4 STEPS TO CREATING A TRULY ACTIVE PROTAGONIST

4 STEPS TO CREATING A TRULY


ACTIVE PROTAGONIST

When I want to be pithy (which can be rare, I admit) and perhaps a bit of a braggadocio (which is even rarer), I claim I can boil the basics of screenwriting down to 4 simple questions. And — if you can answer these questions thoroughly — you have the outline for a good narrative story.

Now, I abhor anyone who tells you something as difficult as good screenwriting can be achieved in as 4 easy steps – it takes a lot of hard work and there is no magic pill that will magically make that work easier. But …

There is definite truth in that knowing the answers to these questions will help you create an active protagonist and that creates a strong story. There will still be a lot of work to do to turn that story into a great script, but if you can’t answer these questions, then no amount of work you do will result in one.

And the questions are…

1) Who is the story about?

2) What do they want?

3) What stands in their way?

4) What are they going to do about it?

Seems simple, yes? But surprisingly, too many writers don’t focus their scripts enough on these basic elements and because they don’t, their work suffers from passive protagonists and drifting storylines.

#1) Who Is The Story About?

As Paul Zimmerman writes in his enlightening article, “The Appeal Of The Protagonist”:

The protagonist is our guide through the movie, and if the guide is bad company, we are probably not going to stay on board for the entire trip. So there needs to be a reason why these characters deserve our attention, why we bond with them or at least stick with them for the duration of the story. A protagonist must appeal to us in some way, deeply so, but you have a great latitude in what that way might be.

I especially agree with his notion that the protagonist does not have to be a hero or “good guy”. Protagonist is a “neutral” word. True, over 95% of the time he/she will be a good or nice or appealing person, but that’s because Hollywood believes that’s what audiences want to see. But the protagonist doesn’t have to be a hero or good or even nice. Travis Bickle in TAXI DRIVER? Definitely no one’s definition of a hero. Kane in CITIZEN KANE? Once he’s done sledding, he quickly becomes not a good guy. Daniel Plainview in THERE WILL BE BLOOD? Are you kidding? This guy will steal your milkshake right from underneath you! And yet all three are some of the strongest and most compelling protagonists in American cinema.

And what they all are are relentlessly active. They know what they want, they know what is in their way and they damn well know what they are going to do about it.

“Active Protagonist” is a phrase I use a lot. A lot, a lot. You will probably get sick of hearing it. That’s okay, because I won’t get sick of saying it and will keep talking about it over and over until every screenwriter I work with puts the term into – heh-heh – active use.

And the reason I am so adamant about it is that way too many scripts I see — both in classes and in consulting work — lack an active protagonist and due to that, they lack a dynamic energy moving the story forward in a compelling way.

So, my precise definition of an active protagonist is:

A protagonist who has a clear end-goal he/she wants to achieve and then works to do so, running head-on into obstacles that they work to overcome, changing strategy as necessary and, ultimately, getting the opportunity to achieve their goal in a climactic situation.

In you create a protagonist that meets this definition, the story will actively unfold because of them and their actions, and not because something is happening to them. And that will make them intrinsically part of the story, not standing on the outside of it passively.

And I see way too much of that: passive – i.e., boring, static, uninteresting, non-compelling — protagonists.

Why?

I have this theory: many writers are used to observing life in order to capture it in their writing. In the world of literary fiction the passive, observing character is a strong staple … and you can get away with it in a book because we’re centered right in the character’s mind: we are privy to all thoughts and decisions and while his/her external actions may be minimal, the internal actions are very much active.

But films are visual storytelling and don’t do internal well. We must find ways to externally clue the viewer into what is going on inside a character. Yes, you can have a voice-over, but that is a clunky and often derided method to reveal inner thoughts: it sounds forced and unnatural. The real key is – as F. Scott Fitzgerald (I know, ironic, right – a novelist telling us screenwriters) – “Action is character.”

And so we get back to my idea of an active protagonist. Again: a character has a goal/dream/desire/need they must achieve and set out to gain. That will always be the kick-off to a film/series/episode’s real story.

#2) What do they want?

Everybody wants something, but the protagonist wants it more than anyone else because that is what makes the story move forward. If they didn’t want it bad enough, nothing would happen and woe to your audience — your script/movie/series will probably fail. In films, the protagonist has an Outer Goal that they work through the whole movie trying to achieve. In fact the climax of the film should be defined as this:

The moment of opportunity for the protagonist to achieve their Outer Goal.

The whole film is structured to bring the protagonist to this moment. We say Outer Goal because film needs something that can be seen externally. Remember the most important adage of all in screenwriting: SHOW, don’t tell. So we devise something external or visual or physical that indicates the protagonist achieving their goal. Dorothy returning home in THE WIZARD OF OZ. Neo becoming the One & defeating Agent Smith in the first MATRIX movie (uh, we’ll ignore – cough-cough – MATRIX 2 & 3 for now). The three guys getting the groom back in time for his wedding in THE HANGOVER. These are achievements that we the audience can see and verify. And they are things that are very, very, very important to the protagonist. It has to be the MOST important thing in the world to them because if it’s not, I have to ask the author this question: why are you telling this story? If there was something more important in this character’s life, then why aren’t you telling that story? (And sometimes writers will say, “I’m saving it for the sequel.” And I’ll reply back, “Sir and/or madam: there ain’t gonna be no sequel if you don’t tell the MOST important story of the protagonist’s life now.” Sequel’s are a success problem – you’ll figure the next most important thing in the character’s next story later.)

So Outer Goal shows us what the protagonist wants; the Inner Goal is the reason the protagonist wants it, their motivation for wanting to achieve the Outer Goal. It is the internal thing we can’t see but is expressed in the protagonist’s quest to achieve it. (And maybe with a little dialogue help too. But only a little and at the right time.) In AVATAR (yes, I’m going to go there, so suck it up as I try to use contemporary examples) Jake’s Outer Goal initially is to infiltrate the Na’vi in order to report back to his company. This sets the story into motion. But, as can often happen, we see his goal change as he becomes enmeshed deeper into the native civilization … and of course falls in love with one of them. His Outer Goal becomes to save them from the militarized company and that’s what he achieves at the climax (with help). His Inner Goal is Redemption/Purpose, on multiple levels: one, for himself due to the loss of his legs and life purpose and, two, because he betrayed the Na’vi’s society. These serve to internally motivate him to achieve his climactic Outer Goal.

So to be clear (and redundant and annoying): Outer Goal is what the protagonist wants to achieve at the story’s climax. Inner Goal is the motivation that drives them to achieve it.

I need to go back for a second to the definition of climax: I said it presents the opportunity for an active protagonist to achieve their Outer Goal because in some films the protagonist’s journey changes them and they no longer want what they initially set out to achieve. Think of poor Frodo in the three films of THE LORD OF THE RING series: his goal is make his way to Mordor in order to destroy the ring. The entire nine hours-plus of the trilogy is based on this desire/need/want. Yet what happens when he finally gets there? (SPOILER ALERT!!) He can’t do it. His experiences  & wounds on the quest have changed him and he can’t bring himself to destroy the ring. Luckily Sam is there to help and thus saves Frodo and the Shire. For another great example, see the 80’s John Cusack movie, THE SURE THING. But the point is that even if a character decides at the climax to decline the goal, that goal made them active as caused them to pursue it, thus creating the script’s story. The wonderful thing is that you, as the author and god of this fictional world, can decide if the protagonist actually should want the goal at the end of his/her journey. But you need to make sure they have a very important and specific goal that they pursue to get there.

#3) What stands in their way?

This is the key in creating an essential component of narrative storytelling: conflict. If the Outer Goal or Inner Goal is easy to achieve, the story will be boring because there is not sufficient challenge for the protagonist to overcome. They have to work to get what they want, and the harder they work, the more we are engaged with them. Paul Zimmerman points out in “The Appeal Of The Protagonist” that we, audiences, are taken with people who are good at what they do and work hard doing it. This is often why antagonists are so much more appealing than bland protagonists: they know what they want, they know what stands in their way and by God they damn well know what they’re willing to do to get it! So the goal the protagonist has must be hard enough to take serious effort to get … otherwise your movie better be short and not cost anything to see or you are going to have a very upset audience.

But this doesn’t mean the goal has to be a preposterous and outrageous larger-than-life task; it just has to be very hard for the protagonist to achieve. And my favorite example of this is HAROLD AND KUMAR GO TO WHITE CASTLE. All these two dudes want are some greasy slider hamburgers! The movie should be over in five minutes, yes? They just have to go down to the nearest store and buy them. How much conflict can there be? Yet the movie goes on for nearly 90 minutes, a full feature length film, because it creates a wild & wacky world of crazy and funny obstacles the two protagonists have to overcome just to get some fast-food satisfaction. And we root for them to get the opportunity to enjoy those White Castle burgers at the climax of the film.

Hollywood often raises the stakes by raising the body count: the hero has to save the town, no the city, no the state, no the country, no the world, no the whole damn galaxy!! But that’s not really the way to approach it. What counts is what is important to the character in their world. In THE BLIND SIDE (Stop it, I hear you out there! Yes it was melodramatic … it was also very effective.), what’s at stake? One under-privileged child’s education. Now, children are important and may be an easy device, but it wasn’t an entire school or village Sandra Bullock was trying to save – it was just one young man’s life. And say what you want about the film, she cared very deeply about this young man and she was very active in doing all she could to help him. And consequently, we cared too.

Look at another recent film about one young person’s education: PRECIOUS. And look at the horrendous obstacles she had to overcome! Talk about what’s standing in your way: social environment, economic standing and – worst of all – one hell of an antagonist in her mother.

And antagonists are the most direct way to set up obstacles. Not every film has them and sometimes the protagonist is their own worst antagonist (ADAPTATION), but it is important that whatever is standing in the way of the protagonist is clearly and visually demonstrated.

#4) What are they going to do about it?

This is ultimately what really defines an active protagonist: they don’t sit around gnashing their teeth and wringing their hands – they get off their ass and do something about the situation. They want what they want bad enough to go get it. They have resolve. And that resolve or gumption or determination is often what will endear them to us; we like to project ourselves into the character we see on-screen taking action. So often we feel we can’t, for whatever reason, take action in our own lives so we revel in protagonist doing it in their stories.

And when the goings gets tough, they keep going. Precious doesn’t give up just because the whole system feels like it’s set up against her and her mother beats her. The old guy in UP doesn’t stop his journey to bring his house to the place his wife always wanted to visit just because some crazy dude with talking dogs is determined to stop him. Leonardo DiCaprio’s character in INCEPTION doesn’t stop trying to pull the job that will help him return to his children just because he has to travel umpteen dream levels down as badasses try to kill his entire team. The Terminator in movies 1 & 2 (antagonist and protagonist, respectively) just … won’t … freakin’ … stop. Period!

Of course there are moments of doubt and angst and confusion, but what counts is that they persist on despite those moments and all the obstacles we, the writers, throw at them.

And that is why we love ‘em.

So, if you don’t have a protagonist who is actively involved in making the story happen … well, you’re just being as passive as your leading character and risking creating a passive story that will most likely lead to just a plain old “pass” by any agent or buyer.