Shifting Your Protagonist’s Power Balance

Robert Piluso, writer for Script Magazine discusses the use of shifting power between the protagonist and antagonist to create tension and conflict in your screenplay.

Push and pull, strength and submission, master and slave, who has “the power” when your story begins? It shouldn’t be your protagonist! At least, not for long…

Often a story begins with the protagonist falling or having already fallen victim to powers beyond his or her control (call it fate, if you will). In fact, stories can only begin when status quo of the protagonist’s life has been disrupted in some significant way—that means, a power shift has occurred, and your protagonist has wound up with the foul end of the stick. Let the drama begin!

This power shift can happen one of two ways: either the protagonist decides through his or her own will to make a radical change, or someone/something decides to make the change for him or her. The latter is worse for the protagonist because they are rendered helpless.

When your protagonist finds his power compromised, what he chooses to do next—how he decides to address that compromise in power—will largely determine the shape of the story (and certainly Act II). In this sense, a story is—at its most elemental—an attempt by your protagonist to regain power over his life: what decisions does he make to further that return-to-power (in mythic terms, to “get back home”)? You’ll find that the weirder, more unexpected, more unconventional the Act I decision the protagonist makes to solve his powerlessness, the more interesting the story immediately becomes.

Let’s get back to you. Perhaps you’ve heard before that your spec’s protagonist is “too reactive”. Don’t despair! This means you’ve got a good amount of others having power in the story, but your protagonist is not making enough active decisions to rectify that power imbalance.

On the other hand, maybe you’ve heard before that your protagonist is “too in control”. Don’t despair! This just means your protagonist is making too many active decisions to rectify the power imbalance, and your antagonist (powers beyond his or her control) needs to have more successes that thwart or send askew your protagonist’s plans.

For instance, as thoroughly “powerful” (resilient, resourceful, creative) as James Bond is, the best Bond films feature a stronger, smarter antagonist. “Skyfall” unleashed a fantastically effective villain (Javier Bardem) every bit Bond’s equal and even Bond’s superior in a few arenas.

When constructing an Act I decision-point for your protagonist, all the better if the decision-point can also be a moral dilemma. We’ll see something about your character’s heart/personality/value system by whether he chooses self or the other. Put under pressure, we’ll see from what he’s really made.


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