MEET THE READER: Components of Screen Storytelling – The Protagonist

Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script Magazine and script consultant. His new book A Quick Guide to Screenwriting is now available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1

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MEET THE READER: Components of Screen Storytelling - The Protagonist by Ray Morton | Script Magazine

Richard Dreyfuss in ‘American Graffiti’

Second in an occasional series.

A few months back I wrote a column that laid out the essential elements of screen story structure. The column was well received and a number of readers asked me to do the same for the other vital components of screen storytelling. That seemed like a good idea, so I thought I would follow up by laying out the essential elements of the most important component of a film narrative following its structure: the Protagonist.

The Protagonist is the main character of the story.

The Protagonist is the person the story is about. Therefore, he should be introduced as early in the script as possible.

The Protagonist should be the first major character that the viewers get to know in-depth when reading the script and seeing the movie. Many new screenwriters make the mistake of introducing one or more of the story’s supporting characters and developing them in great detail before bringing in the Protagonist. The problem with doing this is that viewers are like newborn babies – they bond with the first person they meet. Audience members will invest themselves in the first character they see at length on screen. If this character turns out to be a supporting character, then the audience will either become confused or won’t care when the main character finally shows up.

The protagonist must be sympathetic – not necessarily “likable,” but sympathetic. Viewers will not invest themselves in a screen story unless they care about the main character. This is why so many producers, studio execs, and movie stars insist that protagonists be “likable” — impossibly perfect and noble and good, without flaws or blemishes of any kind – because they fear that audiences won’t care about a main character with negative qualities. However, while it is easy for viewers to root for “likable” people, the success of films such as The GodfatherScarfacePulp Fiction show they will also connect with “unlikable” ones. The key is sympathy – if viewers can find at least one reason to care about a character, then, no matter how flawed he is otherwise, they will be willing to invest themselves in his plight. As an example, we care about Michael Corleone in The Godfather in spite of how awful he eventually becomes because we can appreciate his sincere desire to save his father and protect his loved ones. So one of your primary responsibilities in creating a protagonist — especially an “unlikable” one — is to give the audience a compelling reason to care about him.

The Protagonist’s role in the story unfolds as follows:

  • The Protagonist is introduced in Act I. This introduction should show us: the Protagonist’s core personality; his main talents and weaknesses; his circumstances (the world he lives in; his occupation; his financial status; and so on); his key relationships (friends, family, significant others, enemies); and his primary issues and concerns.
  • At the end of Act I, an event occurs that changes the Protagonist’s established situation in some very drastic way. As a result of that event, the Protagonist develops a significant goal that he becomes determined to achieve. That goal can be big (to save the world) or small (to save a local landmark); it can be internal (to overcome a trauma) or external (to find a buried treasure); it can be personal (to find love) or public (to stop global warming).
  • At the start of Act II, the Protagonist—usually working against some sort of tension-generating, “ticking clock” deadline—develops a plan for accomplishing his goal and then begins to carry it out. As he does, he encounters a series of obstacles—including significant opposition by a formidable Antagonist—that stand between him and his objective. He uses his inner and outer resources—which can include special skills and abilities, as well as help from old and new allies—to overcome these obstacles (which become bigger, more complex, and more difficult to deal with as the narrative progresses) and begin a march toward victory.
  • Near the end of Act II, the Protagonist comes close to achieving his goal, but then something happens that once again drastically changes the Protagonist’s situation. This event robs the Protagonist of his impending triumph and leaves him in a defeated (and often precarious) position, facing an obstacle so formidable that it appears that he will never be able to overcome it and, thus, will never be able to accomplish his goal.
  • As Act III begins, all hope appears to be lost — the Protagonist has been defeated and it appears that he will never achieve his objective. But then something happens that allows or motivates the protagonist to rally. The Protagonist now does one of two things: he either comes up with a new plan to achieve his original objective or he abandons that objective and comes up with an entirely new goal (and a plan to achieve it).
  • The Protagonist sets out to put his new plan into action and this course of action leads to the story’s climax – an ultimate confrontation with the Antagonist in which the Protagonist is able to overcome the seemingly insurmountable obstacle (usually by defeating the Antagonist) and finally accomplish his goal.

In a dramatic tale, the actions the Protagonist takes to pursue his objective and overcome obstacles drive the narrative. Therefore, the Protagonist should always be active – he should do things rather than talk about doing things. The Protagonist should never be passive – he should make things happen rather than wait for things to happen or react to events or the actions of others. If the Protagonist is active, then the story will be active. If the Protagonist is inert, then the story will be too.

The Protagonist undergoes a profound transformation as a result of his experiences in the story. This change is usually for the better (the Protagonist solves a personal problem, repairs a broken relationship, learns an important life lesson, achieves fame and fortune, etc.) although sometimes it can be for the worse (a good cop becomes corrupt; an idealistic woman becomes cynical; a sane man goes mad, etc.). This transformation is often called the Protagonist’s “arc.”

  • An arc works best when the Protagonist ends up in a place that is the direct opposite of the place in which he begins (a criminal goes straight; a coward becomes brave; a poor man becomes rich; and so on). Anything other than a full 180-degree turn may come across a muddy or insincere.
  • The arc’s starting position—the place the Protagonist is in prior to his transformation—should be clearly established in Act I. The transformation itself begins in Act II. At first it is usually forced upon the Protagonist by circumstances (a criminal is forced to behave in an honest manner to avoid going back to jail; a coward is forced to do brave things to impress a potential partner; etc.) and the Protagonist only reluctantly goes along with it. However, somewhere in the middle of Act II, the Protagonist should recognize the value of the change — that things will really be better for him if he is different. From that point on The Protagonist should stop resisting the transformation and instead welcome and/or actively pursue it. However, the reversal of circumstances at the end of Act II discourages the Protagonist — forces or encourages him to lose faith in the transformation and revert to his old ways. But in the rally at the beginning of Act III, the Protagonist regains his confidence and fully embraces the change. This is his moment of transformation and from here on out the change is permanent. The transformation the Protagonist undergoes allows him to overcome his final obstacle and accomplish his goal. The story’s resolution should make it clear that the change is permanent and hints at what life will be like for the transformed Protagonist after the movie is over.
  • The Protagonist’s transformation should always come about as a result of the events in the story. It should never be tacked on or superimposed.
  • The Protagonist’s arc should reflect the theme of your story. For example, if your theme is about the redemptive power of love, then a suitable arc would be to show a criminal who falls in love and decides to go straight.

There should only be one protagonist in a script. Some new writers attempt to tell stories with dual or multiple protagonists. There is no such thing – only unfocused narratives and writers who can’t make up their minds. Even in an ensemble or multi-story script, there has to be one main character to serve as an anchor for all of the other elements. (There are many characters and many plotlines in George Lucas’s classic American Graffiti – the granddaddy of all multi-character, multi-story films—but there is only one protagonist: the character of Curt Henderson [played by Richard Dreyfuss], the one character whose life is permanently changed by the events of the narrative).

The Protagonist should always be the most interesting character in the script. While you should certainly strive to make all of the people in your story as colorful and compelling as you can, the supporting characters should never be more colorful or compelling than the Protagonist, who should always be at the center of our attention. Supporting characters don’t have the burden of carrying the plot, so you are free to riff with them in ways that you cannot with the Protagonist and it can sometimes be easy to get carried away. This is often a problem with the villains in action and fantasy movies, who tend to be larger than life anyway. A bit over the top is fine, but make sure you’re your baddies don’t go so far over that they end up stealing the movie. If your Protagonist is not the most interesting personage in your story, then you should be telling a different story.

The Protagonist is the core of the screenplay — the engine that drives the narrative and whose journey gives your story meaning and purpose. The stronger your protagonist is, the stronger your script will be as well.

THE END

Copyright © 2015 by Ray Morton
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