How to Write a Strong Protagonist Character in a MovieCharting a course for your main character from beginning to end.
These are common names for the same thing in a traditional film: the protagonist.
But what, precisely, is a “protagonist” in movie lingo? Well, generally speaking, the protagonist is the character the film is about. In other words, it’s their experience we follow throughout the film.
Protagonists are one of the most frequently discussed aspects of film writing here at Lights Film School, since students aren’t always sure who the protagonist is and how they contribute to the story. We thoroughly demystify the role of the main character in our online film school, but we’ll do some of that here now, too, to point you in the right direction!
First, a quick note up top. We’ll be examining the protagonist in context of classic three-act film structure, what some folks call “western narrative” or “western dramatic structure”. This story structure features one protagonist and includes beginning, middle, and end movements, or “Acts”.
In fact, we discussed this storytelling tradition recently, but if you’re feeling especially ambitious and want to take your studies even further, then I strongly advise you to pick up our free screenwriting eBook, available at the bottom of this page and in banners around our blog. It’s a deep dive into the craft of the screenplay that’s packed with valuable lessons and case studies that show western dramatic structure in action!
Without further ado, let’s chart a way forward.
What is a protagonist and why are they important?
Imagine the story of your film told from a first-person perspective, perhaps as an anecdote at a dinner party. The person doing the talking would be the protagonist. “My life was going along day by day – normally, you know – and then one day, something crazy happened that changed everything…” It’s a storytelling tradition that can be traced back to antiquity. Any Greek Mythology nerds out there? Imagine Odysseus telling the tale of his wanderings to the Phaecians – “and then a storm sent by Zeus swept us along for nine days before bringing us to the shores of the Lotus-eaters. What did you say? Cyclops? Don’t even get me started.”
Whether they’re telling the story directly or having a story told about them, the protagonist gives the audience a window into the events of the film, a perspective on what’s happening, and – importantly – someone to root for and relate to. In a best case scenario, the audience gets so wrapped up in the protagonist’s experiences that their emotions reflect the protagonist’s emotions.
So, when the protagonist is nervous, you’re nervous. When they’re delighted, you’re delighted. I recently sat down with my family to watch Home Alone 2 – our post-tree-trimming tradition! – and as always, when Kevin reunited with his Mom at the end of the film, I couldn’t help but break into a goofy, sentimental grin (and I may or may not have felt my eyes well up with a few tears, too. Don’t judge).
Actually, audiences have been found to mimic the facial expressions of characters onscreen. It’s called “the mirror rule.” As Professor Jeremy Zacks explains in his book, Flicker: Your Brain on Movies:
“If you go to an action movie with a lot of kids, you can literally see the mirror rule operating. For example, during a martial arts scene, you will see a good portion of the audience waving their arms and legs along with the characters. At my house, my kids fully jump out of their chairs and leap around the living room.
More subtle, but even more ineluctable, is the mimicking of facial expression. Watch audience members’ faces sometime when you go to the movies. If a character on screen is grinning, people will tend to smile. If a character is angry, viewers’ brows will knit. If someone starts crying, mouths will turn down and you may even seen tears.”
There’s only one protagonist in a traditionally-structured film.
For the most part, a single protagonist carries a three-act film. Their decisions and experiences drive the story from beat to beat, through conflict to resolution. “Adding additional protagonists alters the character balance of your story,” screenwriter and writing consultant J. Gideon Sarantinos argues. “Switching between multiple protagonists jars the audience, as they adjust to a second or third point of view. Then they must decipher which one is the most important.”
“Audiences make an emotional investment early on in every film. They define the character map in terms of protagonist, antagonist and other characters. Who must they follow? Who must they root for? Who must they see defeated… Resetting these rules disrupts the emotional connection the audience has with them.”
You could think about it this way: It’s often better to get to know one person really well than to get to know a few people hardly at all. By focusing on one character, you have the screentime you need to foster a strong connection between that character and the audience. This allows the audience to deeply experience and emotionally invest in the ups and downs of the protagonist’s journey.
Let’s define 3 of the essential elements of the protagonist’s journey.
That journey requires three things: a goal, a flaw, and an arc.
I. The Goal
In western dramatic structure, the goal is the thing that the protagonist is pursuing. It’s what they want to achieve or obtain, and it’s usually introduced by the end of the first act. For example, for Wonder Woman, it’s destroying the God of War, Ares. For Luke Skywalker, it’s becoming a Jedi.
The protagonist’s pursuit of their goal precipitates the events of the film. Of course, we won’t see every single moment of every single day of the protagonist’s life as they set out on their journey! Instead, we’ll focus mostly on the moments that are relevant to the protagonist’s pursuit of their goal. In the words of legendary directory Alfred Hitchcock, “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out.”
Said differently, the goal is what gives shape to the journey. It’s what the story’s “about”. To take another example, Mrs. Doubtfire is about a divorced dad who disguises himself as an elderly nanny so that he can spend time with his own children.
But it’s about so much more than that, right?
My mom is an avid reader. She’s always telling me about the latest book she’s working through, and almost every time she gives me the “what it’s about” pitch, she ends by insisting that the story’s really “so much more.”
In a film, the key to that “so much more” lies in the flaw and the arc.
II. The Flaw
A character flaw is defined in terms of that character’s goal. It’s something within the protagonist which, if not overcome, may prevent them from reaching their goal. In the case of Mrs. Doubtfire, you could argue that the protagonist’s flaw is not taking enough charge of his own life – instead, he believes that he has to be some sort of perfect image of a caregiver so that he can spend as much time with his children as their mother does.
It’s important to understand that a character flaw is not necessarily negative. It is defined strictly by its relationship to the character’s goal, not by how “bad” of a quality it is. Television writer Erik Bork puts it in no uncertain terms:
“In search of a suitable character ‘flaw’, many writers start their main character pretty unlikable in terms of their treatment of (and caring about) other people. Then by the end of the movie, the idea is that they will care about others and treat them better – so that they have a satisfying character arc.
I believe this almost always undermines readers’ ability to care enough about the main character to want to stay with the story.
My point here is that the main character’s ‘flaw’ should not be that they hurt others in some way, out of selfishness, almost ever. Instead, I like to think of the flaw as the way the main character ‘gets in their own way’ – usually through limited thinking about what’s possible for them.”
In other words, a protagonist does not need to be inherently unlikable or even have an inherently unlikable quality in order to have a functional character flaw. The main criteria for a quality you could call a flaw is that it holds the protagonist back in a way that could prevent them from reaching their goal.
For the record, I personally feel that Bork’s perspective is a smidgeon extreme. Does a character need to be unlikeable in order to be flawed? No. But can they be unlikeable and flawed? Yes, absolutely.
In recent years, television especially has given us a wealth of fantastic characters who aren’t terribly likable people, but we’re invested in them and their stories anyway. When you think of a character flaw as something that could stop a character from achieving what they want, likability is rather beside the point.
III. The Arc
Finally, we have the arc. The arc refers to a character’s growth with regard to their flaw. As in real life, growth is usually gradual. By overcoming a series of obstacles throughout the film, the protagonist is stretched beyond their limitations, and slowly but surely, they start to chip away at the flaw that’s been holding them back.
Let’s take a look at a common flaw, shyness. The protagonist is quiet, soft-spoken, hesitant to show their true colors, that sort of thing. This flaw often sets up for an arc in which the protagonist is forced out of their comfort zone. Throughout the resulting journey, they slowly start to show people who they really are, so that by the end of the film, they see the possibilities of being open and genuine with the world instead of closed and shy.
For example, in The Way, Way Back, the protagonist – Duncan – is a shy kid who feels like he doesn’t fit in with his family. He gets a job at the local waterpark and, by building a friendship with his wild boss, he starts to come out of his shell. By the end of the film, Duncan leaves feeling more confident in who he is than he was when the film began. We’re left feeling like Ducan’s set up to have stronger relationships in his life and find more happiness than he had before he got his job at Water Wizz.
In other words, we saw the protagonist grow. Change. They’re not the same person they were when they set out on their journey – or if they are (as sometimes happens in, say, a tragedy), that person was tested and challenged over the course of the film.
So, let’s recap! A traditional western narrative is rooted in the experience of one protagonist. The protagonist has a goal, and their pursuit of that goal forms the skeleton of the plot. The protagonist’s flaw and arc put meat on the plot’s bones, adding depth and meaning that make the audience feel like they’ve witnessed something major happen in the protagonist’s life.
As you think about writing your own protagonist’s journey, it’s a good idea to make some simple organizational notes. Ask yourself:
- What is my protagonist’s goal?
- What is their flaw – meaning, what’s the thing within them that’s holding them back from reaching their goal?
- What obstacles will my protagonist face in pursuit of their goal? How will those obstacles challenge my protagonist to break free of their flaw?
- By the end of the film, has my protagonist changed with regard to their flaw? (If the answer is “yes” or “yes but they failed to change”, then you have a character arc!)
When you have a clear sense of these things, writing your film will feel a lot more straightforward.
If you feel like your protagonist doesn’t have a goal, then you probably aren’t quite ready to start writing your three-act screenplay yet. Dig deeper. Discover more. You’ll get there.
Again, if you want to take your studies further, definitely check out our Screenwriting eBook! You can get your copy at the bottom of this page. You’ll learn a ton about where specifically obstacles hit in a screenplay and how character arcs play out over dozens of pages – among other things!
– By Lauren McGrail
If you want individualized guidance throughout your screenwriting journey, join our online film school, complete with a comprehensive filmmaking course. It’s everything you need to learn how to create professional narrative and documentary films using the equipment you already have, wherever you live, with guidance, community, and resources at a fraction of the cost of traditional film school.