work, they also have to project a version of themselves onto their Instagram and Twitter feeds. In a New Yorker piece on the “main character” TikTok trend, Kyle Chayka notes, “Influencers have to be main characters around the clock.” Increasingly, so do writers.
While authors like Lerner might deliberately obscure the seam between fact and fiction, readers now have their own methods of demystification. As Lockwood notes, “I think we’re in a position to better be able to tell when something is autofiction because people’s lives are more online. You can go back through my timeline and see where the real me is experiencing things that eventually make it into the novel.” Readers don’t need to wait for, or be limited to, an author’s disclosures. They can compare any writer’s work to their feeds, inferring what is real and what is fabrication.
Now that authors are expected to become brands themselves, they have less control over when and how they adopt a starring role. What was once a choice—to maintain a demanding social media presence, or to be the main character of your own work—feels increasingly inevitable. If you’ve borrowed details from real life, or if your writing is in any way autobiographical, readers may very well trace the fiction back to its source, even if you’ve tried to fictionalize or obfuscate. In a post-privacy world, we’re all writing autofiction, whether we like it or not.