There is one question, that I really wish there was one answer for. It’s such a common question that I sometimes wish I had the answers written in permanent marker across my forehead. That way I can just point at it, and watch the relief spread across the person in question’s face. The answers to the question are incredibly simple and more often than not, never explored enough. As a result, a painfully common trend occurs which we have ALL, as writers, experienced. Act 2 falls flat, uncertainty of if our audience will even care about our protagonist, confusing and non-convincing relationships with other characters, story/ script almost done and suddenly there’s a huge plot hole the size of a barn door….any of these sound familiar? That question is, of course, How do I create a great protagonist?
...Well, uncle K-Mac is here to solve all of these issues in one go. If you follow this simple checklist, your story, screenplay or theatre script will be off to a flying start and set you up for the rest of the story. Here goes…
5. Passive, Passive, Passive….Right, I’m off!!!
This is very common, but the reason I’ve put it at number five, is it’s probably the least surprising to some people. But, this being said, it is still overlooked and a little confused. OK, so your main character, as an essential part of your story’s movement, must be active. They want something and now they are going to get it….but...before their call to action, they kind of have to be just….existing. (within the realm of their mission of course). Let’s use some examples. Peter Parker is just a photography student that stumbles his way through life. He couldn’t possibly be good enough for Mary Jane (who could blame him, it was Kirsten Dunst then Emma Stone). Then he is bitten by a spider. Many people, if asked would say this was the turning point but it actually isn’t. Even after he’s gained pecks and guns and can climb up walls, he still exists in the same manner….until his uncle is killed. Now (the 25% mark)….we see a dramatic change. He’s no longer existing, he’s now active in everything he does. Gaz, in The full Monty is laid off from a steel factory as a result of Thatchers Britain, when an inciting incident gives him an idea to raise just enough cash to see his son. After this he is nothing but active in getting from A to B
4. Caring person with moral values….even if on the wrong side of the law
This can be an easy task depending on the nature of your story or script. If you go with a super hero story then, of course, the tried and tested, nerdy passive teen is the easiest way to go about it. But, many films are of mobsters, football hooligans, bank robbers and murderers. So how on earth do we create these characters with enough likeability to keep the audiences attention for two hours, and more, like them and want them to succeed. David Chase’s The Soprano’s is one of the best examples of this. The pilot episode literally has Tony explain that he didn’t have a choice to be there, and the whole premise of the show if him questioning his morals. (Notice that in any of these types of stories, there are of course, crimes that they would never engage in). Banks and symbols of the establishment that has a control on all of us are almost always the target of every heist movie. If the main character isn’t part of a mob already they often engage in their actions as a result of a living situation. Football factory, Young offenders and Green Street are brilliant examples of people engaging in illegal behaviour as a way of escaping a situation and, as discussed earlier, being active in a search for something else. If your story is a comedy of the failings of wannabe gangsters etc, you have much more freedom in where they attack, as they aren’t ultimately successful anyway. A member of staff can assist you massively in a juxtaposed position to the madness.
3. They just want something that we all want...in any genre
I remember when an amazing writer told me this information, it was like a lightbulb lit above my head. Regardless of what your genre, style or desired outcome, your hero, as well as everyone in your story needs to be driven by a human desire that we all have, and so, we can relate to your characters effectively….and here’s the best part….theres only a few that aren’t soul-destroying boring...HURAAAAH!
As humans we only actually desire a few things. Warmth, company, sleep, food, water, companionship/sex and of course to stay alive. Of course there’s probably more, but my point is, a tale of a young woman in her desperate struggle to get to sleep doesn’t make for a good story. So you’re left with even less choice...isn’t that great. Yep, that’s right, sex and survival are, pretty much, the only two emotions you’re ever going to deal with. Yes, the survival one comes in a few forms, for example, your hero may just want to live ‘better’ but the fact remains that their current way of living is as good as death anyway, and so propels them to seek a new life. Even if we look at a revenge story, the hero has suffered a huge loss and so they are stuck in a rut and must seek revenge in order to move on with life. 9 times out of 10 these stories result in an actual life or death situation anyway, but that’s for another blog. If your hero/heroes are in pursuit of a large sum of money, it can’t just be about selfish greed, it must be in order to escape the UN-liveable situation at present.
2. Hey, that’s what I’d do….honest
Early writers will often rip themselves off in the early stages of their story. As said earlier, we need to relate to our character, but this refers mainly to their situation. Oh yeah she’s a single girl in a humdrum life, in a boring job, with no love life….raise your hands if you can relate. We also need to be inspired by our heroes and heroines. We all like to see ourselves as heroic and think we’d run into a burning building to save our neighbours favourite potted plant, or we’d stand up to Goliath even quicker than that David guy. For the future success of our writing, let’s hope everyone continues to feel safe in that knowledge, even if it is complete rubbish. Anyway, in a nutshell, our main character must be active, but in a noble and brave manner. The odds are stacked against him but he pursues it anyway for, to quote Hot Fuzz….The greater Good. (admit it you did the accent)
I have put this here because I believe it to be the single most important part to any main character and sort of ties the rest altogether.
By far, without a doubt, no questions asked, sure as buttons...the most important part of your main character development and painfully, painfully UN-explored part of the story. In one sentence...our character needs to have an incredible injustice from the word go, then a method to make it better. Easy really. Also too add to this...they are normally missing something themselves in the same strain that they don’t want to address. (Think Hitch, A date doctor that can’t fall in love himself)
Every story you read or film you watch has this in some form and the reason is so easy to understand why. The bigger the injustice the more this instantly puts them on the defence and makes us feel for the character. Despite this setback, they still carry on through life morally correct (to an extent) until WHAM (10-15% mark) an insight happens to make it better. How simple is that? It then writes a lot of itself because even in the most seemingly complicated plots, if you pick them apart, they’re normally just as simple as this.
….There you have it. Hopefully you should now have a much easier, and above all, more enjoyable writing experience for your first 25%. Of course these are just basics and absolutely, a few productions will contradict them slightly. This is because the rules are there to be ran away with. Use this checklist against your favourite books, films, theatre shows and you will see a lot of very common trends in many of them.
I thoroughly enjoy writing these blogs and I would like to thank you all for your feedback. To the people who have even personally contacted me is truly mind-blowing. I have a few more in the making including “where all your plot points should be and why” as well as “making your script funny.” If you would like to see more, please let me know.
Written by Kris Macjames
Co-director of Greer Macjames Productions