Thursday, November 15, 2012

Three Attributes Your Protagonist Must Have

The bench was reserved for someone named, "Wet Paint."
I was giving coverage to a colleague's short science fiction screenplay just recently, when I noticed something missing. There was plenty of action, suspense, and conflict. It told a good, ironic tale about the dangers of drug abuse (in space). However, the more I read it, the more I found myself simply not identifying with the protagonist. I didn't like her. And it didn't have to be that way.

Whether a screenplay, stage play, novel, video game, or short story, there are fundamental character attributes that you must include. These are:

1. A Goal

Too many writers fall into the, "I'm just writing a character study" trap. If you'd like your story to be at all engaging, then you must give your protagonist a tangible goal. A noun. And not just any noun will do. Their goal must be the single most important noun that they have ever pursued in their life, and what's more, the audience must be made to see why it's as important to your protagonist as it is.

In Casablanca Rick wants Ilsa. In American Beauty, Lester wants Angela. In Finding Nemo, Marlin wants Nemo. In Up, Carl wants to move his house to Paradise Falls. In Star Wars, Luke wants to save the princess. In Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Harold and Kumar want to go to White Castle. In Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Indiana wants the Holy Grail.

Characters need goals that spur them into action. The goal is the physical (as opposed to emotional) finish line. But as mentioned, we need to understand why these goals are important to the protagonist. The larger component of goal pursuit is the idea of emotional healing. Characters are hurt, and their pursuit of these goals, in their minds, will help them feel better.

Ilsa broke Rick's heart. Lester's wife, daughter, and employer give him no respect. Marlin lost most of his family. Carl lost his wife before he could keep a life-long promise to her. Luke couldn't protect his family. Harold and Kumar are dominated by parental expectations. Indiana has daddy issues. Across the board, we're dealing with characters who have issues. "Troubled people become people in trouble," as UCLA/Hollins screenwriting professor Tim Albaugh says.

What also helps to humanize them?

2. A Flaw

Perfect characters are boring. Your characters can't simply be victims. In some way, however small, your character must also be a victimizer. A little bit selfish. A little bit pigheaded. A little bit creepy. In a word, your character needs to be human.

Rick's wounded heart prevents him from giving Ilsa and her husband the letters of transit. Lester's a lousy role model and a creep. Marlin's a suffocating parent, overprotective to a fault. Carl resorts to violence when a construction worker touches his mailbox. Luke has a lot of anger within him. Harold and Kumar are layabout stoners. Indiana Jones wants to please his un-please-able father.

Not only are these characters flawed, but they see the world through their flaws. Their flaws are often their main characteristic, and it's through their flaws that they act. It's what needs to be fixed, so that these characters can end the script at a stage of completion, as having acquired wisdom. Wisdom with which they did not start out.

Every story is a coming-of-age story.

3. Compassion

Blake Snyder calls it "saving the cat." I call it common sense. Your character must be likable. Note that I didn't say "friendly" or "huggable." The Social Network's Mark Zuckerberg, There Will Be Blood's Daniel Plainview, and Citizen Kane's Charles Foster Kane are not your friends. However, they're the most interesting characters in the room. They have a deep dimensionality and rich complexity, and somewhere, deep down, they do have a soft spot for something. In Network, Mark just wants his girlfriend back. In Blood, Daniel just wants the family he never had. In Kane, Kane pines for the childhood that was denied him.

Despite how callous and selfish these characters are, who can't relate to what motivates them? True, we don't endorse their methods for doing it, but we understand how circumstances and psychology have forced their hands. How can you make a murderer sympathetic? Or a drug abuser? Or a pedophile? Just ask Dexter Morgan in James Manos, Jr.'s Dexter series, or Mark Renton in Danny Boyle's Trainspotting, or Ronnie McGorvey in Todd Field's Little Children. These characters, though more than occasionally reprehensible, evoke audience sympathy.

Despicable acts by sympathetic characters. The ones we relate to the most remind us, in some way, of mistakes we've made: promises broken, friends hurt, opportunities lost.

If nothing else, the best protagonists remind us that no matter how awful we've been, we can always be better.

Make sure your protagonist figures that out.

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