Personality goes a long way, but if a protagonist’s behavior is not terribly well thought-out their winning persona won’t save them from audience disinterest.
Suspension of disbelief is the most generous gift a reader or viewer can give your script. It’s as vital as it is fragile. Spoil it and they’ll check out of your story or, worse, they’ll actively root against it. There are a handful of ways in which a narrative can win or lose its audience. One way involves a major aspect of any character’s nature – their behavior.
Aside from ‘Thou-Shalt-Not-Bore-Thy-Audience,’ there are no hard rules on designing a protagonist’s nature. That said, most script readers keep some basic touchstones in mind when examining a protagonist’s behavioral qualities, such as their Activity, Believability and Rationale.
Protagonists are generally beings with a problem to solve. Their problem puts them through their own unique version of hell and in the end they either solve it or they don’t. A defining feature of any protagonist is whether they are more active or passive as regards their particular story problem. Some protagonists might be struggling to escape their predicament. Some might be passionately pursuing a solution. Others might be unable to stop their problem from walking all over them. The important thing is that your protagonist’s level of activity or passivity suits the kind of dramatic conflict your story is trying to engender and the themes it is trying to explore.
Active protagonists are usually pursuing a clear goal or series of goals throughout the story. Dilemmas confront them, challenging their philosophies and imposing the harshest options, yet active protagonists (Abigail in THE FAVOURITE, Miguel in COCO) continue to initiate action in pursuit of their goal – driving the story. One reason why active protagonists are so prevalent in cinematic storytelling is because our interest is naturally drawn to individuals who are trying to confront and resolve chaos. While they may be innately involving, characters that are tirelessly unrelenting are not suited to the exploration of every theme or slice of life and they’re frequently in danger of leaving relatability and realism at the doorstep.
Passive main characters are more challenging to write. They have typically resigned themselves to their situation, letting others drive the story (Benjamin Braddock in THE GRADUATE). Or, they might desperately want to solve their story problem despite being powerless to do so (Kate Macer in SICARIO, one of the best-written passive protagonists in recent memory). However, connecting readers and viewers with a protagonist who is unwilling or unable to drive the story requires a ton of empathy. We are more likely to care about passive main characters, whether they are resigned or reactive, when the story is focused on exploring themes related to the root cause of their inactivity.
Commonly, a balance needs to be struck. Passive main characters can eventually find it within themselves to take the reins. Active protagonists can stagnate, requiring help or a swift spiritual kick to the head from other characters or events, enabling them to continue propelling the story. Even the lazy, charming and mostly passive character of The Dude becomes active enough to uncover the truth and resolve his story problem by the end of THE BIG LEBOWSKI.
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