How to Create a Powerful Protagonist

04.04.2018 |

Episode #3 of the course Getting started screenwriting by Jurgen Wolff


In the previous lesson, you discovered how to come up with great story ideas using the question, “What if?” At the heart of every compelling story is a great protagonist, the main character. In this lesson, you’ll discover how to create protagonists who grab and keep the attention of the audience.


What Kind of Person Is Your Protagonist, and What Do They Want?

Your protagonist doesn’t have to be lovable. They just have to be fascinating. The Godfather is a great film, but few of us would find the Godfather (or any members of his family) likeable. They are brutal, violent, ruthless—and fascinating.

Protagonists have a strong goal, and the plot of your screenplay usually is the story of how your protagonist pursues that goal and achieves it—or not.

Often, a character has an external goal and an internal goal. The external goal relates to the main points of the action of your plot. For example, a police detective’s external goal may be to solve a murder. The internal goal is personal and often relates to how the character changes as a result of what they experience in the story. Typically, the internal goal is about what the character needs rather than what they want. For example, the police detective may want to solve the case but may also have the need to relearn to trust people despite all the terrible things they’ve seen.

Frequently, the protagonist doesn’t become aware of the internal goal until halfway through the story, but the audience can spot it much earlier.


The Character Arc

The transformation of a character over the course of the story is called the character arc. Ebenezer Scrooge (a protagonist of A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens) undergoes a major change from stingy and mean to generous and kind.

The story has to be the reason that the protagonist changes. In the case of Scrooge, it was his adventure with the ghosts that show him the error of his ways. If you want your protagonist to change, you have to let us see the series of events that cause the change.


Let Us Identify with Your Protagonist

It’s when we make an emotional connection with the protagonist that we care whether they succeed. The stronger the connection, the more we care. We connect with people when we perceive that we have something in common with them on an emotional level. For instance, if a character is bullied, we will identify with that person because we’ve probably all been pushed around at least once in our lives.

The more different your protagonist is from the average moviegoer, the more important it is for you to show an aspect of that character with which we can identify. For instance, in the first scene of The Godfather, he is celebrating the wedding of his daughter, which is a universal kind of event. He also agrees to grant a favor for a poor man whose daughter was raped and didn’t get justice, which makes the Godfather sympathetic.

However, avoid stereotypes. Go beyond “types” and make your protagonist an individual. Yes, certain types of people share some common attributes, but as well as showing those, reveal what makes each character unique.


How to Get to Know Your Protagonist

One great way to get to know your protagonist is to imagine that they accompany you throughout your day. For instance, when you get caught in a traffic jam or you’re asked for spare change by a homeless person, consider how your protagonist would react. If you do this for a while, you will get to know your protagonist very well. You can also do the same with other important characters in your script.

If you keep these factors in mind, you’ll create a protagonist the audience will love to watch and may remember for years.

Every strong protagonist needs an equally strong antagonist, and creating those is the subject of tomorrow’s lesson.


Recommended book

The Anatomy of Story: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby


Share with friends