One of the most rewarding aspects of writing a script is developing a relatable, dynamic, and multi-dimensional protagonist. Creating a compelling and emotionally present lead character makes your story infinitely more engaging for an audience and is often the key element that can garner your script traction from agents, managers, producers, and talent. It can even make you feel like you’ve gained a new friend or role model (or maybe I just need more real-life friends).
Not surprisingly, developing a strong protagonist is also one of the most challenging and stress-inducing parts of screenwriting. One of the most common notes I give to writers when evaluating their scripts is that their character needs further development.
Having a strong lead is the ultimate ace-in-the-hole; without fail, audiences will latch onto a dynamic protagonist and follow them through shoddy plot points or even a few scenes that don't quite hit their mark. But without that killer role, not even the most clever and inventive premise + storyline will keep an audience totally engaged.
Toward that end, here are a few specific “DOs and DON’Ts” to keep in mind when embarking on the unique challenge of developing your protagonist(s).
DO: Let us get to know your character before the story is set in motion.
In a typical feature, the inciting incident or catalyst...the event that sets the story in motion...usually happens somewhere around page ten or, on the long side, closer to page twenty. Over and over again we're told to get that inciting incident out there, to disrupt our protagonist's Ordinary World and call them to adventure. We feel the pressure to kick the main conflict and storyline into gear before losing the audience by making them wait too long for that gratification and momentum.
Often, though, writers make the equally costly mistake of introducing the catalyst too early or not giving the protagonist enough quality screen time before the story is set in motion. This tends to result in an immediate disconnect from the character because the audience is not given enough of a window to learn about the character in their ordinary world before the conflict arises.
Establishing a clear sense of your protagonist’s status quo allows the reader to understand what this character wants out of life, how they view the world, and how they behave before they’re faced with whatever obstacles your story throws at them. Having that clear foundation almost guarantees that your audience will relate and connect with your protagonist from the very start. That's the best possible position your script can be in coming out of the gate.
DON’T: Give your character so many flaws that he or she is unlikable.
No one wants to watch a movie about a character who has his or her awesomely perfect life all figured out; talk about a snoozefest. But the other extreme is just as unwatchable. It’s nearly impossible to root for a character who is so tragically flawed that they’re a total a**hole. Yet I have read many a script where the protagonist immediately alienates by being rude, narcissistic, immature, intolerant, and intolerable.
Although making a character flawed gives him or her ample room to grow and arc, characters that are too unlikable and unredeemable make it impossible for the audience to develop any emotional connection to them from the start. Find a healthy middle ground in which your character is somewhat flawed but still sympathetic and relatable so that you're not trying to get your audience to root for a giant jerk.
DO: Let us know how your character feels about his/her situation.
Imagine a close friend of yours is relaying an emotionally charged story to you. Perhaps the events of the story make your friend exceptionally angry. Or frustrated. Or thrilled. Or humiliated. Whatever emotion your friend is experiencing, you will tend to mirror those feelings because you care about your friend, even if the story does not directly involve you. This phenomenon is called, say it with me now, empathy!
Writers should aim to achieve this exact same emotional connection between their characters and their audience. If the viewer doesn't know how the protagonist feels about whatever situation he or she is dealing with, it is much harder for us to emotionally engage with their struggle. The trick is to communicate those feelings without resorting to on-the-nose dialogue. Establish the emotions that accompany each step of your protagonist’s journey so that the audience can latch onto them.
DON’T: Make anything easy on your character.
“Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them--in order that the reader may see what they are made of.”
That quotation from author Kurt Vonnegut suggests that watching how your character reacts to difficult situations will allow the viewer to understand and appreciate who they are and what they’re fighting for. Throwing challenges and obstacles at your character also creates tension, which is part of how an audience maintains interest in the story.
If your protagonist overcomes obstacles too easily, then the tension quickly deflates and the audience loses interest. Don’t be afraid to throw things at your character that seem nearly impossible to overcome. Where there's a will, there's a way, and showing how your character handles adversity is a huge part of what makes your character unique AND what makes your audience fall in love with them.
Guest post by Caitlin Durante. Caitlin is a comedian, writer, and professional script reader. When she's not doing those things, she's watching Back to the Future and wishing she wrote it. You can follow her @cdura.