Who’s the Main Character in TITANIC?

titanicBlog reader “Twilight” asked the following question:

“I must ask something here about who is the main character in Titanic. All the time I though it was Rose, because she is the character who drives the story, or?

I also think I have read from others like Michael Haug that Rose is the Main Character.

So please tell me how you think.”

This has been a topic of some discussion for me for several years. I used to believe that Jack was the main character based on certain principles, but I’ve heard people argue (effectively) that Rose is the main character. It’s fascinating to me that it’s even a question in my mind.  I’ll outline the principles I use to help determine main character  so you can see why this is the question for me that it is:

Principle #1 – The final battle of every good story is always “The Good Guy vs the Bad Guy over the Stakes.” In TITANIC it’s Jack and Cal over Rose, meaning Jack’s the main character. THE WINNER — JACK. 

Principle #2 – The main character is the one who changes the most from the start of the film to the end. Jack appears to change the most; he goes from a loveless drifter to committed boyfriend to dead, which is a pretty big change. However, Rose also changes from someone trapped in her life and stifled to liberated. THE WINNER — A TIE. 

Principle #3 – The main character is exactly like the main opponent, but with a moral center. The antagonist is who the protagonist IS IN DANGER OF BECOMING if he or she loses that moral center. And often, the antagonist is doing EXACTLY what the protagonist WISHES in their darkest of hearts he or she could do but doesn’t because of that moral center.  In DIE HARD, John Maclean’s dark wish would be to kill his wife’s boss, take her by force, and blow up her office building…which is exactly what Hans Gruber is doing.  In RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK, Indiana Jones is so much  like the bad archeologist Belloq that even Belloq calls him on it.  Is Batman really THAT different than the Joker?  

In TITANIC, if Cal is our antagonist, who is like him but with a moral center?  Rose is like him in status, but Jack is like him in desire.  He wants Rose and is as committed to being with her as Cal is, however Jack is moral and Cal isn’t.  Could Jack ever become like Cal if he loses his moral center?  The scene where both he and Cal stand together after convincing Rose to get on the lifeboat sticks in my mind because Jack is just as guilty of being protective of her as Cal is, neither taking into account HER feelings.  Could Rose become like Cal if she loses her moral center?  No, because she’s ready to kill herself before that can happen.  THE WINNER — JACK.

Principle #4 – The main character drives the action.  Jack and Rose take turns driving the action.  It’s his decision to save her life when she’s ready to commit suicide.  It’s her decision to be sketched in the nude.   It’s her decision to get off TITANIC in New York with him.  It’s his decision to martyr himself.  Still, she makes some of the most major plot decisions.  THE WINNER — ROSE, BY A HAIR.

Principle #5 – The main character usually gets the biggest martyr moment at the end.  While Rose gives up a life of leisure, she doesn’t give up her life as Jack does.  THE WINNER — JACK.

So, who’s the main character?  To be honest, I’m still not sure that it’s clear in my mind. Empirically it seems that the evidence points to Jack more strongly than it does to Rose, yet…

Is it possible that Rose is the main character and Jack is the ‘traveling angel’ who changes her life?  Is it possible that Jack is the main character and Rose is the innocent who needs rescuing? Is it possible that they’re both the main character?  

Even with all I’ve written and all I know I’m not sure of the answer, and that intrigues me.  Some very smart people say that Rose is the main character.  They might be right.  My head says Jack, but my heart says Rose.

The real question is ‘what can we, as writers, learn from this?’

TITANIC was a cultural phenomenon.  It was the right movie, at the right time and was a stunning ode to the art of movie making.  What hardly anyone thinks is that it was a well-written script.  In fact, many of the reviews were scathing about the writing.   Of course, success is the best revenge so nobody should feel too badly for Mr. Cameron.   But is it also possible that the lack of clear focus on the main character is a failing and not a virtue?  Is it conceivable that the movie could have been even better with more clarity on the main character?

To me, the biggest takeaway from this question is that if we were writing TITANIC, we should clearly choose either Jack or Rose as the main character and run with that choice.  Not being clear is not an option when you’re trying to launch your career.  

As you can see from all I’ve written, I’m wide open to thinking and rethinking about this question, so…what do YOU think?

14 Responses to “Who’s the Main Character in TITANIC?”

  1. twilight January 22, 2009 at 2:28 pm #

    I must say – WOW and THANKS for this BIG answer. Now I really understand what you mean and yes I can agree, and most of all make me think again 🙂

    Many thanks, a million of them.

  2. Nick January 22, 2009 at 3:06 pm #

    Perhaps this may be amiss, but how do we analyze Titanic given that the present-day story deals with the expedition ship and the entire story of Rose and Jack and the Titanic is told in flashback? The only character to show up in both is Rose – (at least in real time, and not by virtue of memory). Additionally, it almost seems as if Titanic flashback story was Rose’s B-Story, or the vehicle which impacts her to do what she does at the end of the film. I think one reason why Titanic has been so powerful a film for me is because the events of both past and present seem to work together somehow to produce the carthasis moment of when Rose, at the film’s end – throws the necklace overboard. Man, that one had me gripping the seat, and the tears were flowing. That, to me, was one of the most powerful moments I can think of in cinema. It’s like everything that led up to that was a vehicle, in some way, to achieve that moment. Of course, I have not really answered the question. 🙂

  3. totallywrite January 22, 2009 at 3:18 pm #

    The present day scenes are really just a framing device for the film. The movie would probably have done just as well if it was all set in 1912.

  4. Gil Evans January 26, 2009 at 2:48 pm #

    I’ve gone back and forth on this one, too…for years, but there’s really only one answer and that’s that there are two genres being combined in Titanic. There’s a disaster film aspect, and Rose is the main character there, she saves Jack who’s handcuffed below decks as the ship sinks. And then there’s the love story, where Jack is the main character, he saves Rose, twice as it turns out. I think that’s why the film is so tricky from this point of view, it’s a mixed genre…two stories, actually. Three if you throw in the wrap around modern day story.

  5. Zoren April 23, 2009 at 12:35 am #

    Rose is the main Character in the movie but in her narration jack is the main character. so that makes them both main character in different perspective.

    • totallywrite April 23, 2009 at 8:40 pm #

      Elegant answer!

  6. Bren April 28, 2010 at 2:15 pm #

    Titanic is a disaster movie, but it is also a romantic fairy tale about ROSE breaking free from the family-related curse (her forced marriage). As such, Rose is the protagonist. Jack is the ANTAGONIST, the one who causes Rose to change. Cal is the villain, not to be confused with the antagonist. The decision to break free belongs to Rose. However, as a romance, Jack is the other romantic lead, and is given a great character arc too, one that helps completes Rose’s journey. If Jack had lived, she would have followed Jack as she was following Cal, so his sacrificial death allows her to break free from the romantic misconception that she’s only complete with a man. So, she gets to have her full life, and reunite with Jack at the end. Great storytelling.

  7. Dominick July 10, 2010 at 8:10 pm #

    Hi,

    It sounds strange but I think “the titanic” is the main character.
    It sounds strange but if we look at it from a theoretical point of view:

    The good guy vs the bad guy : The titanic vs the icebergs.
    The main character who changed the most from the start of the film until the end: Titanic. She started out as the mighty and powerful destroyable ship and at the end she “died”.

  8. Dominick July 10, 2010 at 8:10 pm #

    Hi,

    It sounds strange but I think “the titanic” is the main character.
    It sounds strange but if we look at it from a theoretical point of view:

    The good guy vs the bad guy : The titanic vs the icebergs.
    The main character who changed the most from the start of the film until the end: Titanic. She started out as the mighty and powerful destroyable ship and at the end she “died”.

  9. Roger May 19, 2011 at 3:43 pm #

    You can compare “Titanic” to “Walkabout”, where the “Rose” MAIN character of the Girl – saved also by a self-sacrifing love interest (the Boy) ends the movie in real time AND with a flashback.

  10. Roger May 19, 2011 at 3:43 pm #

    You can compare “Titanic” to “Walkabout”, where the “Rose” MAIN character of the Girl – saved also by a self-sacrifing love interest (the Boy) ends the movie in real time AND with a flashback.

  11. Dramatica fan May 23, 2011 at 9:08 pm #

    I think people are confusing three very different definitions here: Main Character (MC), Protagonist and HERO.

    If anyone is familiar with these concepts from the Dramatica Theory, they’ll easily identify Rose as the MC (the “eyes” of the story… flashback or no flashback) and Jack as the Protagonist (“driver” of the story, making things happen).

    If one of them was chosen by J. Cameron as both the “eyes” and the “driver”, then that character would be referred to as the Hero. Matt Damon’s characters in all the Bourne movies and his latest, “The Adjustment Bureau”, fit the bill of a Hero perfectly.

    Rose is not the classical Hero because she doesn’t force the key events to happen. Jack does. He actively wins the trip tickets at a poker game, literally jumps onto the ship in the last second (no Jack on board, no love sub-genre, just a plain disaster movie), he talks Rose off the ledge, later invites her into his world on the lower deck where she discovers there are good emotions in life, not just upper-class boredom and once the iceberg hits, he leads the way through the water-filled ship.

    There are scenes, in which Rose makes Decisions (standing up to her mother and reconsidering the marriage to Cal) or takes Actions (jumping back onto the ship as the rescue boat is being lowered) but that is a physical manifestation of her Character Arc. She would not have done that without Jack in her life. This is because in a Love Story (the Titanic sub-genre), the love interest (from Rose’s POV that would be Jack) is also the Impact Character to her Main Character. He is the one who presented her with an alternative POV and caused her to undergo a change. We, in the audience, identified with Rose from the beginning and wanted her to give up marrying into money. The iceberg was just the catalyst for her to make that decision faster. If the Titanic arrived in NY before she had made up her mind to leave Cal, may be she would have sacrificed her love for Jack, to ensure the means for her aging mother… so for the purposes of this blockbuster… good thing the big boat got blasted.

    Last thoughts and examples:
    1. I disagree – MC doesn’t always drive the story. Protagonists do. MC is just the character that the audience will inhabit for the purpose of each story.
    2. When the writer combines and MC and a Protag – you get a HERO.
    3. The Antagonist always embodies the opposing view and actively sabotages the MC or the Hero. There is no splitting of POV and counteractions. Sometimes there are Henchmen involved for some of the counteraction stuff but they only act on the authority of the Antagonist or at least his implied blessing.

    Die Hard movies: McLane (Bruce Willis) is a Hero. We experience the action through his POV and he drives all the rescue efforts

    Twilight: MC – Bella; Protag – Edward

    Limitless: Eddie Morra (Brad Cooper) – Hero

    Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang: the young mother, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal is the MC, while Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson) is the Protag

    The Tourist: MC – Elize; Protag – Alexander/Frank

    The Client: MC – Reggie Love (Susan Sarandon); Protag – Mark Sway (Brad Renfro)

    Rainman: Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) – Hero
    In most of his movies (all of the Mission Impossible; The Last Samurai… any action movie really), Tom Cruise tends to lean towards Hero-type characters. Not so with Knight and Day: MC – June (Cameron Diaz); Protag – John Milner (Tom Cruise)

    The Silence of the Lambs: Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) – Hero

    Kill Bill: The Bride (Uma Thurman) – Hero

    So next time you wonder who’s the MC, just ask yourself, whose eyes do you see the story through? If they also drive key events with their decisions/actions, that makes them not just the MC but also the Hero. Aileen Wuornos (Charlize Theron) is the Hero in Monster because she both narrates her own story and does all the killing and evading. Doesn’t matter that she’s not a likable character, we identify with her and empathize with her pain and regret when she kills her last victim even though she doesn’t want to. The writer has achieved a perfect blend for the audience of both POV and emotions.

    That’s all she wrote…

  12. Dramatica fan May 23, 2011 at 9:08 pm #

    I think people are confusing three very different definitions here: Main Character (MC), Protagonist and HERO.

    If anyone is familiar with these concepts from the Dramatica Theory, they’ll easily identify Rose as the MC (the “eyes” of the story… flashback or no flashback) and Jack as the Protagonist (“driver” of the story, making things happen).

    If one of them was chosen by J. Cameron as both the “eyes” and the “driver”, then that character would be referred to as the Hero. Matt Damon’s characters in all the Bourne movies and his latest, “The Adjustment Bureau”, fit the bill of a Hero perfectly.

    Rose is not the classical Hero because she doesn’t force the key events to happen. Jack does. He actively wins the trip tickets at a poker game, literally jumps onto the ship in the last second (no Jack on board, no love sub-genre, just a plain disaster movie), he talks Rose off the ledge, later invites her into his world on the lower deck where she discovers there are good emotions in life, not just upper-class boredom and once the iceberg hits, he leads the way through the water-filled ship.

    There are scenes, in which Rose makes Decisions (standing up to her mother and reconsidering the marriage to Cal) or takes Actions (jumping back onto the ship as the rescue boat is being lowered) but that is a physical manifestation of her Character Arc. She would not have done that without Jack in her life. This is because in a Love Story (the Titanic sub-genre), the love interest (from Rose’s POV that would be Jack) is also the Impact Character to her Main Character. He is the one who presented her with an alternative POV and caused her to undergo a change. We, in the audience, identified with Rose from the beginning and wanted her to give up marrying into money. The iceberg was just the catalyst for her to make that decision faster. If the Titanic arrived in NY before she had made up her mind to leave Cal, may be she would have sacrificed her love for Jack, to ensure the means for her aging mother… so for the purposes of this blockbuster… good thing the big boat got blasted.

    Last thoughts and examples:
    1. I disagree – MC doesn’t always drive the story. Protagonists do. MC is just the character that the audience will inhabit for the purpose of each story.
    2. When the writer combines and MC and a Protag – you get a HERO.
    3. The Antagonist always embodies the opposing view and actively sabotages the MC or the Hero. There is no splitting of POV and counteractions. Sometimes there are Henchmen involved for some of the counteraction stuff but they only act on the authority of the Antagonist or at least his implied blessing.

    Die Hard movies: McLane (Bruce Willis) is a Hero. We experience the action through his POV and he drives all the rescue efforts

    Twilight: MC – Bella; Protag – Edward

    Limitless: Eddie Morra (Brad Cooper) – Hero

    Nanny McPhee and the Big Bang: the young mother, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal is the MC, while Nanny McPhee (Emma Thompson) is the Protag

    The Tourist: MC – Elize; Protag – Alexander/Frank

    The Client: MC – Reggie Love (Susan Sarandon); Protag – Mark Sway (Brad Renfro)

    Rainman: Charlie Babbitt (Tom Cruise) – Hero
    In most of his movies (all of the Mission Impossible; The Last Samurai… any action movie really), Tom Cruise tends to lean towards Hero-type characters. Not so with Knight and Day: MC – June (Cameron Diaz); Protag – John Milner (Tom Cruise)

    The Silence of the Lambs: Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) – Hero

    Kill Bill: The Bride (Uma Thurman) – Hero

    So next time you wonder who’s the MC, just ask yourself, whose eyes do you see the story through? If they also drive key events with their decisions/actions, that makes them not just the MC but also the Hero. Aileen Wuornos (Charlize Theron) is the Hero in Monster because she both narrates her own story and does all the killing and evading. Doesn’t matter that she’s not a likable character, we identify with her and empathize with her pain and regret when she kills her last victim even though she doesn’t want to. The writer has achieved a perfect blend for the audience of both POV and emotions.

    That’s all she wrote…

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