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Monday, October 1, 2012

No protagonist? No problem! (but don't try this at home)

Red Letter Media has a long, detailed and extremely rude (read Not Safe For Work Or Children, which is why I'm not linking it) review of The Phantom Menace during which the reviewer explains that the movie has no protagonist.

(My husband and I can recite this part, and often do: "Your movie should focus on someone. A prota... pro... protaGONist.") Plinkett continues by saying that the protagonist is the one who faces the main story question and in solving the main story problem, changes in ways that are good for him or her, and that this is called an "arc."

As soon as he said this, it occurred to me that this is why Phantom Menace failed in places where Star Wars so admirably succeeds: because you care about Luke, and unfortunately the viewer in no way cares about the characters of Phantom Menace. At least, I didn't. I should have, and I wanted to, but it all felt so flat. Plinkett even runs down the main characters to show why none are the protagonist.

This weekend, my Patient Husband and I watched The Avengers for the first time. We'd worked up to it by watching all the other movies, and despite the hype, the movie delivered. We loved it and we're going to watch it again, and then we did what geeks do, which is discuss it at length.

And last night, my Patient Husband said to me, "You know what's odd, though? There was no prota... pro..." and I gasped.

Think about it, if you were one of the 50 million people who saw the movie before I did: there isn't one main character in the movie. No one changes. There's a flimsy attempt at a character arc with Iron Man's decision at the end, but really, no one changed. No one person's decision hinged the movie.

Put on your writer hat. What would the QueryShark say to this? I'm not in her league, but I'd guess she'd say that if querying your book with an ensemble cast, you focus on one character so we care.

Now, did I care? Heck yeah. I felt for these characters. I was pulling for them the whole way through. And not just because of the action or the peril. I also don't think it's owing to watching the previous films and getting to know the characters then because others who hadn't seen all six films also cared. Since the film grossed something like one and a half billion (so far), it's a good bet that peopel cared.

What did Joss Wheadon do right?

Let me take a guess here: the team itself is the protagonist. The Avengers team is, in and of itself, your main character.  It starts as something formless, something with officials lined up against it, and in its most nascent moments it knows it's needed but at the same time struggles to exist. It's internally conflicted. It's got both a hidden need and an external need. It sets aside its random individual needs and yet at the same time, tries to meet or resolve them for a greater good. It's got an antagonist who wants nothing more than to sow self-doubt in order to undercut it.

In its darkest hours, it doesn't even exist any longer, and yet it overcomes that. It's got a journey. It faces a decision.

I used to say this about the Battle of the Planets/Gatchaman team, that the team itself was my favorite character in the series, but here it was so much more intensive.

This is a black-belt level writing trick. I would not recommend attempting this unless you're driven to do it and nothing else will make you happy. As I said above, most ensemble casts do focus on one as the primary protagonist. But in this case, I have to say: learn. Watch and learn, because I'd love to be able to do that someday, and I'd wager that most of the rest of us would too.

Jane Lebak is the author of The Wrong Enemyto be released by MuseItUp on October 5th. She is also author of The Guardian (Thomas Nelson, 1994), Seven Archangels: Annihilation (Double-Edged Publishing, 2008) and The Boys Upstairs (MuseItUp, 2010). At Seven Angels, Four Kids, One Family, she blogs about what happens when a dis

1 comment:

Anniomaly said...

I would not recommend attempting this unless you're driven to do it
Or unless you're Joss :) If you're not familiar with his earlier work and want to learn, watching his shows are a great resource. His ensemble writing goes back to Buffy and Angel, which had clear protagonists. But it isn't always so simple to define who the main character of Firefly is, even though Mal is clearly the leader each character has their own arcs in episodes (and the movie requires them all to change). Dollhouse began as a vehicle for Echo but it's clear by the end of season 2 that she's only a central figure and the other characters have become so important it isn't as easy to label her the protagonist.

Fun and interesting area of storytelling to think about :)