The protagonist is the hero of your story. She is the person the audience follows. It is her journey that keeps us engaged and watching.
The most important words in that last sentence are her journey. It sounds simple. If only it were.
“Her” is a singular pronoun. Singular. Don’t worry, I’m not going to get all English-professor on you. The point I want to make is this: there is one protagonist. Not two, not three and not half a dozen. One protagonist.
Why? The audience has to know who to follow, who to engage with and, most importantly, who to care about. More than one protagonist confuses the issue. Don’t make your audience confused. A confused audience is not a happy audience.
“But what about ensemble films?”
I know someone just said it. Ready to have your mind blown? Most so-called “ensemble films” have one central protagonist. Sorry to break it to you.
Films that have genuinely ensemble cast either fail or are made by someone who has mastered the craft of narrative storytelling. At the risk of offending, I have to say that you’re not there yet.
Need an example? Little Miss Sunshine looks, feels, and smells like an ensemble film. But it’s not. Sure, there are a lot of people on the bus. But only one protagonist. Can you guess who?
Let’s run through the evidence. One person made the decision to go on this road trip. One person took action. That same person has a flaw. That is also the person who, by the end of the film, sacrifices, changes, and corrects his flaw. Yes, his.
The protagonist is the father, played by Greg Kinnear.
As for the people who surround Kinnear, they fulfill story purposes: antagonist, mentor, friend, enemies, and obstacles. Check out this clip below.
So again, every story has one protagonist.
The protagonist is on a journey.
Again, it is her journey. “Journey” tells you the protagonist is active. Every protagonist must be active. Otherwise, they do nothing and you have no film. Who wants to watch a protagonist doing nothing? No one. An inactive protagonist—to be blunt—is boring.
For instance. In the film True Grit, the protagonist is a 14-year-old girl named Mattie. Mattie leaves home to find and kill the man who killed her father. That’s an active protagonist!
How do you make the protagonist active? Simple. Give her an objective. She must want something. She must want something more than anything else in the entire world.
(Just as there is one protagonist there is one, and only one, objective. (We talk about the objective here, if you’re curious.)
How do design your protagonist?
Too often, writers start creating the protagonist by focusing on character traits and details. Why? It’s the easiest place to begin. But the problem is, every choice must have a reason.
What do I mean? Okay, so, your protagonist can be a lot of things. He can be tall, short, smart, not so smart, wears glasses, comes from a broken home, loves cats, smokes weed, hates cats, doesn’t smoke weed, was betrayed by best friend, used to smoke weed, betrayed best friend, etc.
These are seemingly small choices. But when they are the wrong choices, they will result in big problems later on. So, be careful.
When creating the protagonist, each choice must lend itself to the story you’re telling.
This is so important that I’ll say it again in a slightly different way.
When creating the protagonist, there are no random or arbitrary choices. Each choice must be made with care and with a great deal of thought as to how it will impact the story. You only have 115 pages to tell this story. There’s no space in there for arbitrary.
Here’s how some amazing writers created now-classic protagonists.
The Wizard of Oz
Dorothy’s objective is clear. She wants to go home. So, every single choice the screenwriter made had to be considered in relation to that: how would it impact her getting home?
Choice 1: Age
Dorothy is 12 years old. (Judy Garland was 16 when she played the part). But imagine if the writer, Frank Baum, chose to make Dorothy, say, 28 or 40. It’s a much different movie. An older Dorothy is less vulnerable.
A 12-year-old Dorothy, trying to navigate an unknown and dangerous world, is in jeopardy. And jeopardy equals conflict. A 40-year-old Dorothy is not as vulnerable and, therefore, there is less conflict and drama. Not a good thing.
Choice 2: Company
What if the Baum gave Dorothy a couple of tag-along siblings?
Let’s say Dorothy has two brothers and a sister in tow. Add that to the Tin Man, the Lion and the Scarecrow. Now, Dorothy’s traveling with a party of six. It’s chaos.
Carl’s objective? Paradise Falls. He’s wanted it forever, and now he’s finally going to go. So, every choice we make about his character impacts how he achieves (or doesn’t achieve) that objective. Here’s how it played out.
Choice 1: Age
The same is true in the movie Up. Carl Fredricksen is 78. Why? The same reason that Dorothy is 12. Vulnerability.
Choice 2: Background
What happens if the writers, Pete Docter and Bob Peterson, gave Carl has a few children of his own? This would, of course, ruin the impact of Carl’s relationship with Russell, who turns out to be the son Carl never had.
Raiders of the Lost Ark
Indy’s Objective? The writers, Kasdan, Lucus and Kaufman, put it in the title, so you couldn’t miss it: the Lost Ark.
Choice 1: Background
In Raiders of the Lost Ark, imagine that Indy has a wife and family. Is that a problem? Yes. In act two, Indy meets his long, lost girlfriend, the love of his life.
Choice 2: Fear
Imagine Indy without his fear of snakes. Kinda lame, isn’t it? All of a sudden, the tension is gone. We like that Indy isn’t perfect. We love the vulnerability.
On the opposite side of the same coin, what if Indy wasn’t afraid of snakes. Instead, he’s afraid of rabbits. That’s a bit harder to get behind. It doesn’t vibe with the tough-as-nails adventurer we all know and love.
Think about it…
Spend time thinking of some of your favorite films, who the protagonist is and why the writer made the choices she did.
As you can see, even the smallest choice is incredibly important. A wrong choice, when building your protagonist, can cause big problems once you get into the story.
How to choose: superpower or flaw?
The flaw is the thing the protagonist will correct, resolution. So, he/she must have a flaw.
When I talk about Walter White being a chemist, or the protagonist in Super Bad not being a ladies man, I'm referring to how these choices (character and or jobs) relate to the story. Walter needs to be a chemist because he needs to cook meth. The protagonist in Super Bad must be awkward with women to help make the girl/objective unattainable.
Add some spice to that protagonist!
Once you get past the basics of building your protagonist, you can work on character subtleties. Add some nuance.
Dorothy wears a blue and white gingham dress. Carl wears a bow tie. Neither of these wardrobe choices has anything, as far as I can tell, with the story. Yet, now that we know the films, neither of these characters would be complete without these details.
Phillip Seymore Hoffman, as Father Flynn in Doubt, keeps his fingernails a little long and it is commented on a couple of times in the film. As far as I can tell, it has no real impact on the story. But I think it is a wonderful detail and certainly tells us that Father Flynn is a little eccentric. It’s a nice touch.
But remember: the protagonist is only as good as her antagonist.
Writers, too often, don’t pay enough attention to the antagonist.
This is a mistake.
A good antagonist is frequently the character, other than the protagonist, we remember most from a film. So, as you do with the protagonist, spend time thinking about the antagonist. And remember, it’s all about the details.
What is the antagonist?
The antagonist’s primary job is to keep the protagonist from reaching her objective.
Let’s look and Jaws. Sherriff Brody is the protagonist. Peter Benchley and Carl Gottlieb made every choice about their protagonist carefully: Brody doesn’t know how to swim and hates the water. These are great protagonist character choices. Can’t swim, hates the water and his job is to catch Jaws.
If you flip everything and make Brody is an experienced seaman. He knows his way about a boat and the ocean. As you can see, that choice undermines the story and conflict.
Jaws, man-eating shark, is the antagonist. Not only is Jaws a man-eater, he is the meanest shark in the ocean. He’s a killer, literally. This enhances Brody’s journey. It keeps you on the edge of your seat.
Maybe it goes without saying, but Jaws is a monster-movie.
In every nearly ever monster movie the set-up is similar. The protagonist must catch the antagonist/monster. And, in turn, the antagonist/monster wants to kill the protagonist/hero.
Brody’s job is overwhelmingly difficult on every level, but mainly because the antagonist does not want to be caught. If Jaws was, say, a dolphin, Brody wouldn’t have as much trouble or conflict. Again, the writer’s job is to create conflict.
Back to where we were: the antagonist…
Jaws runs from Brody. Jaws does everything in his power not to be caught. Then, upping the stakes, near the end of the film, Jaws thinks better of it and decides to kill Brody. Yes, an active and aggressive antagonist creates more conflict for the protagonist. For Brody, the journey has suddenly become a matter of life and death.
The writers, Benchley and Gottlieb, made Jaws a super-monster. And in doing so, they made him a compelling antagonist. At the same time, they forced Brody to be a better hero.
This is why the Wicked Witch is wicked. In fact, you could say she’s a monster, too.
Use the antagonist to strengthen the protagonist.
One more example before we hit the road. Let's look at Up, again.
This is a tricky one. When asked “Who is the antagonist?” most students will say Muntz.
Nope. Sorry. He’s an obstacle–a very good obstacle, at that!–but he’s not the antagonist. Remember, the antagonist keeps the protagonist from reaching his objective. So, the antagonist must be along for the ride the entire second act, and Muntz pops up late in Act Two.
So, again, who is the antagonist? The last person you would expect: Russell!
Yes, that sweet, round-faced, little boy. Why? Russell keeps putting roadblocks (obstacles) in Carl’s way. He adopts a dog and a bird, both of which make it difficult for Carl to keep moving.
- Your story must have one, and only one, protagonist.
- The protagonist must have one objective.
- When creating a protagonist, every decision impacts the story.
- The protagonist is only as good as the antagonist.
- The antagonist stands between the protagonist’s and her objective.
- The antagonist's job is to keep the protagonist from reaching her objective.