What's a Protagonist and How Do You Write a Great One?

A strong protagonist is the foundation of any story. Here's how to write one that sizzles.

Sure, it’s easy to pick out the main character of a story, but the protagonist is so much more than who’s on screen for most of the story. This character is the embodiment of your story’s theme. The person the audience needs to latch onto, and frequently the reason for the story to happen.

So, how can you write a compelling one?

Today we’re going to go over all of this. We’ll learn the protagonist definition, types of personalities, view some examples, and look at creative ways to buck the trends and grab attention with a standard story element. 

Alright, let’s get you from the page to the screen!

What’s A Protagonist?

The term refers to the main character in your tv show or movie. It’s the person whose story we follow, and the audience’s window into the world.

This character propels the story forward. Their actions have consequences, and those consequences deliver the stakes of the story at hand.

Every main character also experiences internal and external conflict.

Let’s take a look at a more nuanced protagonist definition.

Protagonist Definition

The word comes from the Ancient Greek, protagonistes. It literally means, “the one who plays the first part.” The opposite of a protagonist is an antagonist.

Many movies and TV shows have a sympathetic protagonist (or a false protagonist) but it doesn’t always have to be that way. We go over unsympathetic, or villain versions later in this article.

While the strict definition refers to the leading character in a story, we don’t always have a singular lead character

Sometimes, with ensemble movies, we have several leads we’re following.  

Whatever the case, people are tuning in to see the fate of this character(s). The story should show us their strengths, weaknesses, and arcs.

So, what kind of person are we following?

Personality

Is your lead character an active or passive personality?

An active character is on a journey. Their decisions affect the world around them and cause ripples in the story.

These are people who are out there stirring up the world, looking for answers.

Think about characters like Frodo, Mikey from The Goonies, Sherlock Holmes, Laura Croft, Kevin from Home Alone, and The Bride from Kill Bill.

All these characters head out into the world to get what they want and refuse to be stopped.

A passive version has the story happen to them. They get caught up in the world and have to deal with what comes their way.

Think Forrest Gump, Max in Fury Road, The Dude, and even Neo in the Matrix.

That’s right, Neo doesn’t want to be a hero, and his arc is going from being passive to being active.

These personality traits seem simple, but we should examine some examples to see how they each function in film and television.  

Examples

So, now that you know the personality traits, let’s take a peek at a few examples and analyze how they work within their respective films and TV shows.

First up...let’s throw a curveball.

Gilmore Girls is a TV show with two protagonists.

Lorelai and Rory are mirrors of one another. One’s a Mom trying to give her kid the life she never had. One’s a kid just trying to have a normal childhood.

They’re both the active type. In the pilot, Lorelai’s quest is to get the funds to send Rory to Chilton. Rory’s actively trying to stay at her high school and pursuing the boy she just met there.

The entire television show is built around their actions and choices. We can tell the show is going to last because the decisions they have to make are endless.  

Their character motivations change from season to season, but the backbone of this show is built around the choices these characters make and the repercussions involved.

Let’s shift focus from the active leads in television to more of a passive journey. Moonlight tracks Chiron’s journey to adulthood and his comfort with his sexuality.

Moonlight is a fantastic film, that shows a man afraid to take on the world, and the people who guide him through that fear.

While you could label Chiron as passive at times, the movie is about him actually coming to terms with who he is on the inside, so he can act on it on the outside.

It’s not the decisions he makes that drive the story, but we get to see his day to day interaction with the people in his life. Those people help him come to terms with who will become, and in the end, he actively chooses to pursue love. Instead of letting love find him.

Aside from those great examples, let’s look at a more traditional lead character; Luke Skywalker.

Look, we know everyone has hot takes on Star Wars. But what I love about the original film is that Luke is equal parts passive and active.

He’s dying to join the rebels, but when his Uncle Owen says no, he just takes it. Luke is going to be a farmer, but the world gets forced upon him.

Still, when the lumps come, Luke is ready to take them on. He’s along for the ride with Ben Kenobi, but as soon as he’s given the chance to act, he pounces on it.

Save a princess? No problem!

His personality carries him over every movie. It’s pretty special.

  

Villains

Okay, we’re used to the lead being a hero, but that’s not true by definition. Villain protagonists are not as common, but they always spice up a traditional three-act structure.

Let’s take a look at the varying ways villains are weaved into the story, First up. Let’s try the UNDERRATED movie (in my opinion), Megamind.

Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=NPI0eatlo_M

Megamind takes the idea of a villain and makes him sympathetic. We see Megamind fail over and over, so we’re rooting for him to succeed just once. While his quest eventually becomes heroic, this is a great introductory movie to watch when we’re following a villain.

But what about the journey of someone who’s pure villain through and through.

One of my favorite movies of all time is Jason Reitman and Diablo Cody’s Young Adult.

Young Adult has a great logline. It’s the story of a woman, Mavis, showing up in her hometown to confront an ex, and steal him away from his current family. It’s a true villain plot.

While there are moments we feel bad for Mavis, sometimes crushingly so, she’s still doing the completely wrong thing over and over.

And ruining the lives of the people around her as she goes.

But we watch that movie because her actions are always so compelling. Like any good trainwreck, it’s impossible to look away.

That’s great villain character work.

Lastly, let’s shift focus to television for another villain arc.

We’re, of course, talking about Breaking Bad.

The five-season journey, taking Walter White to Heisenberg, is a true villain story. We see Walter start out as a guy who just has the chips stacked against him, and then we take him on a journey where he becomes homicidal and unforgiving.

He’s an active personality, filled with angst at the turns his life has taken.

This is a masterful look at how you can take a viewer on a villain's journey without them even knowing it.

So what did we learn?  

Summing it up 

After going through these various examples, I hope you feel inspired to dig deeper into the people you put on paper.

Writing a memorable protagonist is no easy feat, but if you analyze who they are, and how their decisions affect the world around them, you might be able to create a more compelling narrative.

Got a great character idea, but unsure how to get them into a screenplay?

We’ve got a FREE screenwriting seminar for you to join.  

Now, get back to work on your script!

 

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