Screenwriting Craft: Creating a Proactive Protagonist

I sometimes joke that if someone were sitting next to me regularly during my client meetings at the Akasha Cafe in Culver City, they’d think I have one note in particular that I REALLY like to give. And that note, said in many different ways, illustrated with many different examples, boils down to this: The script lacks a proactive protagonist. The protagonist is entirely reactive, making it tough to get invested in and root for her or him. 

It’s been called a million different thing by a million different people: Character goal. Driving goal. Character motivation. Character drive. Active pursuit. And on and on and on. The bottom line is that it has so many names, has been key in so much screenplay theory because it can mean the making or breaking of a quality screenplay or TV pilot.

I am one of those who come at story from character; I believe that character need and stakes is what drives plot to an effective and satisfying (or, for that matter, heartbreaking) conclusion. So for me, if you have a reactive character, one that reacts to unfolding events in the plot rather than (at least initially, and until complications arise) drive the plot from the character’s core need, which is informed and shaped by the stakes attached to it, then the plot itself would lack urgency and often be devoid of emotional investment and meaning.

Are there exceptions? Sure. But for the most part, powerful plot in the best content out there is driven by substantive and authentic character emotion, which feeds into character need.

A few examples: In BREAKING BAD, our story begins when Walt decides to proactively ensure that his family will be financially secure, even in the case of his death. That is why he decides to cook meth, and that’s why we have one of the best TV shows EVER. Walt has a goal: Make the family solvent in the face of his untimely death. He has a ticking clock in the form of a recent cancer diagnosis. He even has stakes, which is the future well-being of his family.

And that, right there, spells out the three pillars of what makes for an effective, proactive protagonist:

Pillar #1: What does your protagonist want or need? i.e., what is her goal?

This, right here, is where it starts to get interesting. That do-or-die, life-or-death need, defined and unique goal that is specific to the protagonist’s situation; this is where our character begins to get proactive. In a good script (or in most good scripts, again, there are exceptions) this goal is what will drive her from the end of the 1st act/beginning of the 2nd, all the way through to a satisfying conclusion in the 3rd act, or in the 5th act of a TV episode. You get my drift.

Some decide to define this goal as a decision: the protagonist proactively chooses to undertake a new path, new direction in pursuit of a driving need. This is not a direct reaction to something that happened, but rather a proactive character decision driven by a galvanizing goal.

A protagonist can have both an internal and an external goal. The external goal will have a more clearly-defined goal post that they can reach, or fail to reach, such as arriving at a place, completing a road trip, finding love, achieving the impossible, winning a battle, etc. The internal goal may be a bit more amorphous: To be happy. To regain a life. To make peace with the past. Some say that the external journey should allow the protagonist to go from living in fear to living courageously as part of his internal journey. You can slice it and define it many different ways. But the point is that in a well-executed screenplay, the achievement, completion or reversal of an external goal should have direct implications on the protagonist’s ability to achieve an internal goal.

Pillar #2: What are the stakes, (i.e. consequences, should our protagonist fail to achieve his goal?

Stakes are what gives a goal its meaning. In BREAKING BAD, if Walt dies and his family is left with nothing, he will have failed as a husband, a father and a man. If, in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK Bradley Cooper doesn’t prove his sanity and get his wife back, he will have lost his perfect life forever. SLP is a brilliant example of not only need driving character (without it we wouldn’t have had the Jennifer Lawrence/Bradley Cooper on-screen romance that earned her an Academy Award), but also an impressive display of a protagonist reversing his goal, rather than attaining it at the story’s conclusion, providing our audience the desired satisfaction.

Stakes provide emotional fuel for the journey that the protagonist sets out on, and powers the decision that she makes at the end of the 1st/beginning of the 2nd act. It creates urgency, puts something of importance on the line for our protagonist, something that he, conceivably, could not ignore or reject, a reason powerful enough to drive him into action.

Pillar #3: What’s getting in her way?

Here, we come to conflict. Call it resistance, opposition, or just a good old antagonist, conflict, and conflicting needs, is what’s ultimately at the heart of every meaningful story, comedy, drama or otherwise. The good news? Antagonists can be many and varied. It can be a person. It can be society (usually also embodied in a person), it can be nature. As long as its course is directly in conflict with the path driven by our protagonist’s need, then we have real and meaningful conflict. The best antagonists are those who have their own clear goals, who can be cast as the protagonists of their own story, should we attempt to examine it from their point of view. I could give you a Hank/Walt/BREAKING BAD example here, but instead, think Agent Smith in THE MATRIX. Voldemort. Villanelle in KILLING EVE. Loki in every AVENGERS movie he makes an appearance in. Clay and Gemma in SONS OF ANARCHY. You get it. An effective antagonist is one who provides authentic, vested resistance to the goal that our protagonist has in her crosshairs, therefore making its pursuit all the more challenging, if not seemingly impossible altogether.

As I write this, I realize that this blog post may appear overly simplistic. After all, books have been written (and will be written) about this very topic, and I recommend you read every last one of them. I think that it was the great Michael Hauge who once said to me that, when done well, screenwriting appears deceivingly simple, as everything just falls and fits perfectly into place. Character construct feeds into character need, character goal is driven by obvious, impactful stakes, goals are met by natural antagonists along the way. In my humble experience, most great screenplays and TV pilots, and, consequently, most great cinematic or episodic experiences, are all about emotionally resonant story. And in order to get there, you start with deeply flawed, dimensional, resolute and effectively motivated characters.