Finding the Right Protagonist
Now that you’ve determined your theme, and sanded it until it will fit on an average sized bumper sticker, what do you do next?
You have to, as the title of this chapter suggests, find the right protagonist.
To complete this segment, we will have to take a momentary detour from the realm of aesthetics and do a little psychologizing. I say this because, in 99 out of every 100 screenplays I read, the author writes herself as the protagonist. (7)
There is nothing inherently wrong with this, but you must make sure that this version of you that you are immortalizing for all the world to see is worth the trouble of immortalizing. In other words, don’t give us characters that reveal themselves by the books on their bookshelves just because you think you reveal yourself through the books on your bookshelves. (8)
Be interesting versions of yourself.
So yes, make your characters (especially your main characters) interesting, dynamic people. We learn a lot more about a character who is addicted to attending support group meetings than we do about a character who has a shelf full of self-help books.
I lead with this advice because it’s proper to keep in the back of your mind as you begin to construct your plot, but in terms of actual importance to writing a great script, this is probably the least useful tip you could get. It’s more than a little like saying:
Write a great character by writing a great character.
What we writer’s really want to know is: how do you write a great character? The answer is: You start with your theme.
If you, the author, have seen your story as though you had an infinite case of déjà vu, then you probably have a great idea what kind of character you want to go on that journey. In fact, I’m going to go as far as arguing that if you haven’t seen your story from this perspective, then you have NO idea what kind of character you want to complete your fictional journey.
You write a great character by first choosing a great theme. (9)
To summarize the writing process so far, you’ve picked a premise and a theme, you have in your mind a few of the events of the story (first, last, and at least two of the fillers). After this, after you have a fairly stable handle on these three categories:
you should stop working on the events of your story and, instead, dig deeply into setting up a consistent set of traits for your protagonist.
I’m not kidding about this.
I’m so serious about this one piece of advice, that I broke it off mid-sentence and left it incomplete and uncapitalized. After that, I even included a totally redundant sentence that repeats the warning but with the added bit of silliness about the first warning not being a joke.
You cannot plan out your story and lock in its events if you don’t know what kind of character is going to take the journey. Or, more accurately, you can do this, but the story will read terribly and you’ll be unlikely to gain any traction with it. Why? Because:
Your main character HAS to have an arc. (10)
Now we can tie the message of the first segment about the primacy of theme into this second segment about the runner-up status of character arc. You can’t decide where your character is going to end up [much less where she’s going to begin from] if you don’t know the final context (11) through which the character is going to end up viewing the events of the story. If you give your character a proper context, then you begin to see that there are less and less places where your premise can coalesce around your events in order to form a realistic individual.
Winnowing these possibilities down keeps you from doing something distracting like adding a whole sequence which doesn’t fit with who your protagonist really is as a person. I label this mistake as distracting because I know for a fact (12) that you will go to outrageous lengths to preserve the dissonant sequence even if you know it’s making your script worse. It seems to me to be an ontological truth about writers that they will not delete their words until there is no other option. So, keep yourself out of this distracting mess by choosing the theme first.
Now you’ve got a theme, a premise, A and Z story points, and a character who can become the omniscient perspective by fadeout, now that you’ve done all that—how do you make this character you’ve chosen to write about, arc?
I have a [somewhat taxing even to myself] excessive mathematical interest. Most of the time this is completely useless to me in my chosen fields, occasionally though [like right now], I think it helps because I am able to think about the creative process in a non-standard way. I can sum it up, take its temperature, and not feel like I’ve committed some form of aesthetic sacrilege. [We will see over and over again during the course of this essay that I believe there can be a harmonious marriage between linguistic and arithmetic ideas.]
In this case my mathematical side is convincing me that it will be okay to treat a story like a mathematical object. If we do that, we see that a story is a Sum of positive and negative events that happen to an individual with an [eventually] omniscient perspective.
In my mind, I always picture a sine wave with attitude. Something like this:
I feel like the peaks and valleys of this Story Wave are the plot points. The curvy line that leads to each peak and each valley symbolizes the emotions your character undergoes after each event in your story.
If we also posit that every protagonist begins at a minimum “story altitude” then the story arc will be the difference in the height [in emotion] between the beginning and the end. If you’re writing a tragedy this difference will be overwhelmingly negative. If comedy is more your genre, you’ll likely be overwhelmingly positive.
Those are the conditions under which your character must arc, but what is the goal? I contend that your whole effort as a writer is being expended to create two opposing ideas in the minds of your audience:
The Twin Goals:
1. The protagonist DOES have the required character attributes to defeat the antagonist.
2. The protagonist DOES NOT have the required character attributes to defeat the antagonist.
If you’ve done your job well, somewhere around the middle of your story, these two statements will strike the reader as equally probable. And even though we’re talking about writing for Hollywood, [that means there has to be a happy ending] there are always some great scripts that still make you doubt the protagonist’s victory.
This can’t be true, can it? It is true. Find out how in the next post.
7 There may even be a law of human nature at work here that has a sort of chicken alongside its egg inescapability. You would not, after all, ask the color red to be blue.
8 Naturally, this is me poking fun at myself. All my old plays, books, and screenplays contain catalogues of the books on my main character’s bookshelves. What can you really tell about a guy from the fact that he has Of Grammatology proudly displayed on his bookshelf? I suggest nothing substantial—unless pretentiousness counts as substantial.
9 And by great I mean succinct. The kind of idea that will fit on a bumper sticker.
10 I have gotten into many discussions about whether this statement is true. I’m not going to indulge, in this essay, the idea that a main character in a great script can get away without having an arc. That’s just false. If you want to debate me about that, send me an email, because I do love debates. For the sake of intellectual honesty, however, I will acknowledge that there is one type of main character that does not have to have an arc. This character is ALWAYS going to be some variation of The Superhero Character.
11 Context is just another word for omniscient perspective which is just another word for theme.
12 Because I’ve done it myself.
13 Actually, that’s not right at all. The amplitudes should be of wildly irregular length.