You should have one protagonist – someone undergoing a life-altering journey. We experience the journey through his or her world paradigm, and we want to root for that hero to succeed. That’s a key point, actually, that is sometimes lost on writers. We’re supposed to root for the hero to win. If I don’t like your hero and want him to win, why would I bother to turn the page?
In the first couple of pages of your script, you are establishing the finish line. Michael Hauge speaks of screenplay as a race, and the protagonist is running and we’re rooting for him to cross the finish line. Is the protagonist going to get the job, find the special tool that will help him save his own life, expose the bad guy, overcome a terminal illness diagnosis, repair a relationship with the mother? If you do not establish a finish line within the first couple of pages, there is a problem – and also a huge problem if I would never root for your hero. In order for me to connect, I have to want to fight for that hero. It’s your job to paint that portrait in words of the protagonist with whom I emotionally connect but also would want to fight for. Because sometimes it comes down to the reader fighting for a script. Make me want to fight the good fight.
In certain cases, a dual protagonist model can work, or an ensemble model (such as “Lost,” “Magnolia,” “Crash,” “Go,” any Robert Altman project, etc.) where there are multiple protagonists and multiple story lines that overlap and intersect, however those types of stories are more challenging to write (and thus more opportunity for pitfalls), and so I recommend for you to just have one defined protagonist whom we can track easily. Modern American cinema is mostly based on the hero’s journey, and so I recommend mastering the basics of this journey before branching out and writing other types of stories.
Your Protagonist Must be Sympathetic – or Damned Interesting
I’m not going to say every protagonist needs to be conventionally sympathetic because I love unreliable narrators (although we don’t see them often) and some characters are mildly shitty but absolutely fascinating and keep me on the edge of my seat (perfect example: Nurse Jackie). Edward Norton’s character in “Fight Club” wasn’t completely likable, but he was sure fascinating, and all the more so because he was a complete psycho. That’s fascinating. We didn’t know what he was going to do next – that keeps the reader turning the page.
Just remember, you’re supposed to be writing great characters. A mediocre or boring character isn’t going to stand out from the pack, capture my imagination – or my heart – and I’m not going to want to root for or fight for mediocrity. Your character doesn’t have to be a saint, but there does have to be something incredibly compelling about your character. Something that drives me to turn the page and learn more. Even if your character is a dick, make him special in his dickishness. Make that unique and compelling.
Always go for the more dramatic, unique choice in terms of character. A character in bed alone is simply not as exciting as a character in bed with someone or something else (having sex, or with a horse’s head). A character on the phone is boring. How much more exciting to have the confrontation happen in person and then escalate into a brawl? Make careful choices. Bump the drama.
Beware the Loser
I’ve just read several scripts that open on a loser. One loser opens a speak-easy in his bedroom – in his parents’ basement. The other is a total loser (but apparently by his own making – he gets himself fired and is terrible with money) who’s trying to win a competition. Okay, so “Failure To Launch” was based on this premise, but the whole point of that story was that he’d had his heart broken and moved home to the safety of mom and dad – the arc was that he was overcoming his broken heart and finding new love. (I’ve been there, so I find that relatable.) In addition, Matthew McConaughey is very charming and thus likable despite his temporary loserdom. We never really believe he’s a loser. He’s just posing as a loser for a short time. Real losers are hard to write because we don’t really care about the loser, nor do we want him to win.
There is a huge difference between the loser and the underdog. Write the underdog, and be very thoughtful about how you craft him. If you paint your “underdog” as a consummate loser – someone who’s been a loser (especially of his own making) and will always be a loser – then it is almost impossible for me to see how an actor will want that role, will get paid a ton of money to play that role, and more importantly, why should I care? He’s a loser. Next.
It is perfectly fine to establish a character who’s down on his luck. There is a thoughtful way to establish an underdog. Say someone gets fired by a very mean boss. That’s not that character’s fault. Or, a piano flies out of the sky and breaks the character’s leg. Also, not his fault. Hit by a drunk driver. Again, bad luck. Bad things happen to good people every day – that is very universal and relatable. It is important for us to have a sense that the protagonist is well-intentioned in any situation, because we’re working in good faith that he is trying his hardest. This is someone we want to win. This is someone we root for.
I read one script where we learn that the character is a single dad, absolutely broke (has no credit on any of his credit cards), speaks back to his boss (is a jerk) so he gets himself fired, but yet has glowing aspirations to win some contest and turn his life around. I have zero sympathy for a guy who is irresponsible with his finances and a dick at work – so much so that he gets himself fired. Especially if he’s a single dad, because his main goal in life should be putting food on the table. I don’t think the writer of this script thought through carefully enough what my response would be to his beats. I think he’s trying to paint the picture of a man down on his luck so that he can have the loser win in the end. But, what he really painted was an absolutely unlikable dick. I could care less if that loser dad wins his competition. And I could really care less to read 100+ pages of that character, because by page 4 he’d already lost me.
Pay attention to what you’re really establishing. Be thoughtful. Beware the loser!
Complicated World, Lots of Characters
I am a big fan of using the protagonist to orient the reader in the world. If you are taking us into a world with a lot of characters, or a world that is unique or complicated (sci-fi, overseas, complex thriller set in a special world, etc.) the only way we’ll be able to orient is through the protagonist’s reaction to said characters.
One of my peeves, especially if it happens in the beginning of a script, is a group scene – in a restaurant, bar, family, school – where we meet a large group (3+) of characters together. Especially if this is how you’re choosing to introduce your protagonist. Sometimes one can introduce the group and then immediately make the protagonist stand out – that can be interesting. But risky.
Let me assure you, if you introduce two or more characters in a group setting and all I get is a name, an age, and perhaps an outfit, I won’t have any idea who that character is or what their deal is. And I probably won’t care all that much. It is incredibly difficult to write group scenes where you introduce characters so that each and every character in the room is 100% unique and trackable. Avoid this wherever possible.
Any time I meet a new character that I need to track for the rest of the script, their intro scene should be memorable and should offer me a deeper insight into their character. If you dump them as a group, I will assume they’re not important and won’t track them. But, then, later on, I will be annoyed if one of the group characters is a major player and wasn’t properly introduced as such. Because this will likely involve me flipping back – and that’s a real no-no.
Also, if you are going to dump a bunch of characters in one scene, don’t make me think too hard. Make the names give me info about the characters. Choose clear names – Grace, Elizabeth, James, Stephen. Don’t introduce Taylor, Pat and Terry (genderless names), don’t give me an age or a gender, and assume I won’t be annoyed at this. I will be. Because on page 70 when I discover Terry is really a girl and Pat a guy, and I’ve been assuming for the last 30 pages the reverse (or that they’re just hermaphros), I will just be confused. Also, watch name spelling. I know this is being really nit-picky, but if you’re naming a character Taylor, don’t spell it “Tehler” or “Teiler.” Just use the most obvious convention. The more I have to think about something like this, the more it will annoy me.
Don’t introduce a character named, “Brynjar,” and not tell me if it’s a woman or a man. That is not a normal American name, and I won’t know unless you tell me. And, please, don’t name your character Brynjar unless that is somehow underscoring his character and his Scandinavian cultural origins. Otherwise, I will be waiting for the reason why you named the character Brynjar – as opposed to James – and at some point it will annoy me. Especially if there is no reason for that odd a choice, because it’s distracting.