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
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
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
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
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?