Tuesday, February 01, 2011

the Writing Week (Vol. 4) part 161 - Who to Identify Your Protagonist

There are, to use the technical term, a crap load of key things to figure out when you write a script: the theme, the plot, the setting. Similarly important, but less structural, elements include characters' names and the title. (These are important, but they are details that can be sorted out later or come from a deeper understanding of the earlier points.) One element that is essential, and yet often quite difficult to nail, is your protagonist.

Obviously, your protagonist carries your story. He or she bears the burden of maintaining our interest and being proactive (or, in some rare cases, captivatingly reactive) for 90 to 120 pages (minutes) of story. His or her name might mean something obvious, subtle, or just sound rad. The setting and other characters in your world influence your protagonist, and your protagonist, transitively, affects all of them. Your protagonist might be very obvious. Sometimes, unfortunately, s/he isn't.

When I develop a new script, I tend to start with a logline. Often, this logline will naturally lead to a protagonist - at least, in the most general sense. A criminal searching for those who killed his family is an obvious protagonist, but it doesn't say too much about who he is or what his ticks are. Yes, he's a criminal, a killer (theoretically), and a family man. But dig deeper. Who is he really? What is his arc? On the other hand, a script about, say, a castle under siege is a vague place to start. It leaves near infinite possibilities, which can be great for a writer, but doesn't begin to target your protag at all. So, how do you find him or her?

This past week, with a lot of help from Onyx, I've been developing a bit of a horror script. Like with many horror (or crime) ideas, there are two main approaches I see that can be taken. The first is to just show the audience what happens and experience everything in "real time" - or, at least, chronologically. The second approach is to attack it from an investigative way, revealing the horrors/crime clues bit by bit until the puzzle is complete. I waffled between these two approaches all week, until my protagonist emerged. In the story I want to tell, there's a person who, above all, has the most obvious goals, arc, and antagonist. The choice may seem unquestionable here; but the fact is, the route with the clearest protagonist is also the one that seems the most difficult to write here. I figure I can structure a script more easily the other way, but without a protagonist, it will all fall apart. 

At the end of the day, though, I know I've identified the most logical, clearest protagonist. That is hard to ignore. Consequently, it is the direction I'll take the script - at least for now. So, if like me, you're having issues identifying your protagonist, just ask yourself some simple questions. Who has the most to gain or lose in your story? Who will experience the most? Who is most likely to be the subject of the antagonist's evil machinations? This person will, with little doubt, make him or herself stand out as the principal in your story. And, with them leading the way, hopefully the rest of their journey will fall neatly into place.