How To Write an Effective Protagonist

Photo by Obi Onyeador from Unsplash

Before you worry about camera angles or location permits, you need a strong script. And the core of that screenplay is your main character – AKA your protagonist.

But what makes a good protagonist?

“Make your main character more likable” is a simplistic note we often hear. It’s easy to write off this note as unehelpful or cliché – but there might be a “note behind the note.” If readers aren’t liking your protagonist, it might mean that there’s a deeper weakness in your script.

Writing a screenplay protagonist

Strong main characters should have all of the following:

They’re interesting.

Forget “likable” – but embrace “interesting.” Lots of famous main characters, like Walter White in Breaking Bad, aren’t likable. But they’re definitely interesting! After being diagnosed with cancer, Walter could have continued teaching. He could have started a charity. He could have written a book. He could have spent more quality time with his family. All realistic, grounded, understandable things. But instead, he chose to start making meth. That makes him interesting. Can your character make a bold or unexpected choice? Reacting in a way the average person wouldn’t often makes a character more interesting.

They actively pursue a goal

Good characters are dealing with specific conflicts in their lives, not general malaise. Sometimes a conflict is an immediate problem, like trying to survive a zombie apocalypse; in other cases, it’s a self-motivated goal, like winning the state soccer championship. Either works! But make sure your character has a goal. Yes, it’s realistic for a person to not know what they want – but characters in movies who don’t know what they want can be frustrating and uninteresting. If they don’t know what they want in all of life, that’s fine – but give them something to pursue in the short-term. Characters who want something but don’t pursue it can also be frustrating. Make them take the leap!

They have flaws or at least quirks

Sure, protagonists can be noble. They can be role models. But perfect characters can be boring. Let your characters make mistakes – those challenges will push the actor to deliver a meaningful performance. What is getting in the way of your character’s goal? What mistakes do they keep making? What is harder for them than for other people? Maybe your character is stubborn or disorganized or quick-tempered. Maybe they push their friends or family members away.

Maybe your character change by the end of the script; maybe they’ll succeed in SPITE of their flaws; or maybe they’ll fail – which might be the point.

Bonus points

See if you can incorporate of these into your film’s main character as well:

  • They don’t always say exactly what they’re thinking
  • They don’t give up when faced with a new challenge
  • They pivot and try something else when their first tactic doesn’t work
  • They have to work together (or against) someone very different from them
  • They care very much about something or someone

Happy writing!

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