Establishing a compelling protagonist in your film

by Henry Wallis | May 10th 2020

Fundamentally, our protagonist must have two defining characteristics. They must be active and flawed. Otherwise, your audience will be sat half asleep and wondering why they paid for the cinema tickets in the first place.

Our protagonist must be actively pursuing an external goal which must be cinematic.  It is the failure to pursue this goal which creates great drama and keeps the audience watching. If you’re following the Hero’s Journey structure by Joseph Cambell, your protagonist may refuse the call as seen in The Hobbit and many other films. Remember, Bilbo initially refuses Gandalf’s call to adventure. Thus the many dwarfs and the meal etc. Yet the protagonist must always accept the call or have an inciting incident in which a situation is thrust upon them which results in them attempting to pursue a goal.  This goal must not be easy, otherwise, the film would be over in mere minutes. The stakes must be high. You also, have to establish what will happen if this protagonist doesn’t get what they want and who will suffer the consequences and what will they be? Make the audience care about what happens if this goal is not achieved. 

Next, flawed.  Well, what does this really mean? It means your protagonist is grappling with an internal issue which is so great that it is causing them to not live their life to its fullest potential. And through pursuing and achieving this external goal, the protagonist will confront and hopefully overcome this internal flaw. This flaw makes the protagonist more human as nobody is perfect. In Jojo Rabbit, the protagonist’s flaw could be seen as his belief in the Nazi regime, his naivety, and obedience. It is through completing his external goal, keeping his new Jewish friend Elsa safe from the SS, that he confronts his flaw. It is then shattered as he rebels against the Nazi’s beliefs through literally kicking an imaginary Hitler out of a window.  Great film.  Yet what it does show is that a flaw too must also be filmic. This is because although hilarious and absurd,  kicking Hitler through that window symbolizes the protagonist overcoming his flaw which was his obedience to a regime which he himself does not fully understand. 

Now keep these 2 characteristics in mind and hopefully your audience will be engaged and wondering if your hero will achieve their goal. They don’t always have to! 


ABOUT THE AUTHOR | Henry Wallis

Henry Wallis is an aspiring screenwriter from West-Midlands

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