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Learn & Become A Better Screenwriter


Sympathetic Vs. Anti-Hero Protagonists

One distinction of Protagonists is that we can be on their side overtly or not.   

Most Protagonists are a sympathetic hero – someone that we admire, associate with, or feel for.

Examples: Harry Potter in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, all six of the primary characters of Friends, Jack Bauer in 24, Leslie Knope in Parks and Recreation.

But sometimes a Protagonist can be an anti-hero - someone who we don’t immediately relate to or root for, either because they lack conventional heroic qualities (like idealism, courage, or morality), or because they have a particularly negative goal they are pursuing. 

Examples:  Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, Tony Montana in Scarface, The Lieutenant in Bad Lieutenant, Frank Underwood in House of Cards, Walter White in Breaking Bad, Piper Chapman in Orange is the New Black

Sympathetic heroes and anti-heroes are both useful in storytelling. It’s important to decide the best choice for your story and use them accordingly.

Protagonists in Television:

A Television Series can either have a single primary Protagonist or an ensemble of multiple, equally-important Protagonists. Regardless, each episode of a series will have multiple storylines and each of these storylines will need its own Protagonist.

If the series is mostly focused on a single person, the Protagonist might be the same character across multiple storylines.

For example, in Louie, we follow him in nearly all storylines of every episode. In the pilot episode, we watch Louie go on a field trip with his kids and then separately go on a romantic date with a woman. He also does his stand-up.  He is the Protagonist for each storyline in the episode.

If it’s an Ensemble television series, there will be multiple Protagonists.

Game of Thrones is an ensemble with a huge cast of primary characters. They all pursue different goals in different storylines. In any particular episode or storyline we might follow the characters such as Ned Stark, Cersei Lannister, Jon Snow, Arya Stark, Daenerys Targaryen, Tyrion Lannister, Jamie Lannister, Lord Baelish, Lord Varys… and the list goes on and on. 

Protagonists in Ensemble Feature Film

Like television series, Ensemble Features will also have multiple Protagonists in different storylines. These protagonists are usually also surrounded by different supporting characters and usually share equal screen time. 

The feature Love Actually has an ensemble cast and follows nine different groups of characters. While the groups have varying amounts of screen time, they are all pursuing different and specific goals, tied together by the idea of love in relationships. 

A Helpful Hint: Make Protagonists Active

One way that you can make your Protagonist especially engaging is by making them active instead of reactive.

An active Protagonist makes decisions, performs actions, and creates narrative conflict, even if it’s negative.

A reactive Protagonist responds to the decisions, actions, and conflict created by other characters.

In general an audience would rather watch a Protagonist do things than to watch them merely respond to others.

In some stories it’s useful to have your Protagonist start as reactive and gradually become more active (the genre Horror uses this arc often).  But usually you’ll find that your story will have more energy if your hero is proactive in their behavior.