Crafting Your Protagonist: 4 Ways To Up Your Game

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We all know that crafting a protagonist is one of the most important elements of storytelling. Whether you’re writing film or television, you need to create a character compelling enough to reel audiences in and keep them watching.  But what, exactly, can we do to up our game, in terms of creating a protagonist? What are some specific exercises we can do to improve our current and future protagonists?

No. 1 – External obstacles

Dodgeball (2004) Photo courtesy: 20th Century Fox

Every protagonist needs to overcome a series of external obstacles in order to achieve their goal. The greater the obstacles, the greater the payoff at the climax. These external obstacles need not be life or death–they just need to represent life and death circumstances to your character. Take “Dodgeball,” for instance. The tournament for ownership of the gym isn’t a sword-and-spear bloodbath, but losing the game would be a kind of death for the protagonist, Pete (played by Vince Vaughn).

What is your protagonist’s goal? Do you know why your protagonist wants what they want? Does that goal represent a longstanding need or desire? Do the obstacles to achieving this goal represent “life or death” circumstances to your protagonist?

No. 2 – Internal obstacles

The Bourne Identity (2002) Photo courtesy: Universal

Internal obstacles are tricky. They are the longstanding psychological barriers the protagonist have (so far) prevented them from achieving their goals. Jason Bourne experiences plenty of external obstacles as the government pursues him and tries to kill him. But equally challenging for Bourne are the internal obstacles he faces: namely, he can’t remember who he is or was. The shame and shock of what he has become is so intense, he’s suppressed his own identity. Little by little, it comes back to him as he overcomes his internal obstacles.

What is your protagonist’s internal obstacle? Do you know the root cause of this obstacle? What does your character have to do to overcome this obstacle?

No. 3 – Special strengths

The Force Awakens (2015) Photo courtesy: Walt Disney Studios

A perennial favorite among audiences is the trope of the chosen one. Most of us love to imagine having a secret power buried deep within us. Engage that desire on the part of the audience by giving your protagonist a special strength. Take the recent film “The Force Awakens.” The main character Rey grows up an orphan on Jakku only to discover she will become the last Jedi in their galaxy–the only one who can defeat Kylo Ren.

Does your protagonist have a secret strength, and if so, what is it? Do you know the story behind how they acquired this strength?

No. 4 – Hidden flaws

Black Swan (2010) Photo courtesy: 20th Century Fox

Nominated for no fewer than five Academy Awards, “Black Swan” tells the story of Nina (Natalie Portman), a young dancer with the New York City ballet, who wins the coveted part of the Swan Queen. As we soon learn, however, Nina is plagued by crippling perfectionism. The more she pushes herself, the more her mental health deteriorates. In the final sequence, Nina’s hidden flaw consumes her: she gives a spectacular performance, but it ends with her death. “I just wanted it to be perfect,” she says.

Do you know the root of your protagonist’s fears and desires? Do you know your protagonist’s deepest, darkest secrets? Can you trace it back to specific events in their past?

author-avatar

Jennie Evenson is the author of "Shakespeare for Screenwriters" (Michael Wiese, 2013) and the forthcoming "Storytelling Secrets of the Masters." As a writer in LA, Evenson worked as a consultant for Netflix and developed ideas at production houses from DreamWorks to Focus Features. You can follow her on Twitter: @JM_Evenson

3 Replies to "Crafting Your Protagonist: 4 Ways To Up Your Game"

  • comment-avatar
    H. T. Barnes October 24, 2018 (8:20 pm)

    Great article and well worth taking the time to read it. Gained some insight into how a complicated protagonist, lends depth to any story, and engages the audience. Thank you for your insightful article.

  • comment-avatar
    Zane Sterling October 25, 2018 (7:49 am)

    Hello Jennie,

    I really enjoyed your article and insightfulness in Protagonist Elevation. Most books or movies seem to have an abundance of external obstacles, but the ones most intriguing to me are the protagonist/ antagonist with deep internal obstacles and flaws. Thank you for pealing back the layers and simplifying the thought process.

    Zane Sterling

  • comment-avatar
    Tieuel Legacy October 26, 2018 (5:44 am)

    I like the breakdown. I would also add that each of the four have to be believable based on the character and the genre. @legacybridgeplatinum @agglife_media @tieuellegacy

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