ATQ14: How to fix a passive protagonist?

How to fix a passive protagonist?

I find my protagonists are often too passive; things happen to them rather than them making things happen. I hear this is a common pitfall for inexperienced writers: do you agree and do you have any tips for making characters active, yet believable?

Tim
Screenwriter

 

Hi Tim,

Thanks for your question. It’s a fundamental one. But, for once, there is a simple fix.

You’re right to be worried – a passive protagonist is high on the list of things that will get your script bounced, and/or bore an audience silly.

There are some fantastic movies out there with protagonists who seem curiously inert, who never really DO much – Richard Linklater’s Boyhood being the most recent I can remember – but at the beginning of your career I think this is definitely something to be avoided.

The way you fix it is simple. You find out what the protagonist wants.

This ‘something’ they want should actually be some kind of rearrangement in the world outside their own psyche.

In clear terms – they can want to catch the murderer, rule the mob, marry their man, find the treasure, stake the vampire, save the world, get to school on time, find their long lost brother, have a peaceful day in the face of constant chaos and calamity…

Then make this want, or desire, as strong as is possible for this person.

Then set them off and follow them as they try to fulfil it.

Drama is character in conflict. You get conflict when you have a person who wants something, but there is something, or someone, in their way.

You can’t get conflict when a person doesn’t want anything, as they will accept anything that happens. That’s not really drama. (There could be a conflict with what we the audience want for that character, but that’s getting pretty advanced.)

Note, even when a character doesn’t want to act, is desperate to stay out of trouble, they have a strong desire. Watching that play out will be very interesting IF you understand they have this strong desire. (And in stories like that, notice how often the character finally can’t stand it any longer and gets catalysed into action towards the end of the movie.)

Takeaway: Make sure your protagonist wants something, put a block to that in their way, (the antagonist) and tell us the story of how the protagonist gets what they want – or doesn’t.

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