I’m not ashamed – I’m going to go right out there and say it.
I watched three movies this weekend.
Sure, the sun was out. Yeah, I probably had housework to do. But I swung by my local Blockbuster and got a bunch of DVDs to watch instead.
You might say lazy. I say research.
And I don’t say that lightly. I genuinely learnt a lot from watching all three movies. They were all a range of genres – romantic comedy, drama, comedy; they all had different kinds of lead characters; they were all captivating for different reasons.
But there was one thing that failed in two of them. Right at the beginning. And it was really frustrating to watch the rest of the film because I knew what I was supposed to be feeling, wanted to be feeling it but wasn’t. At all.
It was because I didn’t like the protagonist and didn’t understand why they were doing what they were trying to do.
This isn’t to say that your protagonist always has to be nice and friendly and happy. I mean, some of the most loved characters in film (and literature) are people who have skewed moralities. Severus Snape from Harry Potter is a perfect example of this. And (I’m being deliberately vague, although I’m not sure if there’s such things as spoilers for Harry Potter any more) he’s not a nice guy. He bullies his students, he’s mean, he’s got an agenda against Harry – but people love him. Absolutely adore him. There have been polls and polls and polls on the most popular character in Harry Potter and Snape almost always comes first or second. I’m sure that there would be millions of people who would pay money to watch or read more stories about Snape.
It’s about giving your protagonist a moment in the beginning that allows the audience to get on their side. It’s a ‘save the cat’ (terminology courtesy of Blake Snyder). If your protagonist is an arrogant, womanising, highly successful man whose world starts to fall apart at the inciting incident – we need to like him. We want to sympathise with him, not enjoy watching his downfall. We’re going on this journey WITH him, we’re going to need to find something in this guy we’re spending 90-120 minutes with that we understand and like.
We always want to invest in the characters we’re watching on screen.
It’s the same with on screen relationships. If you’re putting them together to tear them apart, make sure we want them to get together. We need to invest it this. We see that they complete each other, we think it’s agony when they’re apart. We probably know they’re going to get together in the end – but it looks so difficult so how on Earth can they possibly do it? Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don’t. But make us WANT it.
We WANT the protagonist to succeed. We WANT the protagonist to achieve their goal and live happily ever after.
So make sure that’s what we want to do.