Want to learn how to write a screenplay? It all begins with your main characters in your script. Screenwriters are often told they can only have one protagonist. Is this always the case? Generally speaking, yes.
What is a Protagonist?
In screenwriting terms, a PROTAGONIST is defined as the principle character who drives most of the plot based on their choices, values and environment. The term is often used interchangeably with MAIN CHARACTER who is defined as the character from whose point of view the story is told. The nucleus of your story. The differences are subtle, but often they are the same character.
Traditional Western films generally demand that there’s only room for a single protagonist in a story, with one clear goal, conflict and resolution. There’s a good reason that this strategy is recommended in script writing, apart from simplicity. It helps maintain the focus of your screenplay and audience engagement.
Adding additional protagonists alters the character balance of your story. You may well be telling two stories within the time and space parameters of a single story. Unfortunately, two half stories don’t make a single satisfying movie script. Audiences can generally only handle one story at a time.
A single protagonist is generally recommended to maintain a single story telling perspective. Switching between multiple protagonists, jars the audience, as they adjust to a second or third point of view. Then they must decipher which one is the most important.
Audiences make an emotional investment early on in every film. They define the character map in terms of protagonist, antagonist and other characters. Who must they follow? Who must they root for? Who must they see defeated.
Resetting these rules disrupts the emotional connection the audience has with them. Think if it as “drop outs” in your GPS as your device has to work out where it is and recalculate the route.
Having said this, story telling isn’t always that simple. The careful addition of additional protagonists may add interest, tension and excitement to your story.
DUAL PROTAGONISTS refers to two main characters striving towards a single main goal in your screenplay. One isn’t the supporting character, but has their own strategy for achieving the said goal. Furthermore, each protagonist has their own character arc.
Another exception is when a group of people share the same goal when each character shares the same arc. In such cases, each character effectively functions as a single dramatic unit if there isn’t a prominent character driving the action.
ENSEMBLE stories may also be considered to have multiple protagonists. However, for the story to remain focused, there should be one core protagonist in your screenplay. The other characters should revolve around the main one with their own storylines which intersect with the core protagonist’s. However, all characters should explore different aspects of the same central theme to allow the story to function as a cohesive unit.
Ultimately, a single protagonist ensures a seamless audience experience and kudos to you, the screenwriter.
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