How to Make Sure We Feel For Your Protagonist
If you were to draw your protagonist’s happiness level through the course of your movie, it would look like a right triangle next to a big ol’ rhombus. You know, like this:
Act I, II Act III
The straight line at the bottom is the timeline of your movie and the upward slopes represent your character’s happiness/contentment level through the course of the film. Nevermind about that backward slope on the other end of the rhombus. It doesn’t really enter into this equation; I’m just not that savvy with designing in word.
Here’s what the other shapes are about.
At the beginning of your movie, your main character has a goal. It should be a goal that is difficult for that character to achieve. It could be something that’s universally difficult like becoming President or figuring out cold fusion. Or it could be something that’s simply, for whatever reason, personally difficult for your character like finding a date or getting to White Castle.
During Acts I and II, your character is steadily marching toward this goal. There will be setbacks, but generally, they will be making progress. And they’ll be feeling pretty darn good about it. They’re feeling so good in fact, that when they get to the moments right before the end of Act II, they think they’re about to be as happy as they can be. They’re almost to their goal after all. Why wouldn’t they be pleased as punch?
Because that’s boring. And audiences don’t relate to people who are pleased as punch. And how pleased is punch anyway? In my experience, punch is pretty moody.
And that’s what that big drop-off is about. Your character has to go from being their happiest to being at their lowest point yet. They can’t be ‘kind of bummed out’ or ‘sort of full of ennui.’ They have to be devastated. Not the most devastated a person could possibly be ever. But they most devastated THIS character can be about THIS goal. They have to hurt. It has to be uncomfortable, sad and painful.
Sounds mean, right?
Well, it’s only so we can build them up again.
If someone sets out to achieve a goal and then achieves it without too many problems along the way, it’s hard to relate to or empathize with them. But if they fail big time, like the rest of us humans do, then we have a reason to invest in their recovery and to be thrilled when they pull through.
You’ll notice that the rhombus is bigger than the triangle. That’s not my shoddy design skills coming into play. That one’s on purpose.
During Act III, your protagonist will climb a whole new hill. They’ll have realized that what they thought they wanted wasn’t really what they should have been after. They will have forgotten about their want and be headed for their need.
- If the WANT is the Holy Grail, the NEED is to have faith (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade)
- If the WANT is to get home/find their son, the NEED is to take risks (Finding Nemo)
- If the WANT is to have a beautiful companion, the NEED is to truly connect to someone’s inner beauty (Pretty Woman)
- If the WANT is justice, the NEED is to not depend on others to see the truth (Shawshank Redemption)
- If the WANT is to be the favorite, the NEED is to accept others for what they have to offer (Toy Story)
Abandoning the want and going after the need will make your character truly content and happier than they thought they could be. But it’s gonna hurt to get there.