Movies tell stories about people. In every script, the writer has to create one character (or a set of characters) that the audience will root for or hate. This special character is known as the main character, often referred to as the protagonist. He or she will be the character with most obstacles and normally the one with most screen time.
Creating interesting, realistic characters is an art in itself. To find the right dose of believability and novelty to mix together and form an exciting, plausible character ranks as one of the hardest tasks in screenwriting.
Decades ago, the norm demanded main characters to be good guys on the right side of the law, like James Bond or Will Kane. Nowadays, however, the writer has enormous freedom to use anti-heroes or even crooks as their main characters. Ocean’s Eleven (1960, 2001), for instance, romanticizes the criminals and turns them into the protagonists.
Scripts can be categorized by the number of main characters they present. The next section examines the most common possibilities:
One Main Character
Although most screenplays count dozens of characters, as a general rule, the story revolves around only one character. Even romances, in which the story wouldn’t exist without the significant other, have just one main character. Love Story (1970), for instance, opens with Oliver Barrett IV, alone, mourning the loss of his loved one. He is the character that faces more physical and psychological challenges throughout the movie.
In some films, the main character is quickly noticeable, such as in The Graduate (1967). Both the title of the movie and the first sequences leave no doubt that Ben Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) is the main character in that picture. He is the one returning to LA, dealing with his parents, worrying about his future, and avoiding Mrs. Robison (Anne Bancroft). The story is told from his perspective, and every scene links to him or his objectives or his problems.
In other movies, the true main character is overshadowed by secondary characters until the time comes for the protagonist to reach his intended purpose. This happens in Francis Coppola’s The Godfather (1972), which opens with a frantic pledge to Don Corleone ( Marlon Brandon), one of the heads of the Italian mafia in New York. At the movie’s very beginning, his son, Michael Corleone (Al Pacino) seems like a minor role. In fact, he is considered by other mafia families as a “civilian” disinterest in mob business. Only when Don is murdered, is Michael dragged into his dad’s affairs as a mobster.
Two Main Characters
“Buddy” movies are the ones mostly likely to contain equally important characters. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) is the classic example that tells the story of two outlaws that live, work, run, and die together. They complete each other. Whereas Sundance is deadly with guns, Butch has never shot anyone. Whereas Butch is sociable and talkative, Sundance is unfriendly and laconic. But in spite of their differences, they both share sheer pleasure in exploding train vaults.
Thelma and Louise (1991), labeled by some a modern version of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, is also another great example of a “buddy” movie with two main characters that roughly share the same amount of screen time and story relevance.
Other examples of 2-main character movies are: Lethal Weapon (1987), Midnight Cowboy (1969), and See No Evil, Hear No Evil (1989).
Rare movies successfully sell the illusion of having more than two main characters. Little Miss Sunshine (2006) is a great exception to the rule, and one that excels with refreshing artfulness and humor. It tells the story of a dysfunctional family forced together into the family RV as they travel to Redondo Beach for a beauty pageant. The characters are so meticulously elaborated that each one has their own arc. Unity is supplied by the RV bus that takes them to California and family ties.
A similar structure is found in Network (1976). Although Howard Beale (Peter Finch) is the character that sets the story in motion, he hardly has enough screen time to earn him a main character status. He is indeed very prominent, but he functions more as a plot device. His colleagues Diana Christensen (Faye Dunaway), Max Schumacher (William Holden), and Frank Hackett (Robert Duvall) are the real main characters. Unity is supplied by the TV network where they work.