Personality goes a long way, but if a protagonist’s behavior is not terribly well-thought-out, their winning persona won’t save them from audience disinterest.
Suspension of disbelief is the most generous gift a reader or viewer can give your screenplay. It’s as vital as it is fragile. Spoil it and they’ll check out of your story or, worse, they’ll actively root against it. There are a handful of ways in which a narrative can win or lose its audience. One way involves a major aspect of any character’s nature – their behavior.
Aside from ‘Thou Shalt Not Bore Thy Audience,’ there are no hard rules on designing a protagonist’s nature. That said, most script readers keep some basic touchstones in mind when examining a protagonist’s behavioral qualities, such as their Activity, Believability and Rationale.
Protagonists are generally beings with a problem to solve. Their problem puts them through their own unique version of hell and in the end they either solve it or they don’t. Activity relates to the plot of your story. A defining feature of any protagonist is whether they are more active or passive with regard to their particular story problem. Some protagonists might be struggling to escape their predicament. Some might be passionately pursuing a solution. Others might be unable to stop their problem from walking all over them. The important thing is that your protagonist’s level of activity or passivity suits the kind of dramatic conflict your story is trying to engender and the themes it is trying to explore.
Active protagonists are pursuing a clear goal or series of goals throughout the story. Dilemmas confront them, challenging their philosophies and imposing the harshest options, yet active protagonists (Abigail in The Favourite, Miguel in Coco) continue to initiate action in pursuit of their goal – driving the story. One reason why active protagonists are so prevalent in cinematic storytelling is because our interest is naturally drawn to individuals who are trying to confront and resolve chaos. While they may be innately involving, characters that are tirelessly unrelenting are not suited to the exploration of every theme or slice of life and they’re frequently in danger of leaving relatability and realism at the doorstep.
Passive main characters are more challenging to write. They have typically resigned themselves to their situation, letting others drive the story (Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate). Or, they might desperately want to solve their story problem despite being powerless to do so (Kate Macer in Sicario, one of the best-written passive protagonists in recent memory). However, connecting readers and viewers with a protagonist who is unwilling or unable to drive the story requires a ton of empathy. We are more likely to care about passive main characters, whether they are resigned or reactive when the story is focused on exploring themes related to the root cause of their inactivity.
Commonly, a balance needs to be struck. Passive main characters can eventually find it within themselves to take the reins. Active protagonists can stagnate, requiring help or a swift spiritual kick to the head from other characters or events, enabling them to continue propelling the story. Even the lazy, charming and mostly passive character of The Dude becomes active enough to uncover the truth and resolve his story problem by the end of The Big Lebowski.
We each have films and characters we love so much that we’ll happily forgive their credibility gaps among other shortcomings. Whenever such failings are first encountered on the page, they’re a lot harder to forgive. A script’s ability to keep its readers emotionally involved relies a good deal on its authenticity. In any genre, credible characters and story worlds require homework and readers can spot when you haven’t done yours.
To write intelligently about the kind of person your protagonist is and how they view the world, be they a baby giraffe, an obsessive florist or a venerable Viking, you ought to thoroughly understand that individual’s culture, time period and the formative experiences which gave rise to their tastes, values, and attitudes. The more you know about your character’s social background, the influences that shaped their philosophy and the rules of the world in which the story takes place, the more sincere their behavior will be.
Equally, it’s best to have a good grasp of your protagonist’s professional domain. Corey Mandell says, “If you’re writing a homicide detective, when we read your script, we should feel like YOU were a homicide detective.” Generic or slapped-on occupations are wasted opportunities for a character to impress the reader or viewer. Researching the subject of your protagonist’s vocation, their work environments, and their particular vocabularies, to the point of being able to understand the nature of those drawn to that field will give noteworthy credence to your protagonist’s conduct throughout the story.
Putting in the proper homework is invaluable. It allows you to write knowledgeably about your protagonist’s life and world. You’ll be able to ensure your protagonist’s behavior, how and when they do what they do in pursuit of a solution to their story problem, is authentically and convincingly in line with that life and world. And you’ll be better able to trust your intuition about the character, especially when it comes to handling notes during development. It’s not important for readers and audiences to know your characters and story world inside out. But it is important for them to feel that you do.
In Collateral, hitman Vincent’s dependency on violence and his unchanging sociopathic behavior are meticulously well-founded in severe emotional trauma that occurred in his childhood.
A script ought to deliver on its target audience’s expectations and more. It should also surprise, but that’s easier said than done. Deliver on too many expectations and the story becomes predictable. Subvert too many expectations and the story becomes unsatisfying. When treading this line, it can be hard not to alter your protagonist’s intellect. Adjusting a character’s logic in a given moment might help you to satisfy a genre staple, or to reveal a great surprise, or to just get the plot around a corner – but it can also produce story-killing contrivances.
Who hasn’t rolled their eyes at a clever protagonist making a silly decision, losing too easily, or at a naïve protagonist uncharacteristically figuring things out too quickly, all for plot convenience? Drama is artificial and contrived, but it fails to function whenever it gives us a sense of artificiality or contrivance. Every time a character displays new skills, reasoning or views inconsistent with their background or the information the script has already shown us about them it rips us out of the story. In any genre, the protagonist’s logic and rationale have to make good sense within the context of the narrative.
Avoid showing your hand by keeping what your protagonist thinks, says and does as true to them as you can. When in doubt, consider your protagonist’s motivation (what they’re after; why they must act; what they fear and what they hope for), their perspective (what they know; what they’ve experienced prior; what they respect and what they despise) and their capabilities (the skills, resources, and tactics they have to draw on). Surprise the audience whenever possible, but take care that your protagonist’s choices accurately reflect their good judgment and their philosophy, consistent with what the script has previously revealed about them.
That’s not to say characters cannot be ambivalent or behave irrationally, as well they may, particularly in affairs of the heart, but be aware that nonsensical behavior runs the risk of turning readers and viewers against them. The most eccentric characters are not immune either. Unjustified lapses in any character’s knowledge, logic, and reasoning, even if they stem from irrational compulsions or feelings, have the ability to decimate suspension of disbelief for even the most forgiving audiences.
The genres best able to wield unfounded changes in a character’s rationale tend to be Satire and Absurdist Comedy. In Monty Python And The Holy Grail when desperately trying to escape the harassing temptresses of castle Anthrax, Sir Galahad ‘the Chaste’ quickly goes from staunch abstinence to giddy indulgence for the sake of comedy gold.
During analysis, most veteran script readers will examine two intersecting aspects of any protagonist: their Journey (story-long conflict and transformation) and their Nature (their entire personality). The keystone to a protagonist’s personality is almost always their unique philosophy: their personal attitude to life, as conveyed by how they deal with conflict and chaos throughout the narrative.
And while we almost universally appreciate fresh and unique personalities, or defining characteristics that are bold and mesmeric, a protagonist’s basic behavioral qualities can make or break them. Their ability (or inability) to even function as a compelling and convincing screen presence in the first place relies in large part on these factors being up to par.