1) Which character had the strongest emotional arc?
2) Which character drove the most story?
3) Which character had the most key focus in their scenes (and in scenes not involving them)?
4) Which character interacted with the most characters?
First of all, these are the characters that I consider lead: Elena, Damon, Stefan, and the secondary leads are
I wanted to note before I continue that I've made a few changes with regards to my parameters. First off, we are nearly halfway through season 03 and Tyler remains mostly supporting, and at the lower rung of the supporting ladder (with Matt the only one on a consistent basis less central than he). He did take the lead in two episodes in season 02, but the fact that the werewolf arc was such a huge storyline, yet he was featured as the central character in only two episodes, and wasn't much beyond secondary in only a handful of other episodes all season long? Well, I'm officially removing him from my lead characters list. The two I had him listed for were "By The Light of the Moon" (2.11), and "Crying Wolf" (2.14). Going with the leads, I'm giving both to Elena. You can see the re-write-ups of those episode here in part 4.
I had also originally included an "ensemble" tag, but while going through these, I realized that was as much a cheat as going for a secondary (and sometimes) tertiary lead, so I re-did those three episodes as well. Two -- "Masquerade" (2.07) and "The Sun Also Rises" (2.21) -- went to Elena, while the third -- "Founder's Day" (1.22) -- went to Damon. You can read the new write-ups for "Founder's Day" and "Masquerade" in part 3, and "The Sun Also Rises" in part 5.
- Central Character Per Episode (The Vampire Diaries), part 1
- Central Character Per Episode (The Vampire Diaries), part 2
- Central Character Per Episode (The Vampire Diaries), part 3
- Central Character Per Episode (The Vampire Diaries), part 4
- Central Character Per Episode (The Vampire Diaries), part 5
SEASON THREE, Episodes 01-09
3.01 - The Birthday | Stefan Salvatore -- While we see Elena, Damon, Alaric, and Caroline go through some emotional shifts, Stefan is with whom we see the biggest arc. He starts out seemingly completely under Klaus' control, willing to do all he asks, but in the end, he's still obviously trying to hold onto his humanity. As well, almost everything that happens with Damon, Elena (and Alaric to a degree) is driven by Stefan's actions, as they all search for him. Other than Tyler, Jeremy and Matt, Stefan is the focus of every other character -- in both Damon and Elena's case, almost exclusively.
3.02 - The Hybrid | Damon Salvatore -- Damon went from the top of the episode convinced that Stefan was impossible to save, to believing the opposite by the end due to his interaction with his brother. He was also (barely) the character with the most key focus in scenes. Elena and Stefan also held key focus, but Damon had a bit more than those two, and Alaric was focused on him as well (along with Elena), as was Stefan (who only had a brief moment or two with focus on Elena). Damon also interacted with the most characters. It was Elena who drove the most story, but Damon took the lead in the three other categories -- very much so in the first and fourth.
3.03 - The End of the Affair | Stefan Salvatore -- Even more than in "The Birthday," just about everything that happens in this episode revolves around Stefan. With only two plots highlighted (and the B-plot given much less screentime), this one easily belongs to Stefan as the entire A-plot revolves around him in every way. Emotional arc-wise, Stefan begins the episode still completely anti-Klaus, but by the end has a newfound view of him, as well as being reunited with a former love. His character drives every second, and is the key focus of everyone in the A-plot, as well as interacting with all the players. This baby is Stefan's all the way.
3.04 - Disturbing Behavior | Damon Salvatore -- While there was a strong argument for giving this one to Caroline, she didn't have the emotional arc, nor did she drive story and was the focus of others only in her story. On the other hand, Damon went from practically happy in his place in Mystic Falls (Ric's BFF, Liz's buddy, kitchen-time with Elena) to getting the hell out of dodge with Katherine (!) because everyone was tearing him apart. So he gets the emotional arc. He also drove much of what happened, his relationship with Elena drove Alaric's story, and he was responsible for Caroline's father leaving town. Elena, Alaric, Liz, Bill, Caroline and Bonnie were all very much focused on him in scenes with him, and without him. Finally, Damon interacted with the most characters as well.
3.05 - The Reckoning | Elena Gilbert -- The last episode featured Damon, partly because his was the strongest emotional arc. This episode had that arc in reverse, so he wins the first category. However, it was Elena who, by far, drove most of the story (her existence as the doppelganger, as well as being in danger), leading the majority of characters to action. She was also the key focus of virtually almost every scene (with the exception of the Matt/Vicki B-plot), and she interacted with everyone onscreen as well. Even Stefan, and all that happened with him, was focused on Elena, and it wasn't about him, but her.
3.06 - Smells Like Teen Spirit | Elena Gilbert -- Despite the fact that Elena took the lead in only one category (emotional arc: Weak, but learning, nearly about to fall apart before pulling it together, to having the last hurrah! moment at the end) this one still handily belongs to her. She did share key focus with Stefan, and Stefan drove most of the story, while Damon interacted with the most characters, meaning that Stefan and Elena tied in terms of who I have listed per category. However, this is one of those episodes where the emotional arc is so strong and so obvious, that the central character simply can't be anyone but that one with the arc. So Elena it is.
3.07 - Ghost World | Bonnie Bennett -- Elena and Damon each experience emotional arcs of a sort, but Bonnie's is so much stronger and just there. She also drove the majority of story being as how she is the one who (a) allowed the ghosts back in, and (b) made the ghosts visible, and (c) sent the ghosts back to ghost world. And because of her importance in that regard, it was Bonnie that held the key focus for most characters. However, it wasn't just plot-driven focus, Jeremy was focused -- albeit away from her -- due to the relationship cray-cray with Anna. Elena and Caroline were both focused on her in light of Jeremy's actions, and Grams was all about showing her granddaughter that she's got the right stuff. Interaction-wise, Elena hit every character except Damon, but the other three categories are so completely Bonnie's, it's not even a contest.
3.08 - Ordinary People | Damon Salvatore -- Damon gets this episode by default. This one really belongs to Rebekah full-stop, no question. However, Rebekah is not a lead character, so I had to go with the leads and figure out which best fits. And of the leads, it's Damon. Stefan is the only one who comes even close, but his closeness is in his interaction with Damon, and it's Damon who has a much more realized arc in relation to his brother. That is crystallized verbally by Elena in the final scene. Damon also drives the most story in that he drives the B-plot. Whereas Rebekah drove the A-plot -- which technically we could give to Elena for pushing Rebekah, but that would be (wait for it) by default. Damon actually drives the B-plot; it is his decision to free Stefan, his decision to try and figure out what will work for his brother ... Stefan is just along for the ride. Finally, he is the focus of Elena (to a degree), Stefan and Mikael (to a degree), while everyone else is focused on Rebekah (and Damon is focused on Stefan and Elena). So, again, Damon ... by default. And finally, he does easily win the fourth category with the most interaction with other characters.
3.09 - Homecoming | Damon Salvatore -- I fully expected this one to go to Stefan or Elena, but it really didn't come close to anyone other than Damon. He had the strongest emotional arc in terms of believing that they'd bring Klaus down, he had all the pieces in a row only for it fall apart, devastating him. On top of that, he lost all faith that he'd get Stefan back. This could apply to Elena as well, except that she'd seem to come to that conclusion -- at least that it was up to Stefan -- a few episodes back. In the immediate story here, other than the dance being moved to the Lockwood mansion, Damon drove all the story. He came up with the plan(s), including the variations that the others didn't know about, and when the plan changed (via Katherine and then Stefan's actions) it was for love of Damon. While Klaus and Stefan was the general focus of others, Damon was not only the focus of almost all the characters (but for Matt and Caroline) at various points, but also Stefan, Katherine, Elena and Klaus very specifically were focused solely on him. Also, it was that focus on him that was the reason for the entire change of plans which led to our cliffhanger. Damon didn't interact with the most characters, but everything else fell to him.
Tally thus far --
Damon - (S1) 6 | (S2) 9 | (S3) 4 = 19
Elena - (S1) 7 | (S2) 7 | (S3) 2 = 16
Stefan - (S1) 6 | (S2) 1 | (S3) 2 = 09
Bonnie - (S1) 1 | (S2) 3 | (S3) 1 = 05
Caroline - (S1) 2 | (S2) 2 | (S3) 0 = 04
I figured that the central character of season 03 would easily be Stefan since Elena had the lead in season 01, and Damon in season 02. However, as of now it's looking like it could go for any of the three. Damon did take four episodes, but of them, one was by default, and a second could be argued for another character. As for Stefan, while there has been a lot of time spent on his arc, he's not, well, central enough to justify the title in more episodes. His role is rather like Elena's was last season as the center of everyone's protection, but it was a constant factor that only popped up as central in certain episodes. The same is the case for Stefan in most episodes so far this season.
This is, of course, subject to change. I simply cannot predict who will be the central character for the season; I can't even hazard a guess. The interesting thing is that season 01 held more episodes for Elena, and she was obviously the central arc figure. The same was the case for Damon in season 02. However, this season feels different. Even though Damon is featured as the central character the most in this first batch, he doesn't feel like an overall central character. That feeling is more there for Stefan or Elena. So I don't know how it will all play out. We'll see.