Film making: The protagonist, defining the Hero’s journey

The key to having a good story is having a solid, well defined central character also called the ‘protagonist’ or the ‘hero’ of the film. Many films fall flat inspite of technical excellence and big names because what is missing in the film is a clear and well defined character whose journey from start to finish both makes sense to the audience and engages them in his or her ups and downs. If you watch the film reviews on television channels, the reviewers give ‘stars’ to each film after giving a detailed analysis on the story, plot, characters, pace, dialogues, direction etc. This is because for an average movie goer, a film either entertains or it doesn’t. It is hard for a lay audience to pin point what worked for them and what did not. This is the job that the critics do because they understand elements of film making and can comment on each aspect of the film and comment on what worked and what didn’t.Like every other element of film making, screenplay writing is a well structured art which too can be further broken into elements to see what worked in the screenplay and what did not. This is why film schools teach ‘screenplay writing’ as a subject. When deciding the ‘hero’ or the ‘protagonist’ of a film, the first most important question to ask is:

Who is the lead character? And what does this person want?

It may sound simple, but as an exercise, I invite you to write down clearly either for a story you have in your head or for any film that you liked (or did not) ‘who is the hero and what does he/she want’ to understand the importance of this for yourself.

Take five films at random and answer this one question. Who is the hero of the film and what does that person want?
But even before a film outlines this, it needs to place a strongly defined character in a set of ‘circumstances’ that will trigger that journey. This is the set of events that has happened even before the start of the film, which the audience is appraised with at the very beginning. For example, we may meet the lead character in a happy home: the father, who is an upright police officer with a loving wife and two kids. This is when the protagonist has a relatively stable world which is about to get upset by events.

The series of events that will upset this world are what will also give the hero what is called: THE GOAL

This ‘purpose’ which is to be addressed by the question ‘what does the protagonist want?’ is the ‘goal’ of the hero without which there will be no film.

Let us take an example of a popular Hollywood film: Tootsie!Tootsie It starred Dustin Hoffman. The film was a fore runner to other popular cross dressing films like Robin Williams Mrs. Doubtfire. But the main purpose of the film was not for Dustin Hoffman to dress as a woman to create comic situations. He had to do it to achieve his main goal. What was it? He wanted money to stage a play! That pursuit justified every other choice and decision he made right through the film including cross dressing.

An even earlier film on cross dressing was ‘Some Like It Hot’ starring Marlyn Monroe, Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis. Remade in Hindi as Rafoo Chakkar, even in Some Like It Hot the men cross dress as women not because they are clowns and it is funny but because they have a compelling reason: to avoid the ‘mob’ that is looking out for them to kill them because they witnessed a murder. They cross dress to save their lives!

Therefore they have the sympathy of the audience and the narrative can cash in on the comedy by giving the audience a believable cause for the main characters, which in this case are two band players played by Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon.

Let us look at one of the most popular films made in India: Sholay.

sholayThe film had an extraordinary cast of actors like Dharmendra, Amitabh, Hema Malini, Jaya Bhaduri, Amjad Khan and Sanjeev kumar. Yet, there is only one lead character in the film: Sanjeev Kumar.He is the hero of the film because he is the one who has the main goal: to catch the dacoit Gabbar Singh.
Thus, for a strong central character, the most important element in a story has to be the ‘goal’ that the lead character is pursuing.
The goal has to be convincing, motivating enough to justify the hero’s choices and decisions, keep him going inspite of odds for him to be committed to it to a point of no return. This is what justifies his not turning back even when the difficulties become disproportionate. Going back to Sholay, Sanjeev Kumar (Thakur) captures Gabbar Singh right at the beginning of the film. But what makes his journey obsessive is that the dacoit escapes from jail and kills his whole family AND cuts off his arms.The motivation is sound enough to emotionally justify every action and decision made by Thakur thereafter and keep the sympathy with him.
This includes refusing to give the monthly bribe to Gabbar Singh’s men in the form of sacks of grain for buying peace for the village thereby jeopardising the safety of the villagers. His angst is real and palpable. The fact that his arms have been cut off also justifies his involving two other people to support him in his revenge without taking away his valour as the protagonist.
In the climax, it is he who fights Gabbar, not the two hired criminals (Veeru and Jai).

This is clever characterisation where even the protagonists physical disability makes the cause stronger while keeping his grit and thereby his power, intact.

No where in the film, does the intensity or believability of his pursuit falter and in the end, besides fighting the anti hero (the villain), he comes out on top not because he physically overpowers the villain but because of his moral triumph in giving him up to the police for the final justice thereby upholding his integrity as an officer of law where the film had started.

Therefore, not only is it important for the protagonist or the hero to have a believable goal but it needs to sustain in the face of challenges while staying believable right till the end. Often a film may start with a strong character goal but starts to fall flat because the events don’t justify the commitment to the goal or the story simply loses track of the main objective, feebly coming back to it at the end.

To summarise:

1. The Hero or the protagonist is the central character of the film

2. This is the person who has the central goal in the film, which has to clear, identifiable and actionable.

3. The events that follow have to contribute towards meeting this goal.

4. The goal has to be convincing, motivating enough to justify the hero’s choices and decisions, keep him going inspite of odds for him to be committed to it to a point of no return.

5. It the hero who has to make the difficult choices

6. It is the hero who has to fight the last battle Simple as it may sound, the test comes when putting pen to paper and checking each box when writing the story outline with the central character in place.

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