"I have a soft spot for cripples, bastards, and broken things."

The “Good Guy”

You’re all pretty familiar with the term protagonist, or at least you’ve heard the word tossed around in conversations involving books or movies, or in your English classes. If not, here it is, plain and simple: The protagonist is the main character, usually a proponent of good, around whom the story revolves.

Protagonists are not always a person, or even one person. They could be an idea, a movement, an event. More often than not, they are synonymous with the hero, so it makes them easy to spot. But sometimes they aren’t, and the hero is some other character that merely saves the day and paves the way for the protagonist to have their revelation.

If you’re having trouble identifying a protagonist, just look for the character that gives the story purpose, drive, and meaning. They are the vehicle for the themes interwoven throughout the narrative.

Enter HERO
Now, it’s a pretty simple task to right a story about a hero on a quest to save the world from certain destruction. This hero is faultPrince Charming Once Upon A Timeless. He’s handsome (or she’s rapturously beautiful). All the words that issue from their mouth are as empowering as battle commands given by a seasoned general, or they’re as soft and reassuring as a mother’s hug. What’s more, they overcome the antagonist, thwart the villain’s plans, and always save the day so the happy ending can ensue. It’s a classic tale of chivalry (or feminism), a clash against fate, overcoming all obstacles, the fairy tale ending, it’s . . . it’s boring is what it is.

People are sick of color by numbers stories filled with those kinds of flat characters—static and unchanging.

So, how do we avoid the clichés and stereotypes?
Let’s dumb ‘em down, you think. Maybe if the archetypal hero has been overdone, it’ll be better to write a character that’s as boring as a class on Excel, or worse . . . typing with Mavis Beacon.

Jim’s just an ordinary guy who works in a cubical; he goes home to his cat, Lucy, eats some dinner, brushes his teeth, and goes to bed. The only climax in a story like that is when Jim is late for work the next morning because Lucy accidentally unplugged his cell charger during the night and his phone died. Everything turns out okay though, because when he gets to work, his boss isn’t even there yet. That was a grueling scenario just to write about. If your story sounds like this, here’s some advice: CTRL + A, then tap delete. Watering down your main character is just as bad as injecting them with steroids.

How do you create an interesting main character, then?
Michael Goldenberg, a playwright who has worked on various big name projects, which include Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, The Green Lantern, and Peter Pan, describes very eloquently the protagonist’s raison d’être.

“The protagonist is the character that suffers
the most.”

So there you have it. Make sure you inflict as much misery and depression on your main character as possible and you’ll have a wonderful story . . .

*snickers* The word suffer doesn’t always mean something negative. Most simply, it means to experience or be subjected to. So, the character whom most of events of a story are affecting would be the protagonist.

That is not to say that this character will not suffer pain and suffering, but because of the basic struggles: Man vs. Man, Man vs. Himself, Man vs. Society, and Man vs. Nature, all or at least some of these things are going to imbue your character with life and purpose. A character, who is normal and plain and who’s daily routine is just as menial and mundane, can become a point of intrigue when you weather them with conflict.

Think about how you handle problems, how your friends react in certain situations, your parents even; and you’ll find it a lot easier to define your character (both protagonists and antagonists alike).

Your protagonist should be just as flawed as you are.
That doesn’t mean you’re evil, or that your good guy is a bad guy, but it does mean that they make mistakes. They don’t always say the right thing, do the right thing; adhere to a set of morals. In fact, they may be arrogant and impulsive—like Holden Caulfield in J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye. You’ll find these types of protagonists easier to relate to. By the same token, you as the viewer may undergo a similar process of enlightenment as the protagonist if they are relative to you.

What’s this look like?
Well, remember Jim the office worker? He’s actually an identical twin. While Jim pushes papers behind a desk, his brother, Josh, is a traveling photographer for National Geographic. Now that we’ve created an interesting dynamic. Let’s push it a little father.

Internally, Jim has been harboring some pretty intense feelings of jealously toward his brother for years; ever since they were children, really. He’s sick of him. When Josh comes home, all he does is gloat about his victories and his experiences, the exotic places he’s visited. His parents continually dote praise on him, which doesn’t help matters.

During one of their family reunions, Jim and Josh get into a heated debate. Jim says some really horrible things. It ends with both brothers storming out angrily.  On the drive home, Jim thinks, I wish he were dead. He resolves to avoid Josh from that point on. And years pass without a single word exchanged between the brothers.

One day, Jim finds out that Josh has taken his own life. No one has any idea why. Turns out, from the outside he had everything going for him: money, a good job, endless beauties wanting to be with him, but what Jim didn’t know was that his brother felt just as empty and alone on the inside as he did. Josh only became a photographer because it was their father’s trade, and he had pushed him into the field. He’d never gotten to follow his own dreams of becoming a musician, because Dad always said, “The only real art is taking out the noise,” as in a good photograph. Whereas, music was all about adding noise to life. Josh never told Jim how he felt, but the words in his goodbye letter read, “I always admired you.” But what was it that his brother admired? He had a dead-end career. He used to love writing when he was younger; used to do it all the time and it made him happy. He didn’t know what happened to that passion.

From that moment on, Jim decides to change his life around and find some purpose to live for. He quits his boring job, he packs up his cat, and he moves to a completely different city where he decides to pursue his love for writing.

At the end of the story, we see Jim write the final words of his first draft. The scene ends with Jim tapping the period key and letting out a gratified sigh.

The Shape of ThingsThe Road end
The protagonists you cling to as an audience/reader are the ones that end up in a different place than when they started. It’s not always miles apart as in Jim’s case, but it is a marked change that the viewer should be able to take note of, a step in some direction, and it should bring some sense of closure, however minute. Not all the loose ends need to be tied up, but your main character should have reached a point where we can safely assume their future, and we can accept/understand their past.

14 thoughts on “The “Good Guy””

  1. This “Not all the loose ends need to be tied up, but your main character should have reached a point where we can safely assume their future, and we can accept/understand their past” is quite powerful. It keeps echoing in my head. Just what I needed Andy, great article!

  2. I agree, a good piece indeed! The title had me thinking you were going to simply say, protagonist = good guy (to which I was prepared to object) Turns out you summed things up quite nicely. I especially like the statement “The protagonist is the character that suffers the most” along with your clarification of what it means to suffer. Makes perfect sense. If story entails conflict than it follows that the character driving the story forward will bear the brunt of that conflict.

  3. Andy, nice! This is definitely very helpful, and will definitely will refer back to it. I’ll second what @Steve said about that last statement. I think when you finally start writing your story you don’t necessarily need to know all the details of how everything will unfold in the climax, but you should know what kind of emotional state you want your protagonist to end up in (happy, at peace, discontent, etc.)

    And I really like what you were saying about struggle! From my own personal experience, I think one of the big mistakes I made with my last film is that the struggle/hard decision/flawed moments were few and far between and that most of those moments were at the beginning and the end of the film. In between there was just flatness.

    Hehe, which is going to lead me to another question for you Andy. :) This might be a little more applicable to someone who’s trying to write a longer script, but do you have any advice for making the middle of your story interesting? We could go lots of routes with this (story structure, acts, etc.), but maybe it would be best to keep it simple and just go with beginning, middle, and end. In most films (especially longer films) the middle is the bulk of it. So here’s the problem: you set up your story with a great conflict, and you know what state you want your protagonist to end up in, but what happens in between? How do you keep that interesting without having a bunch of filler in there?

    I’ve got a series that I’m really wanting to get started on, and this whole discussion is getting my butt in to gear! Thank you!

  4. Particularly good advice for being stuck in a rut during the main character development! Flat characters are definitely the most boring, but do consider when a character’s main trait is his/her steadfastness, which actually might prevent him/her from changing in noticeable ways, or perhaps the main trait of the character is stubbornness, which would bring about the same result. Excellent article, Andy!

    1. That’s a good point Caleb.
      A steadfast or stubborn character can be a fun/challenging one to write. The goal being to make sure you keep the character true to themselves but also remembering that it’s vital for the character to go through some sort of transformation. Even if it’s as subtle as allowing a little opening in their armor to let a loved one in, or to realize that in some cases a compromise of ones goals might be for the better of those around him.

      Imagine you have a Father who has been working for years to excel in his job. He has dedicated all of his time and energy into making sure he can move into a position where he is able to help those around him. Maybe he is a doctor and his patients desperately need specific help that the current administration won’t give them. Or perhaps he is a dock worker and sees some sort of corruption in the way the union is run, and he knows he can fix it. A noble pursuit, no one questions his character or steadfastness.

      Then just as some crucial moment arises in his career – his ex-wife passes away, and his estranged 16 year old daughter is now living with him. He loves her but doesn’t know how to connect. This conflicts with his dedication to work and the people he has promised things to.

      What has just happened is the character may have a morally unquestionable goal and desire, this steadfast stubbornness just became both a positive driving trait and a conflicting flaw in his life. Does he choose his job and those around him, or does he choose his relationship with his daughter. Both are good things that the audience can connect with, but they aren’t aren’t black and white enough to be an obvious choice.

      Your protagonist’s defining trait of steadfast character has also just become your character’s biggest hurdle.

      This example is a bit of a cliche, but it’s a good example because I am sure you can think of a movie where this works and forces you as an audience member to really consider the two choices at hand. (The last Rocky movie comes to mind right now)

      Now the challenge here is to avoid the common writing tropes, and to craft a creative story that is honest but still original and interesting.

      I realize this is long winded, but it’s important for your character to go through some sort of transformation. Maybe it’s as simple as the realization that he doesn’t have to do everything himself. Maybe you never actually get to see the full ramifications of the change. But you should always imply it enough so your audience knows.

  5. Could not agree with you more, O, and great example of what this looks like. Transformation of some type is in order. Everything good in life is made real, beautiful, and meaningful through change; same principles apply to stories.

  6. Don’t mean to sound argumentative.

    Why does that “Always knows exactly what to say and do” work for James Bond. I feel like either he is the exception to the rule or I’m overlooking something, probably the latter.

    Is the conflict simply all the chases and gunfights where he constantly cheats death?

    1. Well Jonathan, I would argue that, although James Bond may be a “cool” character, he is not a very complex one. Bond movies are all about secret agents (trained to be emotionless), complex plots, and super Mafioso-type villains. There is not much to the actual character of James Bond—just sex appeal, good gambling skills, a nice suit, intense situational know-how, and a British accent . . . oh, and awesome cars and sweet guns. He is an archetypal badarse, and . . . he is predictable. We know he’ll be betrayed by someone he lets get too close to him, we know he’s gonna get into a sticky pickle that we also know he’ll get out of, and we know that every movie will end with him sleeping with some gorgeous “Bond girl,” which he’ll then cheat on in the next installment of the series. Long story short, I don’t think Bond qualifies (at all) for the type of protagonists I’m talking about. Whereas, Bond movies are awesome; they are not life-altering, and nothing about them presents realistic situations that the audience can be affected by.

      In reference to conflicts, Bond’s only conflicts tend to be Man vs. Man, in the form of the main baddy, or Man vs. Society in how he works outside the law to accomplish the mission, and that includes going against his own agency’s instructions half the time.

      Just some thoughts :) Hope this makes things clearer.

    2. That makes sense as it is very, very predictable. I guess my question then is what is it about the films that still are enjoyable and are the other aspects of the films considered good? Perhaps it’s only my opinion that they’re enjoyable haha, I have always been very generous when judging a film compared to most reviews I read. (Again I really don’t mean to sound like I’m arguing with you I’m genuinely wanting to learn more about film! I’m a complete noob)

      tl;dr: What makes the audience forgive his lack of complexity and continue to see the movies? I hope I’m not over-thinking things.

  7. The audience forgives Bond plots, because they are exciting to watch, and also sensual, because of the whole dapper womanizer thing. If you would like an example of Bond-type plots that have good characters and are very memorable, look no father than the Indiana Jones TRILOGY (I don’t count the most recent debacle).

    1. That’s an awesome comparison, seriously cleared it up completely! Thanks again.

  8. Great article! Loved the specificity in the ‘What’s This Look Like’ section.

    As I mentioned in the character post, yeah, unchanging characters, I think, can be forgiven as long as we think they’re cool or their defining trait is an endearing one:

    Frodo, Rocky, Luke — perseverance

    James Bond, Indiana Jones, Solid Snake — just freakin’ cool

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