September 11, 2013 at 12:59 am #27440
Today, Lecture 1, Part 1!
The Importance of the Protagonist Character
We start the process of preparing you to write your script — working step by step from concept to outline — with this simple thesis:
Plot emerges from character.
Of all your characters, none is more important to the prep-writing process and the evolution of your story than the Protagonist.
The word “protagonist” derives from Greek protagonistes which means “actor who plays the chief or first part” — protos (“first”) + agonistes (“actor, competitor”). Certainly for most Hollywood movies, Broadway stage plays, or any other narrative form, it’s almost always the case that the Protagonist is the story’s lead character.
From a writing standpoint, we know this to be true on several accounts:
• The Protagonist usually goes on some sort of physical / emotional journey.
• That journey creates the spine of the plot.
• The Protagonist’s goal almost always dictates the story’s end point.
• All the other major characters are linked to the Protagonist and his/her journey.
• Of all the story’s characters, the Protagonist generally undergoes the most significant personal metamorphosis.
Consider some notable Protagonists in film history:
In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) goes on a journey of discovery to Oz and transforms from an orphaned girl who doesn’t feel at home on her aunt and uncle’s farm to someone who when she returns vows, “There’s no place like home.”
In Citizen Kane, Charles Foster Kane (Orson Welles) goes on a journey of self-destruction, spending much of his enormous wealth and power in a vain attempt to buy some semblance of the happiness he knew long ago when he was a child.
In Casablanca, Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) goes on a journey of reawakening from cynicism to idealism reborn, joining the fight for the ‘good’ by engaging in the selfless act of allowing Ilsa (Ingrid Bergman) and Laszlo (Paul Henreid) to leave Casablanca.
In The Apartment, C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) goes on a journey of maturity from a nebbish who allows senior managers at his office to use his apartment for their romantic trysts so he can get a promotion to a mensch who turns his back on his dream job.
In Tootsie, Michael Dorsey (Dustin Hoffman) goes on a journey of gender enlightenment, beginning as a self-absorbed, insensitive male, then through his experiences as Dorothy Michaels learning that he was a better man as a woman than he was as a man.
In The Dark Knight, Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) goes on a journey of imprisonment, exploring his inner conflict, how as a private individual he yearns to stop being Batman, but as a public superhero he is trapped into responding to Joker’s malevolent actions.
In each of these cases, the Protagonist embarks on a journey, one which dictates the direction of the plot and is fueled by an inner conflict that eventually resolves itself — for better or worse — as part of the character’s metamorphosis. Indeed, it is safe to say that transformation is one of the most universal narrative archetypes and at the heart of most movies, plays, and novels.
If you have never taken an online class with me, this is a great opportunity. To learn more, go here:
Why do you think a Protagonist is so important to the story development process?
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The next session of Prep: From Concept To Outline, the popular 6-week writing workshop, where you wrangle your story and prepare to type FADE IN with confidence, begins Monday, September 23rd. Join me for the Prep workshop. Enroll here.
Enjoy this full exclusive Black Board series
Understanding Your Protagonist
- Prep I, Part 1: The importance of the protagonist
- Prep I, Part 2: Four protagonist questions
- Prep I, Part 3: Different protagonist paradigms
- Prep I, Part 4: Protagonist character treatment
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September 11, 2013 at 1:18 am #27443
- This topic was modified 10 months, 3 weeks ago by Scott Myers.
Because, as you say Scott, the story evolves from out of them.
Traditionally the Protagonist is the character that leads the story, makes the decisions that turn the plot and “does” things, rather than having things “done” to them….so it is important to have a well-fleshed character in that role, someone you know well, so that those decisions feel real and believable, not contrived and forced to fit the story
Fit the story around the character, not the other way around.
I have found, over the last 12 months, just how much easier writing can be when you have worked hard on your protagonist and know them well before you embark on the nitty gritty.
Presumably, thinking about it, the Nemesis is just as important as they are the reflection of the protagonist and we should be able to flip the story on its head and tell it from their perspective, and still have it work?
All the other characters are important too, but they too orbit around the world of the protagonist and their story worlds could collapse without the solid centre pin of the protag.
So….all in all….character-based writing is the key!September 11, 2013 at 1:58 am #27450
In addition to all the reasons you mention above why the protagonist is so important to the story developmental process, the protagonist is also an “in” for the audience.
If the audience fails to engage with the story, this can usually be traced back to a less than appealing protagonist. They don’t necessarily have to be likeable, they can be the most unimaginably evil anti-hero on the planet. But the audience has to desire to see them on screen. If they are flat, boring, unimaginative, irritating, unbelievable, then you’ve lost your audience.
The protagonist takes the audience on a journey with them. The audience lives vicariously through them. The protagonist helps the audience discover how they themselves would react if they were caught up in a civil war or an earthquake or a crumbling marriage or a zombie apocalypse.
So your protagonist has to emotionally engage the audience in order for the story to develop. It matters less what that emotion is as long as the audience feels something.September 11, 2013 at 1:56 pm #27503
A welcome and timely reminder to dig into the Protagonist’s emotional journey.September 29, 2013 at 3:52 pm #28990
After reading this lecture and working on my script I realized that my protagonist (a child) arc wasn’t changing very much, but, my nemesis (adult woman) was. After some consideration I’ve decided to change protagonists and see how it works out. I can always reverse it.
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