When I see beginning writers trying to wrangle two (or more) protagonists, first I frown. Soon after, I mostly cringe.
Yet, some of the greatest movies have two protagonists who go through a journey in tandem: Thelma & Louise, Butch & Sundance, Woody and Buzz. This however, doesn’t mean you should try it in your script. Just yet.
by Karel Segers
No law forbids you from having more than one main character, and audiences love parallel journeys! So what should keep you? Well, perhaps a lack of the required skill set to pull this off.
Here lies the catch: most beginning writers don’t realize how damn hard it is to design a credible character journey, let alone a multi-protagonist story.
What is hard about managing two leads?
If you make sure your two characters have equal screen time, shouldn’t that solve the problem? Alas, no. Their stories must be closely intertwined, both on the plot and the thematic level. Check it out: all successful dual protag movies achieve this.
Buzz is the catalyst for Woody’s journey in Toy Story, because Woody is afraid that the Space Ranger may push him aside and Andy won’t play with him anymore. The new toy is too cool to be safe, so Woody tries to convince Buzz that he is not a Space Ranger. This is exactly Buzz’ journey: at the end, he accepts that he is a toy.
Louise preceded Thelma in a similar journey, which gives her the authority of the mentor. In other words: these characters are technically no dual protagonists. Louise is Thelma’s mentor.
If you can’t help yourself and you’re willing to risk diluting your story over two characters, then avoid the following mistakes:
1. Only one main character has a clear journey
When two characters have equal screen time but only one carries the drama, the other will soon feel like an annoying add-on to the story. However, it’s perfectly fine if one character is the ball and chain to the other. Think of ‘forced buddies’ as in Midnight Run and Rain Man where Charles Grodin and Dustin Hoffman play characters who seem to be slowing down the others on their mission.
Another valid exception is the duo where one character has an outer (and possibly inner) goal, and the other only an inner journey.
In Toy Story Woody wants to replace Buzz, while Buzz needs to learn that he is not a Space Ranger. In The Shawshank Redemption Andy wants to get out, while Red’s needs to find hope again.
2. Their goals and roles are similar.
If both characters want the same and they’re working together to achieve it, why don’t you just have one protagonist?
The most important way to distinguish characters from each other is by their objectives. Don’t Thelma and Louise both want the same thing, i.e. to go to Mexico? They do, but their Inner Journeys are different. Thelma is the one who has to learn and Louise is there to teach her. Louise’s role is primarily to guide Thelma and make sure she is safe and doesn’t do stupid things.
The different roles of the protagonists make the Hero Team work well in film. They work together and each have different skills, like the leads in e.g. Lethal Weapon, The Men Who Would Be King and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
3. One of the heroes loses interest halfway.
I sometimes read dual protagonist scripts where the story starts off with a good match of characters but halfway the writer loses interest in one of the characters. We see one of them drop the ball, and no longer obsessively pursue the goal. In fact, from this point forward it is a single protag movie.
This can be the result of a variety of reasons: lack of conflict between the characters, disproportionally greater stakes in the (remaining) main character’s goal; or simply the fear that there may not be enough screen time to develop the second character.
4. One character starts the story, then the other takes over.
It is difficult to write two strong characters who keep their appeal throughout the story. Similar to the previous problem, sometimes the writer goes with whichever character is most convenient for the part of the story s/he’s writing.
This, too, may work in exceptional cases. Look at Michael Mann’s The Insider, in which Russell Crowe’s character starts, and Al Pacino’s character finishes the story.
I’m sure you know other examples of movies where it is done successfully by writers with experience.
Schindler’s List starts off as the story of Itzhak Stern, but soon Schindler takes over and becomes the hero of the story. In One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, McMurphy has a full (downward) journey before the chief takes over at the end. Although the story could have been told as such, in neither film you can speak of a dual journey.
5. The two leads run in parallel, but they are disconnected.
It’s like a married couple who each have their own lives and only see each other in bed. In this case ‘in bed’ means ‘on screen’. If the main characters are not involved in each other’s story, you effectively have two movies, not one.
Although for most of the film Nemo and Marlin are not in the same scene, they are closely connected through plot (they want to reunite) and theme (they trigger each other’s needs). This is a terrific example of a dual protagonist story.
So what CAN I do?
As said before, there’s nothing you can NOT do. Once you have acquired some experience in mapping storylines and character journeys, nothing should stop you from writing dual or even multiple protagonists.
Just keep in mind that the two characters usually fulfill different functions, e.g. one is the Main Character and the other the POV Character like in The Shawshank Redemption. The latter is also an example of a movie where one character has the Outer Journey (Andy) while the other goes on an Inner Journey (Red). Another example is James Cameron’s The Abyss, a love story with dual redemption; one in the Outer Journey (Bud saves Lindsay) the other in the Inner (Lindsay accepts Bud as he is). Sometimes one protagonist has an up ending, the other down (Heat), or ironic/bittersweet (House of Sand and Fog).
Some of the best dual journeys have protagonists who are each other’s adversaries, e.g. Heat, House of Sand and Fog and many romantic comedies. Mostly one of the two will learn from the dramatic experience, sometimes both do. In the Pixar movies, there are almost always dual (and often multiple) journeys, both Inner and Outer.
Can you see that these dual protagonists are never completely equal? See also my related thoughts on different types of main character in Touch Of Evil.
Voilà, now you know all there is to know. Feel free to throw another hero in the mix!
Photo Credit: Windell Oskay via Compfight
Karel Segers wrote his first produced screenplay at age 17. Today he is a story analyst with experience in acquisition, development and production. He has trained students worldwide, and worked with half a dozen Academy Award nominees. Karel speaks more European languages than you have fingers on your left hand, which he is still trying to find a use for in his hometown of Sydney, Australia. The languages, not the fingers.
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25 thoughts on “Why You Should Steer Clear Of Dual Protagonists”
Really educative, I consider myself and other writers as Fiction Inventors and believe nothing is impossible in Fiction writing. In respect to your share, do we call this a 2 movie in 1 when the two heros do not meet or mix till close to the end e.g unknown twins (2 each other) one being a police officer, the other a criminal… film builds on their individual unconnected exploits till when the criminal messes in the police guy’s zone. What would you also call Jackie Chan’s duo with Chris Tucker in Rush hour.. though, Chris was comedic, he made as much impact as Jackie..
You are absolutely right: nothing is impossible.
I must confess I haven’t seen Rush Hour but from the plot summaries on IMDb I would say it is a dual journey, definitely not two-in-one. The conflict arises from the fact they can’t stand each other, yet have to solve a case together.
Training Day is interesting because the Denzil character is the antag but has equal (if not more) screen time.
A great summary – thank you. I’m just grappling with a couple of screenplays that are toying with a dual-protagonist structure. This has been incredibly useful to my process.
I disagree with the article completely. Ever heard of buddy cop movies or buddy comedies? This is an amateur article and not one to be taken seriously at all.
Thank you for your feedback, Nicole. In the sense that ‘amateur’ means ‘lover’, I will be an amateur of movies and screenwriting until the day I die.
As to the claims above, I can only speak from my own experience with screenwriters, since 1996. I have worked with complete newbies, as well as Oscar winners, and what I write in this article is my honest advice to beginners.
You are right that buddy movies often have dual protagonists. But I recommend beginning writers to write a single protagonist, single POV story first.
Keen to hear your personal experience. Have you written multiple protagonist stories? Sold any?
Interesting article. I am a mangaka (comic book creator) and have been writing manga for over 12 years. I have two protagonists (my story is in 3rd person) in one of my stories. My series is a POD (print on demand) and currently sold out of all my current volumes.
Speaking of buddy movies, I can think of more examples such as; Abbot and Costello, Lawrel and Hardy, Hercules the Legenday Journeys, Xena Warrior Princess, Princess Mononoke, etc.
Good reading! Thanks. I am working on a script with a main character and a POV character, father and daughter, both with a want and an need, that are contradictory for each character personally, while both wants depend on the outside world and both needs consider reflection within themselves. One need will be fulfilled (POV), the other one not, or in an ironic-bitter way if dying can be seen as a resolve. Which in a sense i would like to show..
Because you are advocating just one need with two protagonists i wonder if i will have a problem in writing this?
Could you elaborate on this?
Hi Willem! What you describe can certainly work. It sounds like you are aware of the pitfalls, and are manoeuvering around them. In your scenario, you are not really writing two protagonists, but a POV character on the one hand, and main character on the other. Interesting you say that your POV character’s need is fulfilled. I would say that this in fact constitutes the Hero (transformational character).
This is valuable advice from an expert. All he is saying is, a writer or rather a person contemplating his first novel, should stick to one protagonist. The advice is pertinent because, novice writers, while attempting to create HIS (not hers! I hate it when people go on with her, her, her!) first novel will inadvertently commit this mistake. I mean there you are running off with your first novel and before you know it, you have two or more protagonist in the race. They kind of pop up on their own. Why? Because its easier that way … easier that is to give birth to half grown heroes holding up various ends of your half-baked and rambling plot … and in the end, it’s all a royal mess. Thanks man.
I am intensely curious about your parenthetical aside:
(HIS! Not hers! I hate it when people go on with her her her!)
You have intense antipathy toward people who use the female pronoun. I can’t tell if this is because you’re a hidebound-by-convention grammarian type or a male supremacist who can’t tolerate any attempt to even the tilted scales. You leave me curious whether your writing reflects the same “HIM! Not her!” mentality.
Can you name the books you’ve published so I can have a look?
Incredibly insightful article, but full of missing words! Usually, when a piece has errors like this, I dismiss it and move on. I must admit though, the content was so useful I read it all… Twice!
Still, apply a little basic copy editing and you’ll be smokin’! And I don’t mean Marlboros.
I added a few words. Especially for you. ;)
I have a plot for a sci-fi series. The story has two protagonists with compelling stories from their perspective and they face each other in war but later, the two factions reconcile and join hands to fight a common enemy. Please guide me on how should I proceed.
I should note that the protagonists don’t know each other and they encounter only during the war.
What about love stories? Surely there must be many that have dual protagonists? Would you say that True Romance has dual protagonists or is it Clarence’s story?
If there are any watch-outs for love stories with dual protagonists please let me know. I’m struggling with one at the moment.
You’re absolutely right. Love stories often have a dual POV, even if only one of the characters has the major transformation/learning/change.
Hey, great article mate, very helpful. Quick question though, what would you say to someone who has the wacky idea of two main characters – one more main that the other – who never meet and have two very different storylines against a very interesting backdrop that’s almost a character in its own right?
One of them (the main main guy) has more of an inner journey/ discovering self/ struggling to cope in the big wide world, while the other guy has more of a “me against the world” thing going on with the right amount of physical action and drama, where he overcomes his hostile environment against all odds.
Now, the problem I’m having as I plan this out is, well, a question of synergy. Transitioning from one thread to the other seems a problem and I’m just wondering if a veteran of old skirmishes like your good self might have any tips.
Thank you in advance.
(Its a novel by the way)
Hi K.P. – I’m not surprised it’s a novel, because you can do those things in print. On the screen it may work for a limited audience, but never for the mainstream. Of course there are always exceptions, but given that for each exception that works, there are a thousand that don’t, I’m not going to recommend it. If they have separate stories, I wonder why need to be in the same movie? These are two films, not one. All that said, without having read the story summary I can only speak in general terms of course. I hope this is of any help!