Welcome back to Main Character May! Today, we’ll continue to discuss the characteristics of protagonists and why these characters are the most important part of any story.  As discussed last time, “[t]he most important character is the main character, or hero.  This is the person who has the central problem and who drives the action in an attempt to solve the problem” (Truby 58).  It is their job over the course of the narrative “to keep the audience caring about what happens in the [story]” (Cowgill 45-46).

It begins with not only who they are but also what they do.

Decisions, Decisions

The main character normally begins the story in what Joseph Campbell defined as The Ordinary World.  They are living life like they always do until some major incident happens that throws them off their normal course and sends them in a new direction.

That is, if they decide to head in that direction.  

As the story unfolds, protagonists have dozens of choices, which give the audience insight into who they are.  Their “qualities must be shown in [their] action because only actions demonstrate to the audience the character’s true self” (Cowgill 46).  Talk is cheap.  The hero’s primary role in the story is to “actively work for a solution to the conflict he faces” (Edson 33).  

As mentioned previously, stakes and opposition help create conflict for the main character as they actively pursue their intended goal.  These two antagonizing aspects of their journey help add pressure to the situation.

As Robert McKee states in his book, Story: “Pressure is essential.  Choices made when nothing is at risk mean little” (McKee 101).  Imagine if the movie Speed had all the same elements, but the bus could go under 55 miles per hour with no fear of the bus exploding.  Or if the terrorists in Die Hard got what they came for without disturbing the Christmas party.  In both instances, the pressure is taken off our protagonist, which lowers the stakes and leads to a pretty dull story.

This is why Jack Traven and John McClane need to be in “pursuit of a focused, visible goal originating from urgent high stakes” that lead to active choices that result in “driving the plot forward” (Edson 55). Their actions reveal their underlying character traits, helping the audience empathize, sympathize, and connect with the main character.

Layers Upon Layers

Character traits help add dimension to the protagonist. Through these traits, we can see aspects of ourselves, our friends and family, or even strangers. Traits humanize what would otherwise be a very flat, one-dimensional character in a movie, TV show, or book.

Have you ever seen a movie in which the main character has one overarching trait? It can be a pretty boring viewing experience.  If the protagonist lacks identifiable humanizing traits, it’s never a good sign.

A great showcase of main characters with lots of positive and negative traits can be found in Pixar’s animated films.  There’s a reason why these movies are so successful, and it begins with populating their films with solid, dimensional characters with plenty of relatable traits.

Pixar’s filmmakers know that “[a] real character, like a real person, is not just a single trait but a unique combination of many qualities and drives, some of them, conflicting” (Vogler 37).  And while it’s not a Pixar film, Shrek also showcases a main character with plenty of layers (he even spells it out to Donkey in the scene below):

Like ogres, “[a] well-rounded Hero can be determined, uncertain, charming, forgetful, impatient, and strong in body but weak at heart, all at the same time.  It’s the particular combination of qualities that gives an audience the sense that the Hero is one of a kind, a real person, rather than a type” (Vogler 37).  While plenty of stories use archetypes as a basis for their characters, adding to them and fleshing them out helps them become memorable to audiences long after they’ve finished watching or reading.

I’ll include this link in next week’s posts as well, but have a look at this list of character traits and see how many you can identify in your favorite fictional main characters:


Layers = Dimension

We are drawn to strong, active, and complex protagonists.  There’s a reason why characters like James Bond, Indiana Jones, Luke Skywalker, and Sarah Connor have remained icons in pop culture for decades: there’s more to them than what’s on the surface.  

This is because…

“Dimensions fascinate; contradictions in nature or behavior rivet the audience’s concentration.  Therefore, the protagonist must be the most dimensional character” that keeps us wanting to see what they do next (McKee 378).  These layers that lead to deep dimensions can evolve and come out over the course of the story. 

Still, as McKee makes clear, you want to ensure that even with contradictory traits, once you commit at the beginning, you can’t pull the rug out from under the audience’s feet by sending the protagonist in a new, unsavory direction.

He states: “Dimension means contradiction: either within deep character (guilt-ridden ambition) or between characterization and deep character (a charming thief).  These contradictions must be consistent.  It doesn’t add dimension to portray a guy as nice throughout a film, then in one scene have him kick a cat” (McKee 378).

Next Time…

Whew!  That’s a lot of information, and we didn’t even get to character flaws.  We’ll explore those and more in Part Two of this post.

See you Friday!


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

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

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

McKee, Robert. Story. Harper Collins, 1997.


Truby, John. The Anatomy of Story. Faber and Faber, 2007.

Vogler, Christopher. The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. Michael Wiese Productions, 1998.

Similar Posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *