Monday, June 27, 2011

Does Your Protagonist Protag?

Yes, I know that's not a word.  I made it up so you would click into my post and scold me.

Here's a line you might have heard a time or thirty: The Hero must be Heroic.

But what does it mean?

from Wikimedia Commons  These sailors may both have
invaluable roles to play, but who's most active in this scene?
It means that your Protagonist must be active - in speech, in actions, and in internal thought.  If anybody else "onscreen" has a bigger role than s/he does over the course of the story... that's bad storytelling.

There can be scenes where another character takes the lead, but if your Main Character is always in the back seat or being moved around like a Barbie doll... bor-ing!

DC Fontana drilled into my head, many moons ago, "A STORY is about a CHARACTER with a PROBLEM."  Doesn't even have to be a human character - ET and The Little Engine That Could come to mind.

Getting To Know You
First, we want to know who the character is.  Maybe we like him, her or it, maybe we don't, but at the very least, we must find the MC compelling and interesting.  Then we want to know what the problem is.  If you're skillful enough to weave those together in the first paragraph, even the first line, kudos for you!  Examples of Character + Problem:

Scarlett O'Hara, a spoiled Southern belle, is in love with Ashley Wilkes, but she hears a rumor he's about to announce his engagement to Melanie Hamilton. (Gone With The Wind)

ET, a visitor from another planet, has been stranded on Earth, when its spaceship left. (ET, the Extra-Terrestrial)

Winston, a lonely propagandist, is sick of Big Brother, and enamored with Julia. (1984)

Troy has fallen, but Odysseus, A Greek ship's captain, can't seem to get home. (The Odyssey )

Next we want to see our MC try to solve his problem by his own efforts.  Scarlett arranges to waylay Ashley and declare her love for him.  ET finds allies and gathers parts to build a communicator.  Winston finds a room to let without Big Brother's camera in it.  Odysseus sails towards home and battles monsters and sorceresses along the way.

I Get Knocked Down, But I Get Up Again
Does the first effort succeed?  Almost always NOT (or they think it has, but it hasn't.)  Their efforts may even make things worse.  The point is, they are trying, they are defeated, then they try something else.

The Protagonist/MC is the one who's making things happen.  You can have the story told by another character - The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, as told by Dr. Watson.  Watson is not the main character, because he's the one taking notes; Holmes is the one in the driver's seat.

Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O'Hara via Wikimedia Commons
Protagonists don't sit around, working on a crossword puzzle while waiting for the plumber to come.  They're not hanging around, hoping an outside party will accidentally drop a clue.

If somebody else is talking, they are churning the information in their minds (which we should see, through internal thought or body language).  We should see them redirecting the conversation or beginning some action - a kiss, a tossed vase, a shocking red dress, something - to bring control of the situation back into their own hands (or claws, or whatever grasping appendages they possess.)

Again - their efforts may not work - but protagonists cannot be passive. We the reader (or viewer, in case of TV or movies) need to see the MC doing his, her, or its best to solve the problem. 

In Conclusion
For a story to feel truly satisfying, the ending must come about because of the efforts of the protagonist(s).  When deus ex machina is employed to bring the story to a conclusion, the ending usually feels like there's something missing.   Example: War of the Worlds.  The hero and other Earthlings try everything to defeat the Tripods.  Every time it looks like there might be success, the invaders come back, bigger and badder than ever.  So far, so good, the tension is building.  Then, just when it seems that all is lost... the baddies catch cold and die.  The End.

Yes, it's very nice that Earth is saved and all that, and yes, the film was a commercial success, but if you're not H.G. Wells or Steven Spielberg, you need to rethink those kinds of endings.

If it's a James Bond movie, we expect James Bond to do something that foils the bad guy.  We might let a Bond girl help, but she had better not be the one that kills the villain or defuses the bomb while James is off getting a mani-pedi.

If it's a mystery, nobody should pinpoint the killer before the MC.  In a romance, we want the hero or heroine racing to catch the ferry, stop the plane, or at the very least, sending a text that says "I love you."

The outcome may be different from what s/he had hoped, in which case there must be an epiphany, and the MC realizes it's okay s/he didn't get what s/he originally wanted.  (My Best Friend's Wedding.) This "sunbeam through the clouds" moment still must happens in the heart/mind of the protagonist, and nobody else.

I've had stories that didn't work because my Protagonist was too passive, or she didn't solve her own problems in the end.  How about you?