Image courtesy of ErikaWittlieb
I wrote a blog post for Olivia Brennan who runs Into the Script. Olivia is a freelance writer, script reader & blogger, with a particular fondness for scary films and is passionate about providing a platform inclusive to all, specifically supporting BAME & Women in film. Into The Script is a site primarily covering all things related to Screenwriting, Filmmaking, Novel writing, Writing careers and inspiration, Networking and Social Media.
They accept guest blogs and the guidelines are here. I wrote an article on what your main character, the protagonist, needs to exhibit to be successful. The piece was 800 words but began at twice the size. Here is the full article:
Your protagonist needs to be interesting. If you do this, the audience will want to see what happens to them. They’ll invest in them and want to see how they tackle obstacles. They’ll follow them through the story.
Your protagonist doesn’t have to be attractive or likeable to be interesting. However, historically this has given filmmakers a head start. Hitchcock chose good looking leads, and this has practice has perpetuated. But unless it’s important to your story, it’s not something to deliberate about when writing. A common way to make them likeable is to add a save the catmoment. This is scene where the protagonist does something nice. In the Sopranos, Tony feeds some migrating geese that land in his swimming pool. In Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, Mildred turns a cockroach the right way up. In Mr. Robot, Elliot saves a dog.
To make a protagonist interesting, you need to make them relatable. We don’t want to invest in someone that is too different from ourselves. Otherwise, how could their journey teach us anything. At the most basic level of human existence, we all need the same things: food, safety, sleep etc. Show your protagonist being mundane. Have them yawning as they wake, eating breakfast or bored at work and you’ll make them accessible.
Want two things
Your protagonist should want two things. Or more specifically, wantone thing but needanother. Needs and wants are often confused. A needis a basic requirement such as food, shelter and survival. Most stories are not driven by this, but they can be: Castaway or most horror movies. A wantis something that is over and above our basic needs. It may be more superficial but it’s the goal that drives them forward. It might be a desire for friendship, love or career success.
Pick a single word or sentence for their want and need. Luke Skywalker wants adventure but needs a family. In Chinatown, Jake Gettes wants to find the mystery woman as well needing to redress an historical failure. The wants and needs are intertwined with the suspense and emotional plots. In thrillers, the suspense plots are dominant: will the detective find the killer. In Little Miss Sunshine, it’s less important to know if she wins the contest but more about whether the family can pull together.
At the end, we have to know if they’ve gotten what their want or need. This gives you four combinations. In Chinatown, Gettes solves the mystery but loses both women. In Star Wars IV: A New Hope, Skywalker gets adventure but not family (although he does get friends and colleagues) so giving us a traditional Hollywood ending.
Have a superpower
We’ve now got a protagonist that’s interesting (because they’re like us) and a clear goal (which will drive them forwards). What they need now is a superpower. In comic book-style stories, the simplest are an exaggeration of athletic abilities: fighting, running fast, flying (jumping) or swimming. Most of us can think back to our school days feeling envious of the kid that could run or swim faster than the rest of us.
The simplicity of superhero movies is part of their success. But if you’re not writing that type of story, you still need your protagonist to have a strong positive trait. Something they’re better at than anyone else (except perhaps the antagonist). It doesn’t have to be physical either. In the recent series Bodyguard, David Budd is good at keeping people alive through speed of thought and determination. He’s so good, that in the first episode, not only does he save his kids, the rest of the people on the train, he even saves the bomber.
The provision of a talent provides both interest to the viewer but also a tool for them to solve problems. People like to watch people being good at something: consider the number of cookery, performing and game shows on television. We like to be amazed and inspired. In stories, if the hero can use their skill, sometimes shown being learnt, to solve a problem, it gives us belief that we can solve our own.
As well as watching your protagonist excel, we also need to see them fail. This can either be heroic, comic or a combination. In Little Miss Sunshine, the final dance heads for tragedy but becomes funny when the rest of the family jump on stage. In talent shows, the poor performances are sometimes the most entertaining. Although we might not admit to it.
In TheOffice, David Brent is self-centred and egotistical which contributes to his embarrassing failures.
A protagonist’s flaws are physical or psychological. The classic representation of a detective is the chain-smoking, hard drinking loner. In superhero movies, the most common choice is a physical vulnerability. In Unbreakable, Bruce Willis’s character is weakened by water which is simple to show visually. In Bodyguard, David has posttraumatic stress disorder which is shown subtlety but effectively.
Our protagonist’s flaws help to counterbalance their superpower, making them rounded. We all have something we’re good at, but we also have traits that let us down. No one’s perfect. In Happy Valley, Sergeant Catherine Cawood exclaims, “…I’m divorced, I live with my sister…I’ve two grown up children, one dead and one who doesn’t speak to me.” These imperfections are things that may hinder the protagonist but can also inspire them.
Lead the action
Your humanish, flawed, talented protagonist is now ready to go out into the world to chase their dream, unaware of what they really need to be happy. The audience is engaged. So make them do stuff. In Thelma and Louise, the pair go on a road trip, making decisions on where to go and what to do. In Chinatown, Gettes tries to find the mistress of a married man and becomes embroiled in a much a bigger conspiracy.
Barriers will block your protagonist’s progress and they’ll need how to respond. In Rogue One, Jyn Ersowas often too passive reducing our investment in them. When our hero enters a strange world as Neo does in The Matrix, it helps to see them actively choose to go down the rabbit hole. After that, we’re happy to watch them learn the rules of their new environment. But it can’t be long before they take the lead again, as Neo does when they go back for Morpheus.
Of course, for all rules, there are exceptions. In Raiders of the Last Ark,if the actions of the Indiana Jones are removed, the outcome is unchanged. However, Indy makes decisions from the start and keeps making them. That they don’t matter in the end doesn’t remove our enjoyment. In life, we often try something new and find it doesn’t go the way we expected. We might be disappointed by that, but we’re usually pleased that we tried.
Robin Sharma said there are no mistakes in life, only lessons. If we’re honest with ourselves, we tend to repeat the same mistakes again and again. But our protagonist isn’t us, so we can have them break the cycle. Their mistakes are often linked to their flaws. David Brent’s hubris prevents him from backing down from a bad decision. Spiderman’s overconfidence repeatedly gets him in trouble.
Since your protagonist is driving the action, they’re making decisions again and again. They can’t get each one right whether through a bad choice or through being deceived. Does every holiday go perfectly? No, even if we’ve spent ours researching and planning. In thrillers, it’s common for the detective(cop, journalist, family member etc.) to accuse the wrong person initially.
We need to show our protagonist is fallible. They might be as powerful as Superman but even he makes mistakes, damaging his own city in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. In Rain Man, Charlie Babbitt struggles to care for his brother – a neat counterpoint to the mistake Raymond made when they were children. By showing our protagonist make bad choices, it gives us a chance to see how they cope with the repercussions.
The final element needed to make your protagonist a rounded character is resilience. They should face the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and overcome them. Sure, it won’t be easy, there will be some casualties and a lasting effect, but they’ll survive it.
Your protagonist must always get to the end of the story. You can still surprise us along the way, as Game of Thronesand Bodyguardhas done by appearing to or actually killing off main characters. They may or may not have got what they wanted or needed but they need to bump up against the credits. In Die Hard, John McClane is battered and bruised but gets to the top of the tower to defeat Hans Gruber. Thelma and Louiseescape.
By showing a never say dieattitude our protagonist shows us that we can overcome setbacks. We’ve all had the moment, watching the character we’ve followed through their journey flat out on the canvas, unable to get up. But somehow, they do, again and again. They don’t have to win the final confrontation, but they do need some element of success. In Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the two main characters are killed but in a manner of their choosing. Gettes solves the mystery but loses both women.
You’ve now got the seven key elements to make your protagonist the best they can be. They’re someone we’re interested in, they’ve got something they want and another thing they need, they’re talented, imperfect, make choices that go wrong but they never give up.