Some of you may be writing ensemble screenplays with multiple storylines and scratching your head wondering who your protagonist is. The key is two-fold. First, find the character that drives the action. Second, identify the character that displays the most growth. And, voila! You will likely have identified your protagonist with these simple steps.
This character may not necessarily have the most screen time, but it is likely the character on which you can hang your story’s structure.
You might think that the protagonist in the film, Ordinary People, is the son, Conrad, but it’s actually his father. Calvin, played by Donald Sutherland, is the one who is constantly in action trying to keep his family together.
While Conrad experiences a significant change by the end, it is Calvin who becomes the catalyst for this change. He encourages his son to seek therapy. Calvin confronts his wife. It’s Calvin who wakes up to the truth of his marriage, telling his wife that he doesn’t know if he loves her anymore.
When you inquire into the structure questions, it is the protagonist’s want that provides your story with its through-line. Notice where the want exists for the protagonist in each story beat.
Character is revealed through action.
If nothing seems to be happening, ask yourself “What is my protagonist doing to get what they want?”
Your characters don’t exist in a vacuum. (This is why I’m not crazy about character sketches.) Human beings are not a series of traits. Malcolm Gladwell tells us “we would like to believe that human beings behave characteristically, but they don’t. They behave situationally.” In other words, character sketches can reinforce your “idea” of your story rather than allowing you to explore more dynamic possibilities. Characters exist in relationship to each other and their world. Their behavior, not what we are told about them, reveals to us who they are.
In his seminal book, The Art of Dramatic Writing, Lajos Egri defines an antagonist as “any character that stands in the way of the ruthlessly onrushing protagonist.” Without worthy antagonists, your protagonist will have nothing to act upon.
Most stories do not have just one antagonist. In fact, all of the characters other than your protagonist (including loving spouses and best friends) are antagonistic forces. They can operate as a catalyst of change for your protagonist.
Antagonists are not necessarily bad or evil. They are just characters who stand in the way of our protagonist getting what they want.
In Rocky, the protagonist wants to be worthy of Adrian’s love. Adrian is an antagonist because she prompts him to grow. In the beginning, she is shy and refuses his advances, forcing him to proclaim himself.
When they begin to date, she admonishes him for calling himself a bum. It is through the power of her love that he lets go of his old life as muscle for the mob and becomes willing to live up to his full potential as a fighter.
Growth is painful. Our antagonists are the instigators of this growth.
Here are some examples of protagonist arcs:
- Bridesmaids – Kristen Wiig’s character goes from jaded single girl to hopeful future bride.
- Knocked Up – Seth Rogen’s character goes from irresponsible boy to responsible adult.
- The Wizard of Oz – Dorothy goes from wanting to escape somewhere over the rainbow to learning that there is no place like home.
- Lethal Weapon – Mel Gibson’s character goes from suicidal loner to becoming a man who embraces life and friendship.
- Lars and the Real Girl – Lars goes from escaping into fantasy to living in reality.
Notice how each arc leads the protagonist to a shift in perception, thus resolving their dilemma. By the end of the story, they literally see their situation differently. Kristen Wiig doesn’t simply settle for the cop – she falls in love with him. Seth Rogen doesn’t begrudgingly give up his youthful irresponsibility—he steps into his true role as a man. Dorothy is grateful to go home, Mel’s friendship gives his life meaning, and Lars is relieved to be living in reality.
Since the desire to write typically involves the quest to resolve something within ourselves, it is often challenging to imagine a true transformation for your protagonist. This is because, without a shift in perception, the best we can ever hope for is a standoff, a compromise . . . second-best.
The challenge in writing a screenplay with a compelling protagonist lies in giving them worthy antagonists, a dynamic arc, and resolving their dilemma in a meaningful way.