Thursday, June 11, 2009

What makes an interesting protagonist (Part 2): Familiarity.

Oscar makes an excellent point about my blog on the new Star Trek movie and since it's relevant to creating an interesting protagonist, I'm going to write a blog instead of a response. It doesn't matter how bad things get for your protagonist if you don't care about him.

So how do you create a protagonist that your audience will care about?

It used to be conventional Hollywood wisdom that your protagonist had to be a good guy. I don't know if it was 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid' that changed it for Hollywood, but that's the film that changed it for me. Here you have two really bad guys--robbers, murderers, cheaters at cards--and yet you can't help but root for them.


A lot of people think it has to do with Paul Newman and Robert Redford, but I think most of the credit goes to William Goldman, the writer.

For me, it comes down to one scene. The one in which Butch Cassidy wants to see just how good a shot the Kid is.

Sundance misses. And then he asks, "Can I move?"

What Goldman did with that was to humanize Sundance. Sure, he's a bad guy. Such a bad guy that he's known for being an incredible shot, and you don't shoot tin cans back in the old west, you shoot people. But he's a bad guy who a) feels bad about missing and b) asks permission to try again.

From that one scene, we can build a picture of Sundance. We can imagine what he's like as a person, not just as a killer, and the secret about protagonists is that we like them because we feel as if we know them.

I'm not talking about giving your hero flaws, although flaws can help. I'm talking about making your hero familiar. A good actor can help a good writer, but only under the leadership of a good director. In this case, George Roy Hill.