“It is wonderful to be the center of attention.”
-Michael Scott, The Office
Stories have impact. Why? Because they affect people in some way. Exactly how do we affect people with our stories? Through our protagonist. But what is a protagonist? And how do we create a good one?
People relate to people, so it makes sense that as viewers we need someone else to watch to understand the impact the story is meant to have. It seems simple, right? Just show someone going through something and other people will totally get it. Well, sure, but creating a compelling and effective protagonist that is appropriate for our story is a little more complicated than that.
In this post you will get:
- A review of what is a protagonist and their main functions with insights
- Three major stages to creating effective protagonists, with 29 specific steps and questions to take
- Explanations of how protagonists work in other situations
THE MAIN FUNCTIONS OF PROTAGONISTS
First, here is a quick refresher of what is a protagonist: the basic functions a protagonist fulfills, and some insight on how those functions work:
The protagonist is the focus of the story
Yes, it’s pretty obvious we all understand that the protagonist is meant to be the character we follow. But there is an interesting reason behind it in terms of what is a protagonist: the protagonist is a stand-in for the audience, meaning the protagonist represents the viewer. Not the specific person that the viewer is, but a representation of the viewer. While watching the protagonist, the viewer subconsciously thinks “this is me.” This helps to ground them in the story and make them pay attention to what they watch.
The protagonist goes through the biggest change of any character in the story
If the viewer is to believe that the story was worth telling, then we need to see that the events have some sort of impact on the protagonist. Usually this comes in the form of the protagonist’s character flaw changing throughout the story. In most stories, character flaws evolve from a negative trait to more positive, which means that the protagonist changes for the better. But this doesn’t always have to be the case, sometimes they change for the worse. The main thing is that the protagonist changes in some way. This change is related to the next topic…
The protagonist is usually the character that learns the lesson of the story – aka the theme
Theme can be thought of as a message or lesson or point to the story, and the person best to receive that information and therefore pass it onto the audience is the protagonist. Usually the change in the character flaw leads them to understand something new, and what they learn and how they change indicate the theme. Themes are not usually stated outright, but the audience will glean that the protagonist has Learned something (whether positive or negative) from participating in the story.
The protagonist usually pursues a goal
By making the protagonist pursue a goal, we are helping keep the audience engaged in the story because they’ll want to know the answer to the question “will they get the goal or not?”. While pursuing the goal, the protagonist will make decisions and behave in ways that affect the story and then face the consequences of these decisions and behaviors.
The protagonist usually overcomes the opponent to achieve the resolution in Act 3
There are many ways and variations in which this can happen, but in most stories the protagonist overcomes the opponent or obstacles of the story and creates a resolution in Act 3.
THREE MAJOR STAGES FOR CREATING PROTAGONISTS
While identifying what is a protagonist, we can break down the process of creating the protagonist into three larger stages:
- Initial Decisions and Approach
- Specific Choices to Round Out the Protagonist
- Putting the Protagonist Through the Story
These stages tend to happen for writers whether they realize it or not. Let’s take a look…
Stage 1: Initial Decisions and Approach
These decisions are usually made in the early stages of the screenplay’s development, sometimes before anything is even put to paper. These aspects can be part of the first couple of ideas the writer has for the screenplay.
Choose who the protagonist will be.
Who is the best choice to be the protagonist? Sometimes this can be a tough question, and there are different factors that affect it, especially what the core idea of the screenplay is. Here are some questions that can help with this decision:
Who is the best or worst person to go on the adventure?
If you’ve already come up with your adventure, you can reverse engineer the best or worst person that can go through it. This question can relate to many different things – what their occupation is, their life status, their character flaw, their agenda-. But the key is to choose the person that will create the best entertainment within the story.
Which gender would work best for the protagonist?
This can be a subjective and sometimes unconscious decision, but gender can play a big part of making your protagonist the best choice for going through the story. If you change the gender, how would it affect the story?
Decide whether the protagonist the most interesting person in the story or not.
Your initial answer might be “the protagonist always has to be the most interesting character in the story,”. But that’s definitely not the case. The Influencing Character or Opponent can be and often are the most interesting characters –but that’s okay! It’s rare a protagonist will be unique or that new of a character –. But here’s a hint: when they are, usually the movie or tv show is named after them (James Bond, Wonder Woman, New Girl, Sherlock, Veep)
Decide if they are a sympathetic or antihero protagonist.
Most protagonists are sympathetic, meaning we relate to them and/or have generally positive feelings about them. But it’s not necessary for a protagonist to be sympathetic or even likeable. audiences are willing to invest in antihero protagonists, as long as they are compelling enough for us to want to watch their story.
Ask if your protagonist will be active, reactive, or a mix of both.
Generally we want the protagonist to be active and do things that affect the world around them. Of course some stories require that the protagonist is more reactive (like The Terminator). And sometimes a protagonist will start reactive and then become more active. It all depends on the story you are telling.
Stage 2: Specific Choices to Round Out the Protagonist
But there is more to what a protagonist is. After some of the broad-stroke decisions above are made, then it’s time for us to make more specific choices about our protagonist, and give them the dimensions they need to help us tell our story in the best way possible.
Developing your protagonist does not have to be the long, involved process that many writers believe it to be. Even for a first draft you can quickly make some decisions that will make the character multidimensional, which also makes it easier to write as you move forward. Remember, all projects need to be rewritten, so you are not bound to any of these choices that you make – they are there to test and to see if they work or not.
Choose a Character Flaw.
Many writers struggle with the idea of character flaw, and for good reason. It can be difficult to come up with a useful, effective character flaw that makes sense with our story for adventure. Here are a few tips about character flaw:
- Be sure to create an active, visible character flaw.
Audiences would rather watch characters act out (even inappropriately) than watching them not act at all. Try to avoid characters that are inactive or internal in favor of those that are active and in their behavior.
- If you have your adventure you can choose the flaw from it*
If you know what story you’re going to place your protagonist within, simply choose the trait that would make it the hardest for them to go on that adventure. So if they are trying to win the heart of a very sweet person? Maybe being condescending or abrasive could be helpful as a character flaw. Many flaws could be viable for any particular adventure, but usually the one that creates the most conflict for the protagonist will be the most helpful.
(*Note that the reverse of this is also true – if you have your flaw you can choose the adventure from it.)
Give your protagonist multiple traits.
When we talk about a character being multidimensional what we are really referring to is traits. Traits can be thought of in different categories like behaviors, physical traits, skills, quirks, but really they are all simply traits. How many do we need?
For a feature film and most television series, 5-8 traits are a good amount for a protagonist. This will make the character engaging because they will be showing different sides of their personalities, and also this amounts gives the writers plenty to pull from when they are creating character moments in each scene.
For short films or single story lines, sometimes we don’t need as many traits for the protagonist. It’s important to gauge how many traits are appropriate for the medium you are writing in. We want to round out our characters as much as possible, but we don’t need to over develop them if those traits aren’t part of the story. For example, in a short film maybe 3-4 traits are more appropriate because any more would be distracting in the short amount of screen time.
And be careful not to overload your character with too many unnecessary traits, you will end up confusing your audience.
Decide how much background information you need for your protagonist.
Many writers believe that they need to spend a ton of time creating a backstory or background information for their protagonists and they can’t move forward unless they know everything about the history of that character first. While this process can certainly be helpful, it is a fallacy that you absolutely need to do this for your protagonist before you start to use them in the story.
- What do I need to know that will be relevant in the story?
- If I don’t have any backstory, will the audience be confused or not?
- Can I move forward with the writing or is there a missing piece of information I need?
Your answers will vary across screenplays, as each story has its own needs. But remember – for the most part the audience wants to experience the character’s present, not be held up in their past.
Give your protagonist a meaningful name
This topic deserves its own post (and will get one), but it’s important to note here that choosing a name for the protagonist can be an important aspect of how the audience perceives them. You can either give them names with specific meanings that complement or contrast your idea, or a name that has an affect given the genre. Sometimes a protagonist needs a very exotic specific name, sometimes they need a very common or plain name. It all depends on your story, but choosing an appropriate name is important.
All of these topics will help make your protagonist more effective, more compelling, and more able to keep your audience involved in the story.
Stage 3: Putting the Protagonist Through the Story (Executing the Character)
Once you’ve made the decisions about who you’re protagonist is and have developed them enough to be able to put them into the story, then it is time to execute them throughout the story and screenplay. This is not only about what is a protagonist, but also how they can be utilized.
Clearly establish their flaw.
As early as possible in Act I we want to start showing our protagonists character flaw through what they do or say. it usually takes multiple instances of them showing their flaw to make the audience clear on what the flaw is. Just make sure you are clearly establishing what their problem is, because…
Then show the flaw change through the story.
In Act 2 we want to see the flaw change, which indicates the character is evolving in some way. Usually this change is from negative to positive, but can also be the reverse. Basically in act two we want to see the protagonist’s flaw going through different stages, indicating that the story is having an effect on them.
Put them through the wringer.
In order for the protagonists to be able to show that they can change, you have to make life difficult for them throughout the story, by giving them a lot of conflict for them to overcome. This can come directly from an opponent, or can come from other plot related events. But either way, you want them to struggle, and how they respond to these challenges helps show character.
Work on giving them a specific voice.
You do not need to establish the characters speaking voice early in the process, this is actually something that can be done five or six drafts into the rewrites if you wish. But at some point you will need to make sure that the protagonist speaks in a way that is specific to them. Protagonists often get left out of the character voice development process and end up being the most plain-speaking (usually meaning uninterestingly-speaking) of all the characters.
Be clear what the protagonist’s goal is and whether or not it changes to a different goal.
A protagonist’s goal can be something that they want and work to go after, or can be created by the new circumstances of their adventure. Either way, we want to see the protagonist pursue that goal, especially during Act 2. It’s also possible that the goal could shift at some point in the story – sometimes multiple times. Often this happens as their character flaw changes – for example if they start with a materialistic or selfish goal, and then learn to pursue a more altruistic or moral goal.
Identify the stakes for your character.
Related to the goal, are the stakes for the protagonist. The stakes are what the goal means to the protagonist. Another way of saying this is: what will the protagonist gain or lose by achieving or not achieving the goal? If the protagonist doesn’t care about achieving the goal for doesn’t mean anything to them, then the audience won’t care about them achieving the goal either.
Make sure that they participate in the battle or resolution.
After watching our protagonist struggle throughout Act 2, is important to be sure that they also make the effort to overcome whatever difficulties are presented and make something happen in act three that results in the climax for resolution for the story. After all, you wanted us to watch them work for something, now let them work to resolve it.
There you have 3 primary stages of protagonist development and many topics within each that help define and answer what is a protagonist. Do we need to make sure every single item in this post is covered to have a useful protagonist? Not at all. Each story has different requirements and needs, so figure out which of these topics supply most to your story and which ones will be the most helpful or useful.
Here are a few other things to consider when working with protagonists.
OTHER CIRCUMSTANCES REGARDING PROTAGONISTS
Some stories or storylines can have more than one protagonist. When this happens, it’s important to make sure that each protagonist receives their proper elements and character development per the needs of the story being told.
Each protagonist would have:
- mostly equal screen time
- their own character flaw (or a shared character flaw)
- each would participate in a battle or resolution, whether alone or together.
Some screenplays can have two protagonists. Sometimes these projects are buddy movies or romantic movies, and there are many ways to set up these dual protagonists stories. Make sure that each of the two protagonists has enough to do in the story, otherwise you might have a single protagonist story instead.
Stories with three or more protagonists are ensembles. In these cases, each protagonist usually receives their own development and storyline, whether or not they are intertwined with this other storylines of other protagonists. The number of protagonists and storylines depend on the overarching project and its core idea.
Protagonists in Television
In television episodes there are generally multiple storylines, usually three or more per any particular episode. Each of the storylines should have their own protagonist, OR, the same character can be a protagonist in multiple storylines. But the point is that for every storyline you should consider all of the aspects that have been discussed here, especially a character flaw for each storyline and how the protagonist in the story line changes, and whether they achieve or do not achieve their goal. “What is a protagonist” can have many different iterations in television.
Changing protagonists mid story
In very rare occasions, the protagonist can change from one character to another at some point in the story. This is usually due to a big plot development (for example, what happens in Psycho.) If you want to change your protagonist mid-story, be sure that you have a reason for doing so and that it’s worth taking the risk in the narrative storytelling. You might confuse your audience or pull them out of your story, wondering why they’re now following this other person.
If you are thinking about changing your protagonist in your story, first ask these questions:
- Is it absolutely necessary to change the protagonist in my story?
- What is the best way to seque between the two protagonists?
- If the protagonist is changing, does that mean there are two separate themes to learn or one unified theme?
- If I don’t change protagonists, will the story suffer?
Killing the protagonist
What’s that you say? Thinking of doing something drastic like killing off your protagonist? Sure, it can be shocking or a big choice, and even something that can be very powerful. But before we make the decision to kill our protagonist, we need to make sure that we are doing it for the right reasons, and most importantly, that it services the story. Here are some questions we can ask:
- Does it make sense, given everything the protagonist has done in the story to this point?
- Will killing them be a satisfying end to the audience?
- Is their death a necessary one for the story?
- If the protagonist does not die, will the story suffer?
We have to be careful when killing a protagonist because the audience has spent a lot of time investing in the story of this character, and to kill them off could be disruptive to the narrative, depending on the story being told. Basically, we don’t want to pull the rug out from under the audience unless it is for a specific purpose.
This brings us to the end of the post about what is a protagonist and ways to create an effective one. It is never easy to do. There are so many aspects to consider when working on the character that is meant to be the focus of your story. We’ve talked about traits, goals, conflict, flaws, and sympathy (and more) and it’s a lot to handle. Remember that though there are many aspects to consider, the primary goal for you as the writer is to make a protagonist that works for your story. Whatever that choice may be, however many of the aspects in this post apply to that goal, it’s all good. As long as your protagonist does what they need to do for your story, you’re doing fine.
Now go make someone the center of attention…