How to Write Powerful Protagonists

What do you want? No, really…what do you want? If you’re like me, sometimes that’s not the easiest question to answer. I have lots of wants vying for my attention. They barge into the forefront of my mind as soon as I wake up, each of them screaming, “me first, me first!” Like a classroom full of unruly kindergartners, I try to get them to sit down and be quiet. Then, with each of their hands raised in the air, I call on them one at a time. That’s on a good day. On bad days, I get overrun and just want to hide in my bed until they all go away. Each of us struggle with life’s legion demands and desires.I think this is why I like hurricanes.

I grew up in the southeastern United States—the coast of which is bombarded annually by dozens of hurricanes. As a kid, I remember evacuating our homes in coastal cities at least three or four times. When life gets interrupted by a sudden and imminent demand (like evacuating a storm), it brings urgent purpose to our lives and focus to our minds…focus that otherwise evades our everyday lives. I think this is also why we enjoy stories.

Stories drop us into the passenger seat of a protagonist who has had a sudden and imminent demand forced upon him/her. If the story is good, the protagonist’s desire/goal is clear. The stakes (what happens if they fail) are also clear. As we watch, listen, or read, a story vicariously brings that ever-evasive focus to our own minds, as well. The question, “What would I do in that situation?” keeps us on the edge of our seats, leaning forward, delighting in the protagonist’s power of choice amid moral conundrums. It doesn’t matter what they choose, it’s experiencing the power of choosing that exhilarates us…and hopefully encourages us to make more powerful destiny-altering choices in our own lives.

Three years ago, I made my first attempt at writing a screenplay. At that time, I didn’t understand that my protagonist had to be a powerful person who made choices to drive the plot forward. Instead, I subconsciously made him passive. He floated on the waves of my plot like a buoy—no propulsion of his own, no direction or purpose.

After some feedback from a friend, I realized what I had done: I projected onto my protagonist how I was feeling in that season of my life. It was probably a mild form of depression characterized mostly by a lack of passion and a feeling that I was incapable of making choices. According to my experience, everything happened to me. I wasn’t acting as a true protagonist (with a goal, a mission,a purpose, or even a pathway of growth); I was acting more like an observer of my own life, from a movie theater seat looking in.

It took some time to crawl out of that mindset. It started by making what small choices I could. If I could feel the ripple effects of my choices in the fabric of the universe, it was like a feedback loop to me. Feeling my own agency—that I could change things—created a new hunger in me to be more bold and to make bigger choices.

Now, my protagonists in my stories are all more compelling, because they have drive, they have a goal, they have something to lose and something to gain. Why? Because, as a storyteller, I know that part of my job is to provide focus to my audience. Without focus, I won’t be able to tap into desire. Without desire, an audience or reader will not be able to connect emotionally to the protagonist nor feel invested in their success.

Your Protagonist 

In your story, make sure your protagonist

1.      Wants something

2.      Makes a plan

3.      Follows the plan

4.      Fails

5.      Makes another plan

6.      Tries again…

all under an uber-clear and measurable final goal, like…

a.       Throw the ring into Mt. Doom (Lord of the Rings)

b.      Find Nemo (Finding Nemo)

c.       Beat the Russian (Rocky)

d.      Make it safely back to Earth (Apollo 13)

e.       Rescue Matt Damon (Saving Private Ryan)

f.        Rescue Matt Damon (The Martian).

Now, go and be a powerful protagonist and write powerful protagonists. Your stories and your life will be way more interesting.

If you have a story idea, whether it’s a movie, a TV series, a novel, a marketing campaign, a bedtime story, or a research topic for your PhD, come to the Writers’ Room and get live feedback from other people who are passionate about telling stories. 

To get connected to the Writer’s Room you can follow Garrett on Twitter @garretthjones or head to his website

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