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4 Tips to Never Forget Your Protagonist

April 2, 2024
9 min read time

Your protagonist is the main character of your feature screenplay or television pilot.

Many aspiring screenwriters have scripts filled with too many characters, and they don’t always track their protagonists. I’ve read some scripts from aspiring screenwriters in which their protagonist disappears for a large section of the script, and I’d start to wonder: "Was that character the protagonist?"

You never want a reader to wonder who the protagonist of your script is. It can sometimes cause frustration for the reader and result in a pass from an industry professional. Also, if your protagonist’s emotional through line and character arc aren’t tracked throughout the script, your reader is less likely to have an emotional investment in what happens in them. This is one of the most important things to accomplish in writing: make the reader care about your characters.

And your protagonist is the most important character of all.

Whose Story Is This?

First and foremost, you should always ask yourself before writing a screenplay: whose story is this? On one hand, it’s your story to tell, but in the context of the narrative, it’s your protagonist’s story, and you should never forget this.

But maybe you have multiple main characters in your script: how do you balance them all and make sure their story is told evenly throughout the narrative? As with a single protagonist scenario, you have to decide who you want to be the focus characters and make them stand out from other supporting characters. Usually, making a meal of their introduction is a good way to do this (i.e., how the main characters are all introduced in Star Wars). The more characters you have in your script, the more you should emphasize the important ones.

Even among a handful of main characters, there should be a clear protagonist whose journey is the primary one we’re following (e.g., Luke Skywalkerwho is given the most focus throughout the original Star Wars trilogy). 

Even in a “two-hander” comedy—a comedy in which two characters played by movie stars are prominently featured—you’ll note that one character is often positioned as our point-of-view (POV) character. For example, in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, Neal Page is designated as the POV character. We enter the story with him, the “get home by Thanksgiving“ stakes are his stakes, and we never have any scenes without his character (whereas Del Griffith does occasionally disappear). Whenever the two main characters split, we always stay with Neil: this is one of the most obvious signposts of a POV character.

The protagonist is almost always the POV character. They’re the characters we should have the strongest emotional connection with while being invested in their story.

Your Protagonist’s Emotional Through Line

Another question to ask yourself is, "What’s my protagonist’s emotional through line?" 

An emotional through line—as the name suggests—involves the emotions of your characters. What is the thing they care about most? What’s their primary goal, and why is it their goal? For example, in the film Rocky, Rocky Balboa wants to prove he’s not “just another bum in the neighborhood.” This is his emotional through line and is the reason why he fights so hard at the end.

Emotional through lines are connected to internal conflict, and they should be running parallel with the external conflict of your story (i.e., your main plot). 

Ideally, your protagonist’s emotional through line is intertwined with your plot, and the two work organically together. To return to the Star Wars example, Luke Skywalker’s plotline involves his journey to becoming a Jedi Knight. His emotional through line is wanting to follow in his father’s footsteps, and then it changes to redeeming his father (after he learns his father’s true identity).

Not only should you never forget your protagonist, but you should never forget what their emotional through line is. Their internal world should always be cresting to the surface in every scene. How do they feel about what just happened? Is this a step forward for them or a step backward? How does a scene work with their overall character arc?

Rocky (Sylvester Stallone) celebrating at the top of a staircase in 'Rocky,' 4 Tips to Never Forget Your Protagonist

Your Protagonist’s Character Arc

Aspiring screenwriters might be confused by the terms “through line” and “character arc.” As discussed above, a through line is a defining character goal, desire, or pathology that’s an undercurrent throughout the script. A character arc is the growth and change a character exhibits throughout the entire script, and it’s often more pronounced than a through line. It’s essentially the outcome of their journey. 

In screenwriting development, you’ll often hear the questions: did the protagonist “earn their victory” and was the change they underwent a convincing one? Look at a film like Groundhog Day in which Bill Murray’s Phil Connors is introduced as a misanthropic prima-donna, but by the end of the film, he’s a truly empathetic and likable guy. His character arc is a slow burn: it’s gradually shown how reliving the same day again and again is changing him as a person. It’s a perfectly realized character arc you believe in.

From Phil Connors to Tony Stark, many great protagonists have a well-defined character arc that’s the heart of their story. Not only should your protagonist be in as many scenes as possible, but every scene should be added to their character arc (whether it’s a heroic or tragic arc). When writing a scene ask yourself: Is this scene contributing to the protagonist’s victory or downfall?

Your protagonist’s character arc should be clear and fully realized by the end of your script: they should be at a different place or, at the very least, they should be changed by their experience. A fully realized character arc isn’t just the heart of good storytelling, it’s one of the things an actor looks for when reading a script. They want to have a chance to display their “acting chops” and show everyone they can convey a change in the character they’re playing. Actors also like to have as much screen time as possible, which is another good reason to not have your protagonist disappear for too long. Many scripts sell and films get produced due to a movie star’s attachment.

Read More: 5 Steps for Developing Great Characters

Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) holding out his arm with a piece of the Iron Man suit on in 'Iron Man'

The Navigator 2.0: Your Protagonist Tracking Tool

Whether you’ve started or finished writing your screenplay, it’s important to make sure your protagonist is being properly tracked throughout your script. For example, if you have numerous back-to-back scenes in which your protagonist doesn’t appear: this could be a problem. Or you have a supporting character that’s appearing in more scenes: this also could be a problem. 

But how can you easily track your protagonist and see how prominently they’re featured in your script? Are there any screenwriting tools that can help you?

Final Draft 13 has Navigator 2.0, which gives you a macro view of all your script elements. You can open Navigator 2.0 by going to Tools > Show Navigator or clicking the Navigator button on your Toolbar. The Navigator will default to one Script tab when opening a new file. Click on the + button to the right of the Script tab to show the Navigator tab menu and choose Characters.

A new Characters tab will appear on the tabs bar, including several columns: one of these is the Characters column, which works like a cast list for all of the roles in your screenplay. To the right, there’s a list of additional column categories: check Dialogues, Non-Speaking Scenes, Scenes, and Speaking Scenes. 

New columns will appear showing you exactly how many scenes a character is in and how much dialogue they have throughout the script. With all your characters listed in this tab, you can easily contrast and compare to see if your protagonist is being featured prominently enough in your script. If there are supporting characters that have more scenes and dialogue, you should revise your script to give your protagonist more scenes and dialogue. 

Once again, think of your script as your protagonist’s story.

If they disappear for too long and aren’t tracked properly, it’s no longer clear whose story it is.

Read More: Never Lose Your Characters Again: Tips for Tracking Character Arcs While Writing

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