Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Three Ways to Introduce Your Protagonist

She'll be back.
I recently read a first draft script from a promising writer about a young woman battling hormone-drenched desires while growing up in a conservative, religious environment. The very first scene in which we encounter the young woman, she's masturbating in a school bathroom. While it's an eyebrow-raising introduction to the character, I ultimately advised the writer against it.

When it comes to introducing your protagonist, there's a fine line to walk for any writer. Here are three things to keep in mind:

1. Your Character vs. the World.

The first introduction to a character is crucial, and it usually comes around the same time as our introduction to the world you've created. Some writers establish the world first. Some establish the character first. My advice is to establish both at once. Show the fishbowl along with the fish. How is your character at once a part of and at the same time separate from the world of your film? How do they see things? How do their friends/family/coworkers see them? Alan Ball's American Beauty script does a fantastic job of setting up Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) and the world of the film within the film's first five minutes. We not only have a good handle on how Lester perceives himself, but also how those around him perceive him. "Both my wife and daughter think I'm this gigantic loser. And they're right. I have lost something." He spends the rest of the film clawing to grab it back.

2. Avoid the Gratuitous.

Opening up on a masturbation scene will attract viewer attention like a lightning rod. That's good if you're going for attention, in the same way that opening on a gruesome murder is a good way to go for attention. However, consider the opening to any episode of Law and Order: there's an illegal act, which is oftentimes shocking, but the act itself is only as shocking as the context in which it appears. Why else do we spend the rest of the episode clamoring for justice? We care about those who have been wronged, and we want justice served.

Even in a film like Quentin Tarantino's Kill Bill: Volume One, the opening scene, a blood-spattered bride on a chapel floor, is full of character, story, and context. Check out the dialogue for that scene:

We have one shot, and it's a disturbing one, at that. It's dark, violent, and grabs our attention immediately. It's iconic. But it's more than a beaten woman, shot on a floor. We learn so many things about the woman and her assailant in this scene that, if we don't mind the violence, we can't help but tune in for the remaining minutes of volumes one and two. This scene sets up so much, but ultimately, it forces us to ask two questions:

A. Why does a man who commits such a sadistic act consider himself, instead, masochistic?

B. What's the deal with the baby?

The two films are about a woman who seeks revenge for her own attempted murder and the apparent murder of her unborn child. The first scene of the first film tells us everything we need to know. It grabs attention, tells us a lot about the characters, and moves the story forward. It's a lot to do, but you absolutely must do it.

3. Show Us Their Uniqueness and Specific Problem.

Your protagonist sticks out. We're following him/her as opposed to his/her friends, parents, teachers, and so on.

So why are we doing that? What makes your character notable? It needs to be more than, "they're the only one who masturbates in the school lavatory." What will make your character unique is indeed what they do, but also why they do it. Why does Lester Burnham pursue the affections of a cheerleader? Why does Tony Stark seek to keep his own company's weapons out of the hands of terrorists in Iron Man? Why does Rick Blaine seek to use the letters of transit as leverage in Casablanca?

Your character is larger than life: he or she is the very best at something or the very worst at something. This is why we're following this character as opposed to another. Furthermore, your character has two problems: the first being the internal, thematic dilemma - what your character needs to do to become a better person. Then, there's the external, plot issue - what your character must do to fix unfortunate external circumstances. How your specific character grapples with both of these creates your entire story.

Regardless of what your character fights internally and externally, you have to show these to your audience as quickly as possible. Not to jam it down their throats, but to create a need to know and most importantly, a need to care. Andrew Stanton of Pixar calls this the number one commandment of storytelling: make me care. Within the first 10 pages of your feature, if we don't care, you've lost us. Tarantino does it in 30 seconds in Kill Bill.

You can do it, too.


  1. Several interesting issues here,but I will just address one. I don't think you can state categorically that every protagonist should be larger than life. Sometimes we root a character who is ordinary and flawed, IF we understand this character. Sure, there are lots of superheros out there, but just plain heroes can be interesting too. OMG, he's trapped in a burning building and he CAN'T FLY!

    1. I agree completely. What I mean by "larger than life" is that they need to have some sort of talent or quirk that differentiates them from everyone else. It need not even be a superpower, and oftentimes isn't: In Up, Carl's fantastic ability with balloons is what allows him to avoid being shipped to Shady Oaks and fly to Paradise Falls. In The Social Network, Mark's uncanny ability to see how people connect and why they connect enable him to program Facebook. In The King's Speech, George VI is pretty awful at making speeches. Of course, these aren't abilities out of the realm of possibility for any mortal, but it does show them to be amazing at something or lacking in something, and these skills (or lack thereof) help to define their struggle and are integrated elements within the story, itself.

    2. Your examples are well chosen to support your argument! But I certainly agree that we have to judge a character according to the possibilities and limits of the world that the movie creates, not our own concept of the world. The character Mark in The Social Network cannot pull out a gun and shoot people he doesn't like, whereas Dirty Harry can.

      But even in context, some protagonists are nothing special.

      Of course, we have to judge these characters in the context of what's possible in the world created by the movie.

      In "Sideways," I don't see the Paul Giamatti character as being particularly good at anything, not even lying. His actor friend is even worse. But we sympathize with them anyway, particularly when the actor, who's on the brink of cheating his fiancee, says, "You don't understand my dilemma."

      Kyle MacLachan in Blue Velvet is a completely ordinary kid who enters the dark side by accident, when he finds an ear on the ground (shudder).

      In the multiple-award-winning German film "The Lives of Others," which takes place in communist East Germany, the protagonist is an ordinary police spy (there were tens of thousands of them) who becomes fascinated and fatally attracted to the people in the theater group he's spying on.

  2. Personally, I consider the world to be the most important character in any script. For me, it starts with the world. Yet, I agree with you that ideally we would like to introduce the world and the main character(s) within the world simultaneously, BUT I don't think that Ball and Tarentino did that very well in either American Beauty or Kill Bill. Why? Because they over relied on voiceover to tell us what the character and the story were about. I enjoyed American Beauty but having Lester tell us his life issues in voiceover while he showers was not an interesting scene, so he told us what was in his head. In the Kill Bill scene, the violence typical of Tarentino was what the audience liked, especially given the church setting.

    1. I think it's tough to make the world a character per se, as a character, to be engaging, ought to undergo some sort of emotional transition. If the world is what needs to change, then it should only be done by a character who needs to change, first and foremost. In The Matrix, the world is fascinating, but unless Neo takes his first steps, it'll remain the way it is.

      Kill Bill, at least in the opening scene, used an off-screen voice, as opposed to voice-over. Lester's voice-over worked in Beauty because, as the tagline of the film was Look closer, Lester was showing us one thing but telling us something else (i.e., Carolyn's pruning shears matching her gardening clogs.) Anyone else wouldn't likely notice, but he draws our attention to it in such a way that it sums up her character, all because, with his help, we're looking closer.

      In Bill I disagree that it's the violence alone that's attractive. Gratuitous violence by itself can't sustain viewer interest consistently through one film, let alone two. It has to be going somewhere. Bill's opening establishes drama, and it makes us want to know what's special about this woman on the floor. We don't even know that she's in a chapel, just yet. Emotional stakes are not fully established in that first scene, but we certainly want to know more beyond just the promise of more violence.