How to Write Screenplay Characters That Keep Your Audience Interested: The Protagonist
Who is your story about?
Writing screenplay characters that keep your audience interested and gets them invested in your story is a vital component you can’t afford to overlook. You could have the most thrilling, inventive, mind-bending plot imaginable but if that main character (protagonist) is a plank of wood, your script is going to fall flat no matter how amazing those chase sequences might be.
Sure, big budget movies can sometimes win over audiences by hiring A-List actors like George Clooney or Reese Witherspoon, since a star’s blinding charisma can help a film overcome sizable character faults. But you? You’ve got nothing but words on a page. You have to do it and do it right!
Here are a few guidelines for building a main character audiences find engaging and interesting:
Is your protagonist an adult white male? Congratulations! The vast majority of scripts are about the same kind of person!
There’s nothing wrong with telling an adult white male’s story, but ask yourself if your script would be better served with, say, a black woman as the lead. Often, thinking outside the box leads to richer, more unique narratives.
Example: The Fast and the Furious movies have made almost $4 billion across the world. Part of these films’ wide appeal is their multi-cultural casts: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, Jordana Brewster, Tyrese Gibson, Chris “Ludacris” Bridges and Dwayne Johnson. These performers all come from different backgrounds and bring their audiences with them.
Why is your protagonist cool?
Cool as defined as “interesting” and also “redeemable.” The person who reads your script is going to be stuck with your main character for 90-120 pages. Do you think they want to read about an insufferable jerk who makes no valuable contributions to the world?
Find something positive about your main character and get it on the page. Maybe she’s really good at her job. Maybe she loves her family. Maybe she can handle herself in a fight.
And if you really, really want to write the insufferable jerk, find an element of redemption. Yeah, she’s mean to everybody, but she’s also hunting down a ritualistic serial killer who’s eating human flesh. Your audience definitely won’t be siding with the cannibal.
Example: In The Martian, Mark Watney is an astronaut in outer space. That’s pretty sweet – he’s clearly best of the best material. But when he’s stranded on Mars, he uses his awesome science skills to find ingenious ways of keeping himself alive. That’s downright awesome!
What does your protagonist want?
Your character’s desires drive the story. If she’s satisfied with life, her happiness needs to become jeopardized. If she’s unhappy, then a greater conflict has to take things to the next level.
Goals can be as simple as staying alive in a dangerous situation or buying hamburgers from White Castle. She just needs to be doing something interesting – not watching paint dry on a summer day.
Example: In Taken, Bryan Mills’s daughter Kim is kidnapped by sex-traffickers. This one is a no-brainer. Audiences always want to see parents and children happy together. And since Kim is in danger of being horribly violated, there’s tremendous urgency to the situation. Bryan has to get to Kim in time. He just has to!
Nobody likes to read about a perfect protagonist. Everyone is flawed to a certain degree – what’s wrong with your character?
Often, the flaw is personality based. Maybe your character has some deep-seated prejudices. Or maybe she’s a plain old scaredy-cat. It can be as simple as a fear of flying or as complicated as a bullet lodged in her brain that’s slowly killing her.
Often, a character will overcome her flaws by the end of a movie. That’s satisfying storytelling! This often leads to unsatisfying sequels that regress a character in order to repeat a conflict, but that is not your problem friend. You’re writing a movie, not a franchise.
Example: In Jurassic World, Claire is the successful operations manager of a big dinosaur theme park where absolutely nothing ever goes wrong. She dresses to impress and runs her business with efficiency. However, her personal life is completely empty. While that prevents her from being a complete human being, it makes her an interesting human being we can actually care about.
Your character needs to say smart things, or at the very least, memorable things. Protagonists generally have the most dialogue in a script – make it count!
How to write a good antagonist.
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