Why this protagonist for this story?

Many writers focus so much on their story that they overlook their main character’s connection to the story or main situation. If you are already plugging away at the script you may need to take a few steps backwards to consider this question as it’s the most crucial question to ask of your main character.

You shouldn’t just plop a character, no matter how individually thought out, into your story. There should be a few specific reasons why this character will enhance your plot and vice versa. The plot also has to involve situations that will bring out all dimensions of your character.

A perfect example of this is The Big Lebowski. The main character is a guy who has skated by in life, has no grand aspirations, hates to be hassled and mostly just wants to be left alone. So this is the perfect character to set in a story of mistaken identity that then leads this laid back guy on a complex and totally pain- in-the-ass kidnapping/ransom scheme for a number of reasons. First, he is forced to deal with demanding people, which is totally not his nature. Second, he likes his life just as it is and now its turned upside down. And last, he is clueless about most things in life and now he has to deal with a total clusterf$%#!@ of a situation. 

Most of the situations that will bring out characters maximum potential are ones that force the protagonist out of their comfort zone. They are situations that then push the protagonist to change and have a real character arc. Sometimes they ways the plot and character work together are completely obvious. For example, in Along Came Polly, Ben Stiller plays an insurance risk assessor whose whole life revolves around minimizing risk—both personally and professionally. He also likes to have control over everything. He meets Polly, who has a ferret and is wild and adventurous and she forces him to take life by the horns and embrace the uncertain. At first he resists but over the course of the film changes completely by allowing himself to let go and falls in love with Polly.

Sometimes you can play it much more subtle or reveal why this is the right character as you peel away the character’s shell. In Frost/Nixon David Frost is a rambunctious, trash TV host who has never done anything near as serious as a presidential interview. But as the movie progresses we see that at first it’s a novelty to him but then realize that he has always known he was better than his job and is out to prove people wrong. Plus if this were just a movie about Dan Rather interviewing Nixon, you wouldn’t have this incredible build up and tension as you suspect Frost, who is incompetent (or so you think) is going to botch this chance to prove himself and give himself a real (not shlocky) reputation. While this is based on a true event and real characters, the play and film both recognized this was a character that was extremely compelling in this situation because he is again, out of his comfort zone and normal world.

There are three aspects of your character you should consider when thinking about how they will effect the story and vice versa. 

Consider whether your protagonist is deformed, sick, fat, beautiful, frail, etc. This will affect how they see the world and how the world treats them. Again this will also depend on the world. If the movie is set at a fat farm then a fat person may not feel out of place. But if it’s a fat farm and the protagonist is skinny and beautiful they may be hated or up against more interesting obstacles. 

Most characters have a background that’s explored on the page. We know that Forest Gump was raised in the South with a mother who encouraged him to do whatever he wanted despite his disabilities. Sometimes there will be sociological factors that a writer has explored off the page that they only know intimately. But where a character comes from defines how they will respond to situations. If a character grew up poor they may be constantly looking for a get rich quick scheme. A character who dropped out of school in high school will react differently to life than one who has a Harvard MBA. The characters religion and race also matter. And last, consider how your protagonist relates to their family. Sometimes what defines a person most is their relationship with their parents. Even the silliest comedies go back to this. For example,

And last it’s important to sketch out your character’s psychology. A few character traits to consider are attitude, ambition, and temperament. On attitude, some characters will be laid back (Jeff Bridges in The Big Lebowski). Others will be uptight (Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets). Some will be optimistic or pessimistic . Ambition is also an important defining characteristic. In Jerry Maguire Tom Cruise is obsessed with making money and success. Ultimately he realizes that this doesn’t last and that he’s been missing out on what’s important (love) because he has shut it out to focus on his career. Or a character will have a lack of ambition and be forced to perform. For example, in Knocked Up, Seth Rogan is a slacker who gets a go getter girl pregnant and has to step up. 

So when you consider your idea, set your protagonist in it and consider if the chemistry is right. With some thought, it should be obvious if you have chosen the wrong character or at given them traits that don’t work for your story. Or maybe they just need a few additional character traits to make their involvement in the story more interesting, conflict ridden.

For example, in Along Came Polly, there wouldn’t be any premise if it was about a wild and adventurous guy who fell in love with a crazy risk taking lady because then where is the conflict and thus the story? But if you tweak your protagonist and in some cases your story as well to compliment one another, the whole package will naturally start to come together. Good luck!

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