The protagonist is our guide through the movie, and if the guide is bad company, we are probably not going to stay on board for the entire trip. So there needs to be a reason why these characters deserve our attention, why we bond with them or at least stick with them for the duration of the story. A protagonist must appeal to us in some way, deeply so, but you have a great latitude in what that way might be.
Some protagonists are easy to root for.
Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption is nothing short of an inspirational person. Through sheer intelligence, patience, bravery, and fortitude he manages to keep his dignity, placate the guards (at least sometimes), and make the prison a more endurable place. Though always self-effacing, he serves as a beacon of light to all around him.
John McClane in Die Hard is just as much of a hero as Andy, albeit less of a boy scout. Not only can he vanquish a building full of terrorists single handedly, but he’s also really likable—down to earth and funny, an unpretentious working stiff trying to get back into the good graces of his family.
And who wouldn’t love Thelma and Louise? They are strong, funny, decent women in open rebellion against a system designed to keep them in their place. They are just finding themselves and beginning to exert their individuality and appetite for life.
The term “protagonist” is often used synonymously with “hero.” Sometimes the comparison is apt, sometimes not. Protagonists don’thave to be all that likable or good. Their appeal can come from other places. They can be seriously flawed, and test us.
Michael Dorsey in Tootsie is really kind of a pain in the ass. He’s an irritating perfectionist, a hectoring know-it-all who is unwilling to compromise even when compromise is called for. He’s also a crude womanizer, peppering various guests at his birthday party with hackneyed pickup lines. So why should we bother with him? Michael may be a pain, but he is a committed pain. He has real talent and passion for the craft of acting. He’s not greedy, either. He shows little apparent concern about money, or even fame. All he hungers for is a good role to play, and the opportunity to do it right. And he shows incredible daring when he assumes the identity of a woman, Dorothy, to pursue his goal. We may not like Michael, but it’s impossible for us not to respect and admire him. That makes him appealing. His identity as Dorothy (his cross-dressing alter ego) is generous, warm, wise, which also increases his appeal.
Miles Raymond in Sideways is even more difficult to like than Michael, certainly harder to admire. He’s is a sad, self-pitying, deceitful, drunken, morose loser. We’re not even sure he’s a good writer. For heaven’s sake, the guy even steals money from his mother. The only thing that Miles can claim bragging rights to is his knowledge of wine, but, except for a limited subculture of oenophiles, it’s hard to imagine the rest of us bonding with this miserable guy just because he can discern hints of vanilla and apple in a glass of Sauvignon Blanc.
So yeah, Miles is a bit of a hard case. Some viewers find him irredeemably unpleasant, and so are never able to really embrace the movie. But I believe that, if one hangs in there with him, Miles reaches deeper inside of us than many more accessible protagonists. The character hasn’t been sugar coated or given movie-star charisma, and this very rawness, this reality, pulls us in. Miles has an unbearable sense that life is passing him by and leaving him nothing. A lot of us can relate to that, I think. Fear is a constant threat, paralyzing him, leading to self-defeating behavior. And in all fairness, Miles does have his good qualities—he shows some actual charm with Maya, and remains a loyal friend to Jack. Most importantly, Miles is not a complete victim. Hope clings for life inside him, battered though it may be. The tension between his fragile hope and his paralyzing fear gives Miles poignancy, humanity, and, yes, in the end, appeal.
A protagonist can even be someone who is downright bad, despicable even. Characters whom we would cower from in real life can, on screen, turn into deliciously guilty pleasures. But they’ve got to be imbued with some kind of appeal that will make us willingly follow them through their dark journeys.
Henry Hill, the protagonist of Goodfellas, is a thief, cheat, drug dealer, and adulterer. Basically, he’s an unscrupulous hood. But Henry is still pretty hard to dislike. He treats folks okay, for the most part, and he’s got an infectious zest for his work that is fun to witness. His likability is also bolstered by the “others are worse” principle; for all his criminality, Henry is not a particularly violent man, while his cronies are one of two kinds of murderer, crazed or cold blooded. In that crowd, Henry’s a prince.
The protagonist of The Last Seduction, Bridget Gregory, is thoroughly evil. She’s larcenous, deceitful, manipulative, cold as ice, murderous but… we love her. As Shakespeare showed in Richard III, a villain can be a magnetic protagonist. Like Richard, Bridget seems to relish her dastardly deeds, and she executes them with brilliance; no matter how dire the circumstance, she’s always thinking three moves ahead. Sheer competence is always appealing. She also happens to be the sexiest person on screen, as well as the funniest, coolest, and toughest, all very appealing qualities. It may disturb us to identify with such a morally objectionable character, but in the end it’s entirely satisfying to watch her spin her web of deceit.
It’s nice if we like protagonists, but if we don’t like them we should at least respect or identify or sympathize with them, and barring that, we should at least find them fascinating or great fun.
This is an excerpt from Chapter 3 of Gotham’s book on screenwriting, Writing Movies.