Pop a squat class, ’cause Professor Xander is about to drop some knowledge on screenwriting!
The two major goals for this blog were for it to be fun and edumacationable. So in the spirit of edumacationableness, once a week, I’m going to go over some screenwriting terms and tropes so if those terms are ever used in future blogs, everybody can know what they are and have a better understanding of what we’re discussing. What’s that? You already know what a protagonist is? Well aren’t you a smarty-pants? Why don’t you go leave a comment below describing how smart you are and go get yourself an ice cream cone! Mention my blog’s name at the register, and you’ll get a free confused expression and moment of awkward silence. Anybody left? Alright! Let’s get started.
The hero of the story. The chosen one. The character in an anime with the craziest hairstyle.
Deriving from the Greek word protagonistes, the protagonist is the main, central character of a story. It’s usually pretty easy to figure out who that is. Heck, nowadays, their name is in the title of the film or television show. (Captain America Civil War, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Castle, The Flash, etc.) For other instances, here’s what makes a protagonist.
A Clear Want/Goal
A protagonist needs to have aspirations and dreams that they want to fulfill. Without them, there would be no need for them to embark on their journey.
Let’s take a classic example: Luke Skywalker
If when Obi-Wan told Luke about how he had to come to Alderaan with him on this quest and Luke just said “No thanks! I like moisture farming,” then that would make for a very dull protagonist. What we got in the film was standard, but nonetheless effective. He wants to go out into the galaxy, fight in the rebellion, and be a part of something bigger. And it’s because of those reasons that he’s driven to help Obi-Wan and participate in the “star wars” if you will. Which brings us to the next aspect.
Someone we Want to Follow
The protagonist needs to be interesting enough to capture the audience’s attention and deserve a story to be told. Luke Skywalker works in this category because he is relatable. He has a dream and a desire for more out of life, which is something that most audiences and every one of the Disney Princesses have. When he succeeds, it feels like we all succeed.
Now a protagonist doesn’t have to be relatable to be interesting. A prime example is Axel Foley from Beverly Hills Cop.
His want is smaller in scale to that of Luke’s; he wants to find his friend’s killer and bring him to justice. We follow him because he is a riot of hilarity! Constantly tricking people into getting what he wants while always remaining on top. It’s like a Bugs Bunny cartoon. Because they’re such fun characters to watch, we want them to succeed in all of their endeavors!
Another way to form an interesting protagonist is when their character differs from their characterization. Allow me to explain: characterization is what we perceive from a character based on their outward appearance and qualities. It’s sort of like judging a book by its cover. Character, in this definition, is who a person is to their core; their moral compass, values, personality traits, and of course, their wants. It’s when these two conflict that we have a complex character.
So let’s go back at Axel Foley. Based on his characterization, he doesn’t look or act like a cop. His appearance and mannerisms are much like your average hoodlum. This means people don’t take him seriously or treat him as a threat. If you look at his character though, he’s an incredible detective who not only understands his characterization, but also uses it to his advantage. People underestimate him because of this, which usually leads to him winning the day.
Now lets look at a better-known character with a similar condition: Superman.
When you look at this guy’s costume, muscles, and superpowers, you’re going to get a characterization of a godlike superhero, I guarantee. But take a step back, and look at the man behind the S symbol and in front of the cape. You have a person who grew up as an average guy, but then he suddenly finds out he’s an alien with the power to blow up the planet. One can only imagine the questions that must run through his mind. How does a man wield this kind of power? When is it okay to use that power? And most importantly, because I have this power, does that give me the right do whatever I want and decide people’s fate? How can a god be a man? A lot of complexities for a guy with a basic name like Superman.
Whether they have unlimited cosmic powers or be a detective from Detroit, protagonists must experience conflict. It’s what stories are built on, conflict and resolution. Protagonists need to prove that their willing to overcome obstacles in order to get what they want. So what sort of antagonizing force makes for good conflict? Well…let’s save that discussion for next week.
Protagonists are the foundation of all stories. When it comes to creating and developing them, it’s all about making a character we can see ourselves in. Someone with goals and dreams they want to fulfill. Someone with the capacity to grow and change. It’s through protagonists that we become invested in a story and allows us to maybe learn something about ourselves along the way.
But hey, what do I know? I’m just some guy on the Internet.
So what do you all think? Who are some of your favorite protagonists? Who are the worst protagonists? Leave a comment and get this conversation rolling. Until next time, this is Professor Xander signing off.