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11/06/2006 - HOW TO MAKE ENGAGING PROTAGONISTS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE
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HOW TO MAKE ENGAGING PROTAGONISTS AND INFLUENCE PEOPLE By Tom McCurrie


If there's one thing new writers hear ad nauseam from studio execs, literary agents and script consultants is this - make your protagonist likeable. Without a likeable protagonist, the reader (and later the audience) won't be able to root for your lead, and soon lose interest in your story altogether, blah, blah, blah.

But what does being likeable really mean? That a person needs to be all good all the time? That he needs to be kind to lost pets and find a cure for cancer by the end of the First Act? Human beings are actually a mix of good and bad, so making your protagonist all good will strike audiences as too unreal, as someone with whom it's impossible to identify, defeating the whole purpose of trying to make him likeable in the first place. It will also make him too predictable - if he's all good all the time, he's going to react to every situation the same way...for the good. And when protagonists become predictable in their behavior, they become much less compelling.

Now let's look at another kind of protagonist - Tony Montana in 1983's SCARFACE. You certainly can't call Montana good - he's a drug-running murderer with an incestuous fixation on his sister. So why has his character remained popular with moviegoers for nearly 25 years, practically becoming a cultural touchstone? One reason is that unlike most of the other characters in SCARFACE, he's given some positive qualities (he draws the line at killing children, he doesn't hesitate to avenge the death of a friend, he claws his way to the top from absolutely nothing) that humanize him - in other words, he's given a moral complexity that reminds us of ourselves, making it easier to root for him. And because he's this mixture of good and bad, his character becomes more unpredictable - when a particular situation presents itself, we're not sure if he's going to kill somebody or save somebody. And that makes his character much more exciting to watch. A good example is the scene where Montana orders the cold-blooded execution of his crime boss mentor, then turns to the crime boss' henchman, who with quaking knees has just witnessed this killing, and instead of blowing him away, too, hires him for his own henchman instead since the poor guy is now out of a job! This is one of the most memorable scenes in any crime film, and it all has to do with the way Montana's character is written - his mercurial personality keeps us on the edge of our seats, wondering what he's going to do next.

The secret to likeability is that it's all a matter of perspective. As SCARFACE shows, even if your protagonist is unlikable, you can still make us root for him by default by making everyone else even more unlikable than he is.

But maybe the term "likable" is too misleading. Instead, new writers should be taught to make their protagonists more "engaging" than anything else - whether they do good or bad, they should be fascinating enough to compel our attention, to make us invest in their fates. And the best way of making your protagonist engaging is to make him as three-dimensional as possible, to give him as many flaws as strengths, or in other words, to make him just like us.


Responses, comments and general two-cents worth can be E-mailed to gillis662000@yahoo.com.

(Note: For all those who missed my past reviews, they're archived on Hollywoodlitsales.com. Just click the link on the main page and it'll take you to the Inner Sanctum. Love them or Hate them at your leisure!)

A graduate of USC's School of Cinema-Television, Tom McCurrie has worked as a development executive, story analyst, screenwriter and teacher of screenwriting. He lives in Los Angeles and is finishing up (finally!) his first novel.



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