7 Things ALL Protagonists Need In Your Story

Wednesday 19 December 2018

Today's Guest Post is ALL about the 7 things you need to consider when writing a protagonist that CAPTURES the audience! No matter what their world is or the rules that govern it, the audience is always taken on a journey through the eyes of your protagonist. They don't always have to be likeable, but their decisions and character do have to be BELIEVABLE! 

With the seven examples following, we have also included their scripts for you to read (all scripts have been sourced from the amazing Script Slug) - so without further ado, I'll hand over to Merlin who has rounded up these 7 key points to take note of!

1. Be Interesting
Your protagonist needs to be interesting. 

If you do this, the audience will want to see what happens to them. They’ll want to see how they tackle obstacles and follow their story.

To do this, make them relatable. We won’t invest in someone too different from ourselves. Otherwise, how could their journey teach us anything. 

At the most basic level, we all need the same things: food, safety, sleep etc. Show your protagonist yawning as they wake, eating breakfast or bored at work.

To generate interest in your protagonist, make them relatable.

2. Want Two Things
Your protagonist should want two things. Or more specifically, want one thing but need another. 

Luke Skywalker wants adventure but needs family.

Their wants and needs are intertwined with the suspense and emotional plots. In thrillers, suspense plots dominate e.g. find the killer. In others, such as Little Miss Sunshine, it’s less important to know the outcome (does Olive win) but whether the emotional outcome is satisfied (can the family support each other).

At the end, we have to know if they’ve gotten their want or need. In Chinatown, Gettes solves the mystery but loses both women.

Make sure your protagonist wants something and needs something.

3. Have a Superpower
We’ve now got a protagonist with two goals that’s interesting. What they need now is a superpower.

In superhero stories, the simplest are an exaggeration of athletic abilities e.g. fighting, running fast.

However, even if you’re not writing that type of story - you still need something they’re better at than everyone else. 

In Bodyguard, David Budd is an expert at keeping people safe. But it doesn’t have to be physical. In A Beautiful Mind, John Nash is a brilliant but asocial mathematician.

We like to watch people being good at something. If the hero can use their expertise to solve a problem, it gives us belief that we can solve our own.

Show your protagonist being good at something.

4. Exhibit Flaws
As well as watching your protagonist excel, we also need to see them fail. 

Some of their setbacks should be attributed to a flaw. In superhero movies, its usually a physical vulnerability e.g. Bruce Willis’s character is weakened by water in Unbreakable. In Bodyguard, David has post-traumatic stress disorder.

Their defect counterbalances their superpower, making them rounded. No one’s perfect. In Happy Valley, Catherine Cawood exclaims, “…I’m divorced, I live with my sister…I’ve two grown up children, one dead and one who doesn’t speak to me.”

Make your protagonist imperfect.

5. Lead The Action
Your relatable, flawed, talented protagonist is ready to chase their dream, unaware of what they really need. Now they need to do stuff. 

In Thelma and Louise, the pair go on a road trip. 

Barriers should block your protagonist’s progress, but they should try to overcome them. If they go with the flow we’ll start to lose interest.

Of course, for all rules, there are always exceptions. In Raiders of the Last Ark, if the actions of the Indiana Jones are removed, the outcome is unchanged - but the fact they don’t matter in the end doesn’t remove our enjoyment.

Ensure your protagonist decides where the story goes next.

6. Make Mistakes
Robin Sharma said there are no mistakes in life, only lessons.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we tend to repeat our mistakes. But our protagonist isn’t us, so we can have them break the cycle.

Since your protagonist is driving the action, they’re repeatedly making decisions. Ensure they don’t get each one right, whether through a bad choice, fate or deception.

Your protagonist might be like Superman, but even he makes mistakes e.g. damaging Metropolis in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice - by showing them make bad choices, we get to see how they handle with the repercussions.

Show your protagonist failing as they attempt to reach their goal.

7. Show Resilience
The final element needed to make your protagonist a rounded character is resilience. 

Your protagonist must always get to the end of the story. With or without getting they wanted or needed. In Die Hard, John McClane can barely stand but he reaches the top of the tower to face Hans Gruber.

By showing a never say die attitude we’re shown that we can overcome or own setbacks. We’ve followed them through their journey only to see them flat out on the canvas, unable to get up. 

But somehow, they do, for one final round.

Ensure your protagonist doesn’t give up.

You’ve now got the seven key elements to make your protagonist the best they can be.
 They’re someone we’re interested in, they’ve got something they want and another thing they need, they’re talented, imperfect, make choices that aren't always right, but they NEVER give up!

BIO: Merlin Goldman’s a writer specialising in thrillers, dramedy and science fiction. He’s had a short story published in Voices along the Road and a play, Firewall, performed at the Montreal Fringe Festival. Current writing projects include a detective novel, a play about a single mother and a science-fiction screenplay. As well as writing, he produces plays and short films. He can be found on Twitter (@mhgoldman) or the web (magnetical.com). 

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