Create (and be) a compelling protagonist

I watched an episode of The Inside Pitch with Christopher McQuarrie on Screenwriting Contests. He invited four screenwriting competition readers to discuss, among other topics, what kind of protagonist mistakes are common.

Jack Dannibale said that one of the biggest mistakes new writers make is creating a protagonist who doesn’t do much or anything at all. Instead the screenwriter splits the actions and decisions among other characters. Things just happen to the protagonist. Protagonists should be the one making the decisions and doing all the interesting things.

When Dannibale was in grad school, one of the assignments his professor gave students was to write a screenplay in which the protagonist was in every scene. This exercise makes it clear how important the character and their actions are to a script.

Connie O’Donahue said that having a passive protagonist is problematic, because “we want them to drive the script.” Viewers put themselves in the shoes of the protagonist, so they want to be in the center of the action.

Protagonists don’t have to be likable, but they have to be compelling. And they are compelling when they are making things happen, not waiting for things to happen to them.

We root for the compelling protagonist.


Be a compelling protagonist

This was great writing advice and great life advice. We are the protagonists in the stories that are our lives. Wouldn’t life be more interesting if we made things happen, rather than waiting for things to happen? Wouldn’t we and our lives be more compelling? I found myself texting and inviting a neighbor to lunch, then asking my sister if she wanted to take her high school senior on a college tour weekend with me and my senior. It felt nice to make things happen even in these small ways.

Meditation: What do you long for?

Take a few minutes to relax and breathe. Arrive in the present. Take note of where you are in this moment. Ask yourself what it is you long for. Notice what sensations or thoughts arise in your body. Is it companionship? Is it answers? Connection? Think of what action you can take–a text/a call, reading a book that nourishes you, creating something, a walk through the neighborhood or in the woods.

Writing Prompt: Do it for the story

This is an assignment I gave to my students at Temple University in my Creative Acts course. I loved teaching that class; we covered poems, essays, short stories, and plays in one semester.

For “Do It for the Story,” I asked my students to do something specifically just so they could write about. Eat at new restaurant. Check out an unfamiliar neighborhood. Sit in a different seat in class and strike up a conversation. Have that talk with your roommate. Ask that question. Try out for that play or club. But don’t do anything dangerous!

You can do the same. Think of something you’ve been meaning to do or wanting to do. Or, maybe something will come up spontaneously; be on the lookout. Just do it. But take notes and write about it.