Welcome to Main Character May, a month-long journey into the captivating world of fictional main characters! Over the next few weeks, we’ll delve into the traits, flaws, and actions of these central figures in a variety of films, TV shows, and novels.

We’ll also look at ways you can craft an effective, compelling, and dimensional main character for your stories.  

Before we begin, I should note that main characters are also known as protagonists, heroes, and heroines, all of which will be used interchangeably in quotes from various sources in each post.

Let’s get started!

Who Are These People?

Simply put, the protagonist of any story is the character we’re focused on most.  It’s their life we’re following.  We’ve got a front-row seat to their adventures, and whatever they experience, the audience is there to experience it with them.

“The main character of the screen story is the primary means for the audience to experience the story.  The audience will be involved in the story to the extent that it identifies with the character and his dilemma” (Dancyger & Rush 4).  The audience has to be able to connect with the protagonist on some level, either through sympathy or empathy or the thrill of wanting to live vicariously through that character.

Protagonists “have qualities that we all can identify with and recognize in ourselves.  They are propelled by universal drives that we can all understand: the desire to be loved and understood, to succeed, survive, be free, get revenge, right wrongs, or seek self-expression” (Vogler 36).

Main characters have a lot of responsibility since “[h]e or she is the focus of attention.  The protagonist takes the film to the climax” (Cowgill 45).  This is one reason that it’s crucial for the protagonist to “appeal to your audience in some way” by being “intriguing or sympathetic to keep the audience caring about what happens in the movie” (45-46).

Whether it’s Tony Stark in Iron Man or Elle Woods in Legally Blonde, these characters have to have the energy and interest to keep audiences interested from beginning to end.  This means that they have to grow and evolve over the course of the story, giving us a reason to root for them to succeed and achieve their intended goal by the end.

Think about your favorite main character in a movie, TV show, or book?  Why do you like them?  What interests you about them?  What makes them worthy of being the protagonist of the story?

Active, Driven, Goal-Oriented

A protagonist is an active participant in their own story.  We’re following them, so it makes sense that their choices directly impact the story’s direction.  Stories usually fall into two categories: plot-driven or story-driven.  In either case, the main character is expected to make decisions and take action to help move the story forward.  No matter the outcome of those choices, the main character must make more choices and continue on their journey because “the main character must always cause things to happen” (Field 168).

The choices and actions keep going; their momentum builds because they are driven toward a main goal. This is another characteristic of the protagonist: they are the ones committed to a goal in the story.  “This commitment leads to conflict, which [the protagonist] struggles heroically to overcome on [their] way towards [their] goal.  Active protagonists grab the audience’s interest and hold it” (Cowgill 46).

Will they find the kidnapped girl in time?  Will they defuse the bomb before the bus explodes?  Will they prove their father wrong and get into the space program?  There has to be a prize at the end of the story that the main character is after.  Even if they start the story with no idea of what lies ahead of them or what they need to do to reach their goal, they have to make the decision to charge ahead and do whatever it takes to reach their goal.

But it can’t be an easy path.

Raising the Stakes

Stakes create conflict for your main character, which helps them grow and change over the course of the story.  This is why it’s important that the main character has a set goal that must be achieved once the action begins.  “This character’s pursuit of a focused, visible goal originating from urgent high stakes actually creates a story by driving the plot forward” (Edson 55).  Forward momentum is what we look for in a story, and the protagonist makes the choices that help move things along.

Even in a film like Rear Window, where our protagonist, L.B. Jeffries, is stuck in his apartment with a broken leg, he’s still driving the action forward due to his choices. His choices raise the stakes, increase the conflict, and bring him face-to-face with the antagonist by the story’s finale.  Like Jeffries or any other effective protagonist, “your hero must seize [their] own fate and actively work for a solution to the conflict he [or she] faces” (Edson 33).

Of course, these stakes lack any real weight if there isn’t some opposing force making sure our main character can’t easily achieve their goal.

The Opposition

All great stories have a strong antagonist who is hell-bent on stopping the hero from reaching their intended goal.  This character should be stronger than the main character and should prove to be an insurmountable force that the protagonist initially feels powerless to stop or defeat.  

These great characters deserve to be explored and developed as much as the protagonist.  Luckily, I have a series that explores them in detail, which you can access at the link below:

Next Time…

We are just getting started!  We’ve just scratched the surface of what makes a great main character, and next time, we’ll dig a little deeper into the traits and flaws that help make a protagonist a stronger and more dimensional character.

See you Wednesday!

Sources:

Cowgill, Linda J.  Writing Short Films: Structure and Content for Screenwriters. Lone Eagle Publishing, 1997.

Dancyger, Ken & Jeff Rush. Alternative Scriptwriting. Focal Press, 2007.

Edson, Eric. The Story Solution. Michael Wiese Productions, 2011.

Field, Syd. The Screenwriter’s Problem Solver. Dell Publishing, 1998.

Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Michael Wiese

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