How to Create the Best Protagonist
Screenwriters Beginners,  Screenwriting Techniques,  Story Structure

10+1 Questions on How to Create the Best Protagonist

Stories have different kinds of characters. Every story has a main character, called the hero or protagonist.

In this post, I would like to share with you the 10 most important questions to ask when trying to create your Protagonist. I know many people will expect questions such as “What is the gender”, “What’s the age or nationality” of your character, “what’s his/her occupation” or even “what are her physical characteristics”. But no, I’m not going to give you this kind of questions. Although, I’m not saying that this information is not important, what I’m saying is that it’s not the essence of your main character. The questions I’m going to list in this post will help you create a meaningful protagonist and by answering them you will find out your basic plot.

Character’s arc a.k.a the Protagonist changes

Before we start with the questions, it is important to stress here that the main character during the film will have two simultaneous journeys. An external journey, which is connected to the plot, and an internal journey, which is connected to the Protagonist’s inner world, perceptions, and feelings. The internal journey is what we often call the character’s arc.

The most important piece of knowledge, that you’re going to need in order to create your character is that during your story something has to change. Change is the most important factor in the story. Either your protagonist will have to change or he/she will change the world around him/her. That change is called arc, character’s arc. There are three main categories of character arcs:

1) The positive change arc

2) The negative change arc

3) The flat arc

But we will analyze them in different posts.

Right now, what you need to keep in mind is that those two journeys, the external and the internal, are not separated but are closely intertwined. It is said, after all, that character and plot are inseparable, because a person is his/her actions.

10+1 Questions to Create Your Protagonist

Now, let’s see what these questions are, starting with the most important one:

Question 1

  • Who is going to be the protagonist? Have you decided who your protagonist will be? Which hero’s the story are you interested in telling? To whom are we focusing on? Do you think that we randomly choose the protagonist? That we choose the one that we find most interesting? Well, yes and no. Yes, we can choose the character that we find most interesting, but no, we do not choose it at random. However, we’re gonna need a new post to explain how we choose our protagonist and why we choose her/him.

Question 2

  • What is the Want or the Goal of the central character in the story? Every protagonist in a film has a want or a goal, which must be something external, something tangible and even something very clear. I want to win this award, I want to take this role, I want to save the world from a certain disaster, I want to get out of jail, I want to take the ring to Mordor to destroy it. All of these are specific external goals.

Question 3

  • Do you know the deepest need of the central character in the story? A need is internal. It is related to the inner world of the hero, to his inner journey. In most films the hero does not know his need and discovers it gradually. In many cases the need is opposite to the hero’s want or goal. So, the hero’s goal might be to frighten as many kids as he can, (Sulley in Monsters Inc.) to be the best scarer, but his need is to become a father figure.

Question 4

  • Enlist the obstacles that the main character of the film will encounter. The obstacles are both a situation and someone competing with the protagonist. The main obstacle is usually what makes it more difficult for the hero to achieve his/her goal. But at the same time, this obstacle is going to help the hero realize what she/he really needs. Another way to find the obstacle is to ask: against whom is the protagonist fighting? Many times, the obstacle is expressed through a character that we call the antagonist. When you’re trying to find obstacles try to think of them as something external to the main character. Avoid answers like: “the main obstacle is himself/herself”. Avoid these answers because this is almost always the case. The main character almost always will be an obstacle to himself/herself, but when answering this question, I need you to think of external obstacles, of a situation or of another character.

Question 5

  • Does our hero believe in a lie at the beginning of the movie? If so, what is this lie? And what is the opposing truth that our hero will realize near the end of the story?

Remember what we’ve said about character arcs? That the character goes through an inner change? What we need to keep today about character arcs is this: At the beginning of the journey, each character can believe either a truth or a lie. For example, at the beginning of the film the protagonist may believe in the lie that “he can do everything on his own”, but by the end of the film after all these obstacles and conflicts that he will come across, he’ll end up believing that “cooperation is a good thing and that together we can achieve greater and more important things than alone”, which is the truth.

Does your Protagonist believe in a lie at the beginning of the story?

The Lie that the Protagonist Believes In

So, does your hero believe in a lie? You may answer yes or no, depending on which character change arc you’ll choose for your protagonist, positive or negative. Whatever your answer, you should work with opposites. If you want by the end of the movie your protagonist to realize for example that he is happier by building relationships with other people then, at the beginning of the film, your protagonist should believe that he is better off without people or friends. He should try distancing himself from others.

But if you want your hero to slowly deteriorate then you should start with a hero believing in something right and slowly changing his mind into something wrong. For example, at the beginning of the Godfather, Michael believes that what his family is doing is wrong, he believes that he is not like his family, but by the end of the film, he has adopted their ways and he proves to be just like them.

This brings us to the hero’s wound or the hero’s ghost.

Question 6

  • Does our hero have a wound that carries from the past? What is this wound?

This question is about the inner journey of the protagonist, but it is not mandatory.

Many times, the hero has some fear, some kind of a ghost, or wound from the past that makes her afraid of something specific. This wound makes it very difficult for the protagonist to deal with because it still hurts.

So, if at the beginning of the film, our protagonist believes in the lie that he can succeed on his own without other people’s help and in the end, he will realize that co-operation with other people is what he really needs, then maybe we, the screenwriters, need to explain why he believes that in the first place. Something must have happened in his past that made him feel this way. Perhaps he was betrayed by other people which made him feel that he has to do everything alone, that he cannot count on others or maybe his parents taught him that if he gets help from others, he is weak. So, he believes that by doing everything alone he proves that he is strong.

Not all films show an old wound of the protagonist. It’s up to you to decide whether your story needs it or not.

In this book you can find ideas about the Protagonist's negative traits

Use the Thesaurus to find Negative Traits for your Protagonist

In the book, the Negative Trait ThesaurusAngela Ackerman and Becca Puglisi explain that:

“Wounds are often kept secret from others because embedded within them is the lie—an untruth that the character believes about himself…. For example, if a man believes he is unworthy of love (the lie) because he was unable to stop his fiancée from being shot during a robbery (the wound), he may adopt attitudes, habits, and negative traits that make him undesirable to other women”.

Question 7

  • Whats the main action that the hero does in the film?

Clearly, the protagonist does a lot of actions throughout the film to achieve his/her goal. But one of them is the most important, it stands out and that’s why we call it a basic action.

John Truby in The Anatomy of Story defines the basic action as follows:

“In the vast majority of stories, a character with weaknesses struggles to achieve something and ends up changed (positively or negatively) as a result. The simple logic of a story works like this: How does the act of struggling to do the basic action lead the character to change?

The basic action should be the one action best able to force the character to deal with his weaknesses and change.”

So, the question is what does the hero do that slowly changes him? Does he fight? Does she read? Is he dancing? Is he getting trained? Dances; Does he take part in boxing matches? Is he getting trained intensively? Does he take revenge? Is he learning to hack his brain?

Questions 8 and 9 to build your Protagonist

  • Enlist the protagonist’s strengths or skills?
  • Weaknesses and flaws?

Here you can list all the skills and all the weaknesses of the hero. Don’t choose them randomly. Think of all the skills that your main character will use along the way, and write those. But mainly write the one skill that she/he will have to use in the end to win the antagonist.

Of course, a character cannot be perfect. Like all people, he must have flaws. Again, we do not put random weaknesses here. Depending on what kind of obstacles our character will encounter in the course of the story, we give him those particular weaknesses that will make it more difficult for our hero.

On a deeper level, we give him those weaknesses and flaws that tie in best with the lie he may believe at the beginning of the film, to reinforce it. But we’ll explain this better in the following post.

Last but not least, we’ve already said that a person is his actions. But before acting, we make decisions. Our protagonist should make decisions and then act, and that’s 80% of the plot. However, how do you know what kind of decisions will your hero make? What kind of choices? That’s why, here, we add one more question.

Question 10

  • Which are the core values of our protagonist?

Each character has some core values. Core values are the fundamental beliefs of a person. These guiding principles dictate behavior and can help people understand the difference between right and wrong.

Some examples of values are health, justice, freedom, wealth, knowledge, achievement, courage, creativity, determination, friendship, etc. However, each person lists his/her values in a different order and priority. So, for some, freedom is more important than health, while others consider wealth more important than knowledge or justice and so on.

It is important to clarify what values ​​your hero prioritizes and then you will know at any given time what your protagonist chooses and why.

I was hoping to keep it to just 10 questions but I’ll add one more because it is very important never to forget that while you’re writing.

Bonus Question 11 to help you create your Protagonist

  • Can you find the dramatic question that the film raises at the beginning of the story?

The central dramatic question has to do with the end of the film, but it must be asked at the beginning of the film. It is the question that is asked at the beginning of the story, definitely somewhere in the first Act, and thanks to this question the viewers are hooked to watch the film till the end because they want to see how it will be answered.

Why do I add this question here, in character building? Because this question usually concerns the protagonist. When creating your protagonist, you should never forget what is her/his goal and why the viewer will stay with him to watch the entire journey.

David Trottier says in his book “The Screenwriter’s Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script” that «A good Catalyst and/or Big Event, besides giving the central character a new problem or desire, will often reveal something of the main conflict or story premise. It may raise the central dramatic question (or obligatory question) for that film.” Here you can find more on the Dramatic Question.

Such central dramatic questions are: Does he win the competition or not? Is he going to get the girl of his dreams? Will she manage to interpret the black swan? Will he be able to return to the future? Does the repetition ever stop? Can Kevin survive all alone at home?

Let’s recap the questions:

  1. Who is going to be my protagonist?
  2. What is the Want or the Goal of the central character in the story?
  3. Whats the deepest need of the central character in the story?
  4. Which are the obstacles that the main character of the film encounters?
  5. Does our hero believe in a lie at the beginning of the movie? If so, what is this lie? And what is the opposing truth that our hero will realize near the end of the story?
  6. Is there a wound that our hero carries from the past?
  7. Whats the main action that the hero does in the film?
  8. Find the protagonist’s strengths or skills.
  9. Find the protagonist’s weaknesses and flaws?
  10. What are the core values of our protagonist?
  11. What is the dramatic question that the film raises at the beginning of the story?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *