Protagonists that POP Off the Screenplay Page
How do you write the kind of protagonist that leaps off the page and drives a story forward?
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. The protagonist 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 protagonist?
Today we’re going to go over protagonists. We’ll learn the protagonist definition, protagonist personality, view protagonist examples, and check out some creative ways to make your protagonists pop off the page.
Alright, let’s get your protagonists from the page to the screen!
What’s A Protagonist?
The protagonist 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.
The protagonist propels the story forward. Their actions have consequences, and those consequences deliver the stakes of the story at hand.
Every protagonist experiences internal and external conflict.
Let’s take a look at a more nuanced protagonist definition.
The word “protagonist” 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, but it doesn’t always have to be that way. We go over unsympathetic, or villain protagonists later in this article.
While the protagonist definition refers to the leading character in a story, we don’t always have a singular protagonist.
Sometimes, with ensemble movies, we have several protagonists we’re following.
Whatever the case, people are tuning in to see the fate of the protagonist(s). The story should show us the strengths, weaknesses, and arcs of the protagonist.
So, what kind of protagonist are we following?
Is your protagonist an active or passive personality?
An active protagonist is on a journey. Their decisions affect the world around them and cause ripples in the story.
Famous active protagonist personality traits are people on journeys. 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 protagonists head out into the world to get what they want and refuse to be stopped.
A passive protagonist has the story happen to them. They get caught up in the world and have to deal with what comes their way.
Those are protagonists like 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 protagonist personality traits seem simple, but we should examine some protagonist examples to see how they each function in film and television.
So, now that you know the kinds of protagonist personality traits, let’s take a peek at a few protagonist 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 active protagonists. 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.
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 protagonists 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 protagonist; 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!
This protagonist personality carries him over every movie. It’s pretty special.
Okay, we’re used to the protagonist 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 villain protagonists are weaved into the story, First up. Let’s try the UNDERRATED movie (in my opinion), Megamind.
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 protagonist.
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 protagonist work.
Lastly, let’s shift focus to television for a little villain protagonist 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 protagonist 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 protagonist journey without them even knowing it.
So what did we learn?
Summing up Protagonists
After going through these various protagonist 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.
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Now, get back to work on your script!