"A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people.” -Thomas Mann
No kidding, Mr. Mann.
If you're anything like me, you put a lot of pressure on yourself as a writer. With every new screenplay, your hopes and expectations are sky-high. You want your finished script to crackle with wit, thrill with energy and sparkle with originality. Most of all, you just hope it doesn't suck.
Well, don't sweat it. Because the truth, is you don't need flashy prose and elaborate set-pieces to craft a good screenplay. What you need is a kick-ass protagonist.
I've read a lot of not-so-good screenplays, and I'll let you in on a little secret: they all fail in exactly the same way. 'The hero's emotional journey didn't map to her external journey through the plot'. 'The minor characters were more interesting than the lead'. 'The protagonist's goals and motivations were unclear'. There are a hundred ways to say it, but they all boil down to this: your main character did not kick enough ass.
Here are three ways to ensure that she does.
1 – Make her WANT SOMETHING.
This is the big one. Ever watched a movie and thought, "Wait, why are they looking for this Crystal Skull thingy again? What happens if they all just turn around and go home?”. That's what happens when the protagonist of a movie doesn't want something in a vital, all-consuming way.
Here's what you do: give your protagonist a desire so powerful, it turns her life upside-down. It doesn't even matter what she wants – love, fame, fortune, the attention of that boy she sits next to in history class – so long as the desire for it is strong enough to drive your story.
The most amazing thing about this trick? A powerful want can turn an average character into something sublime. Liam Neeson's character in TAKEN is the kind of guy you wouldn't even notice if he passed you on the street... until his daughter gets kidnapped, whereupon he transforms into a human hurricane of pain and destruction. For the next 90 minutes we're glued to the screen. Rocky Balboa is a loser and a has-been... until he becomes obsessed with 'going the distance' against Apollo Creed. That's what happens when you give your protagonist a want so big, it changes them completely.
One of my favorite protagonists of all time appears in the novel 'The Stars My Destination' by Alfred Bester. The hero of that book starts out a dim-witted thug devoid of ambition, a nobody with no heart and no future. But when a rescue craft leaves him to die in deep space, something in him snaps, and he dedicates the rest of his life to elaborate schemes of revenge. His overwhelming want is visible in every action he takes, every word he speaks. It's even (in a particularly clever plot element) literally tattooed across his face.
When a character wants something – really wants it, beyond all reason – the audience will happily watch her do anything. Walk the dog, make a cup of tea, do her taxes, anything. Because every little thing she does will be informed by that passion, that need, that's burning inside of her.
Make your protagonist want something, and you've got us hooked.
2 – Make her INCREDIBLY GOOD at what she does.
Dear comic book fans: I'm sorry to be the one to tell you this, but Wolverine is a very boring character. He's a short Canadian with a murky past and really good bone structure, and that's about the extent of his character development. So why is Wolverine one of the most popular and recognizable characters on the planet?
Because he's 'the best there is at what he does'. And sometimes, that's enough to power an entire plot. Just ask James Bond.
Believe me, if you're writing a simple or even unlikeable protagonist, nothing endears them to an audience faster than sheer competence. Maverick in TOP GUN is inexperienced, cocksure and, as everybody repeatedly complains, dangerous to fly with... but he's just so darned good! And so we follow his story with rapt attention, suspicious volleyball scenes and all.
Take Micky Rourke's character in THE WRESTLER. At the beginning of the film we're introduced to a man who can't pay the rent on his trailer, works a dead-end job and treats his family like dirt. Why are we watching this again? Then he steps into the ring, and our eyes are opened. We see his grace, his skill and his bloody-minded dedication to his art-form... and we're hooked.
Remember: kick-ass protagonists are really, really good at what they do.
3 – Have her CHANGE enormously.
Some of the most satisfying stories are the ones where the protagonist in Act Three is barely recognizable as the same person who set out on the journey in Act One.
Remember GROUNDHOG DAY? Phil Connors' transformation from boorish jerk to bodhisattva isn't amazing by itself. What's amazing is how far he had to come. His character arc was so unbelievably vast, the universe had to refashion the laws of time just to accommodate it!
But how to make a character change that much? Unless you're writing GROUNDHOG DAY 2, you probably don't have the luxury of watching them grow over a hundred years. So here's what you do: give them a fantastic catalyst for change. In BRAVEHEART, the catalyst for William Wallace's transformation is his wife's murder at the hands of the English. In every romantic comedy ever, it's the other person – you know, the cute boy or girl who walks into the protagonist's life and messes everything up.
In the case of romances and rom-coms, the trick is to make sure that other person is custom-built to trigger every one of your protagonist's big changes. If your protagonist is shy, make her love interest brash and loud – all the better to force those changes in her. Remember WHEN HARRY MET SALLY? Every little facet of Sally's personality was there to challenge Harry, infuriate him and ultimately transform him into a better person, and vice versa.
If you really want your protagonist to change, make sure you send them to hell and back. In THE GODFATHER, Michael Corleone loses everything that matters to him – his wife, his family, his own morality – and winds up transforming into the complete opposite of what he once stood for. The further your protagonist falls, the more amazing their eventual transformation.
Nobody ever said writing was easy. But if you can write a great protagonist, you're already halfway there. To those who are about to write, I salute you. May your ideas always flow, may your data always be backed up, and may your protagonists always kick ass.
Xander Bennett was born in Australia and has since lived everywhere from Vancouver to Saigon to Los Angeles. He writes professionally for film, television, comics and videogames. Follow Xander on Twitter and on his blog Screenwriting Tips... You Hack, offering a screenwriting tip a day since June 2009.