How to Make your Protagonist Engaging
I don’t think I’m the only screenwriter to be frustrated when I’m given the note “Couldn’t the main character be… just a bit more likeable?” My frustration comes partly from the fact that a lot of my protagonists are intentionally not conventionally likeable, and partly from the note having a grain of truth, even though it’s poorly phrased. Most of the time what this note means is not ‘likeable’ but ‘rootable’, i.e. it expresses a desire that the audience should be able to get behind the protagonist and want her or him to succeed. How’s that different to ‘likeable’? There are plenty of characters throughout cinema who are unlikeable, even downright evil, but still very rootable. Think of Lisbeth Salander – The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Jake Gyllenhall in Night Crawler, Miles Teller in Whiplash, Jack Nicolson in… almost anything. I’m talking about anti-heroes.
Hero or anti-hero, your protagonist needs to be rootable. Why? Primarily because rooting for the lead character is what keeps the audience watching. In the golden age of small screen drama, this characteristic is doubly important – writers not only have to keep the audience watching to the end roller, they’ve got to get them to come back and watch the next episode and the next season.
So what makes a character rootable?
There is no characteristic that, on its own, guarantees that a character will be rootable. True, some characteristics are more compelling than others, but even mixing these more reliable personality traits can just lead to a character who is flat, clichéd or unbelievable. Even in a more conventional hero there needs to be a little bit of shade, if only to make them seem human.
But enough qualifying, here are some attractive personality traits:
Proactiveness – It’s near impossible to write a protagonist who isn’t active – one definition of the word protagonist is “one who makes things happen”; without their activity there is no story. Of course there are plenty of protagonists who are reactive – the young farmer who decides to defend his village against bandits, the detective who is approached with a case to crack – but reactiveness is less revealing of character: many people in their position would do the same. The proactive character has a dream of their own and decides to follow it. Maybe they want to make it rich in the big city, or to be the first person of their gender or race to do a certain thing. Often they’re ambitious, and it’s their ambition that drives the story.
Sometimes their dreams are crazy and/or are pursued with insane determination. The title character of Fitzcarraldo wants to build an opera house in the jungle and must organise a boat to be pulled over a mountain in order to make that happen. In The Aviator, Howard Hughes has ambitions in fields from filmmaking to aeronautical engineering, all of which he pursues with driven perfectionism that borders on insanity. Many stories about explorers or mountaineers are led by such characters. These people are rarely likeable but, if sufficiently turbo-charged, they tend to be gripping to watch – we have to know whether they will succeed and, if so, how.
Expertise – We all love a character who is really good at something. It can be anything from karate to making chocolate to computer hacking. In Up In the Air George Clooney plays a character who is introduced first as having perfected the art of checking in at airports, then as being a master at firing people – and still we like him! There can be much darker skillsets too – the eponymous heroes of Leon: The Professional and The Day of the Jackal are both contract killers who have perfected their trade. Whether our hero can play boogie-woogie piano or hit a fly with a throwing knife, we can’t help but admire the dedication that must have gone into perfecting their skill. We wish we had their focus and are happy to be put in the shoes of such a person for a little while. Their skills also reassure us that we will be safe siding with such a person – not always true!
Uninhibitedness – This is where Jack Nicholson comes in. He made a career of playing characters who act as they want to, and don’t give a damn what anyone else thinks about it. From One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to As Good as it Gets, About Schmidt to The Departed, the characters that Jack has played have done their own thing, regardless. But uninhibited characters don’t have to have manic or curmudgeonly energy: think of our first meeting with Jeff Lebowski in the convenience store where he’s wearing his dressing gown and slippers and milk on his moustache.
These characters have an escapist edge for the audience – a chance to tread in the footsteps of a character who has cast off the shackles of the inhibitions that we imagine keep us prisoner. What would it be like if we could act so freely?
Vulnerability – An unexpected one this. Characters who are invulnerable can be fun for a while but, as any Marvel screenwriter knows, having a character who is immune from harm quickly reduces the stakes of the story to next to nothing.
Vulnerability creates dramatic tension. Just as expertise reassures us that we’re in good hands, vulnerability reminds us that there is danger in this story: a character we care about could get hurt, whether it be physically or emotionally. In Hacksaw Ridge Desmond Doss commits himself to going into combat zones without a rifle. Kevin in Moonlight must hide his sexuality in order to survive on the mean streets of Miami.
Sometimes the vulnerability is less central to the plot. I read a good tip recently suggesting that it is important to make sure your protagonist is seen to be answerable to someone early on in the story. Even if the character defies this authority figure, it’s important that we see that they’re not at the top of the food chain.
There are plenty more conventional heroic characteristics – courage, honour, selflessness, &c. – but these qualities tend to speak for themselves.
More interesting, I think, is how rootable characteristic split into two groups: those that encourage us to empathise with the character, like vulnerability, uninhibitedness, selflessness; and those that cause us to be interested in the character, like expertise, proactiveness, cool. There are plenty of stories where the central character is likeable but not very interesting; the result is not compelling, we might not watch these movies to the end. There are others where the protagonist is incredibly interesting but emotionally unappealing or unreachable; these stories we tend to watch through, but we come away from them feeling faintly frustrated or with a sense of ‘so what?’
The trick is to balance these two types of character traits within your protagonist, so that we are intellectually interested enough to keep watching, and emotionally interested enough for the story to touch us.
You don’t even have to play all these cards at one time; character can be revealed gradually. An interesting example is in Passengers where Chris Pratt’s character is introduced as being warm, capable, honourable, down-to-earth. Just plain likeable. Until he does something that is not at all ‘likeable’. The guilt he carries with him about his selfish act goes a little way to regaining him some likeability, but I’m not sure we ever fully forgive him. However, once he has transgressed, the story becomes a lot more interesting: will he manage to keep his guilty secret? Will he find some way of redeeming himself? Which of us, we are asked, would have done differently given his circumstances?
So how do we find this balance? If I could tell you I’d have an Oscar to polish. Like you, I’m still working on that.
Copyright © Guy Ducker 2017
Edited by Dr Sara Lodge