MAIN CHARACTER: How Many Protagonists Should My Story Have?

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 to overcome and normally the one with most screen time.

Creating interesting, realistic characters is an art in itself. Finding the right amount of realism and uniqueness to form an exciting, plausible character ranks as one of the hardest tasks in screenwriting.

Traditionally (if not statistically), the norm is that  main characters be good guys on the right side of the law, heroes like James Bond or regular citizens with big dreams like Rocky. Nowadays, however, as the industry breaks barriers, writers have enormous freedom to use anti-heroes or even bad guys as their main characters. Ocean’s Eleven (1960, 2001), for instance, romanticizes criminals and turns them into the protagonists.

Scripts and stories can be categorized by the number of main characters they present. The next section examines the most common possibilities.

Yes, you got it right, the following contains story spoilers!

A Single Main Character

Although most screenplays have dozens of characters, as a general rule, the story revolves around only one person. 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 who 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.

Killing the Main Character: A Good Idea?

I have always found this to be an interesting topic of  discussion: can you kill your protagonist? In Godfather, that kind of happens if you consider that Marlon Brandon’s character was the protagonist of the story during the first half of the movie.

A more interesting example, in my opinion, happens in Alfred Hitchcock’s Pyscho (1960), in which the main protagonist is murdered around halfway through the movie.

What is the risk of killing off your main character? The main problem is that usually audiences hold the protagonist’s hand to follow the plot. So when they are dead, your spectators may not be hooked enough to follow the story without the main character.

Psycho is a great of example of how to keep the audience intrigued through the loss of the main character. Two techniques used in the film are:

  1. Introduce a second main character, the protagonist’s sister.
  2. Create a mystery that drives the remaining of the film: who is the killer?

 

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 and contrast 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 breaking into 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).

Ensemble Cast

Rare movies successfully manage to have 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.

Word of Caution

Movies with ensemble casts can be beautiful masterpieces, as the two titles above illustrate, but if you are just starting out as a screenwriter, I would recommend focusing on writing stories with one main character because an ensemble piece has too many protagonists who have to share screen time, exposition arc, and more. This can be daunting enough for one character, imagine doing for two or three or five.

(This just a piece of advice. If you have a strong story, then go for it!)

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