It keeps surprising me how many writers turn in scripts with a passive protagonist, or featuring characters that are barely active. I’m talking about writers who have read screenwriting manuals, taken courses with the gurus, even those who have several scripts under their belt.
In this article, I am going to eradicate this issue for you, once and for all.
For now, I will focus on single-protagonist stories, as it is hard enough to write these successfully. Once you fully grasp the concept, you can always transition to multiple leads.
Why You Should Avoid A Passive Protagonist
Why this obsession with action in screenwriting in the first place?
Isn’t character more important than action?
Character can be revealed through action, visible or audible. After all, dialogue is action, too.
But screen stories are supposed to be primarily visual, so we need to show the character’s behaviour. And in order for this behaviour to be visible, your character(s) must be active.
This is why action is more important in screen stories than in any other form of storytelling.
And as you may find out the hard way – if you had not already – it is not as easy as it appears to maintain the discipline of keeping your heroes active.
Put Character First [but for a different reason]
Character comes first, but not for the reason other teachers may have told you. We don’t start with the character because of their journey, their development or transformation.
We start with the character simply to establish where our Point of View (POV) is placed.
Most screen drama is experienced from a particular character’s POV. This may change over the course of the story; even within a scene it can change. For the strategy I will give you, it is important to be acutely aware of the POV character at every point in your story.
The good news is that in most stories, the POV coincides with the MC. In other words: The MC is also the POV Character.
Now we have established this, we are going to look at drama in a slightly different way.
I warn you: things may get a tiny bit technical.
Events and Actions Prevent Passive Protagonist
Many unsuccessful scripts have a lot going on. The problem is that we don’t care, because it doesn’t involve the characters that matter to us. Or if it does, the character doesn’t respond. We would love to see some reaction, but it just doesn’t happen.
Too often, the writer is unaware of this problem.
Lucky for all of you, this can be easily resolved by taking a slightly different perspective.
Stories are essentially a succession of actions and reactions. The big difference with physics, is the addition of POV. In the context of story, instead of ‘action’ and ‘reaction’, I prefer to speak of EVENT and ACTION.
An Action happens almost always in response to an Event. This makes sense, because we want a character’s actions to be somehow motivated. As a viewer to empathise or identify with the character, we need to understand this motivation.
We need to witness the Event that makes the character act in the first place.
For the writer, this requires a careful examination of the ebb-and-flow of Events and Actions.
However, before you can effectively analyse your story in terms of Events and Actions, you need to pick the POV. Mostly, we’ll be in the perspective of the Main Character (MC).
If you find the following dry and uninspiring, please bear with me. You will thank me later. After all, we’re in the critical/analytical stage of the writing process (Later you can plunge back into your beloved crazy-ass creative mode.)
To reward you for sitting through this with me, you’ll receive a goodie at the end: a semi-automatic Step Outline form that will tell you the truth about your MC’s activity!
I would define ACTION as “a meaningful activity performed by the character.” This can be dialogue as well as physical activity. Each Action should have consequences (i.e. a ‘reaction’) for the character taking the Action, or for other characters.
An EVENT is “an incident or occurrence happening to the character.” An Event is never an action by the character. You need to understand this critical distinction, because here is where scripts fall apart, not just on the page but on the conceptual level. I won’t get into concept right now. Please, just trust me.
Most importantly: an Action by one character can constitute an Event to another. You may think that your script has a lot of Action going on, while in fact it is just a pile-up of Events (i.e. sh** happening to your character).
Can you now see why it is critically important that we first establish the POV?
If you want to diagnose your MC’s activity, we need to stick to the MC’s POV to be sure that the action is performed by that character.
An Action by any other character may constitute an Event.
Action vs. Event in Parasite
As an example, let’s take the POV of Ki-woo in Parasite. The film may seem an ensemble – multi-protagonist – story, but it opens and closes on Ki-woo. That means something, right?
When Ki-woo’s friend in Parasite offers him the tutoring job, this is an Event to Ki-woo. His acceptance of the job is an Action.
When Ki-woo is at the Park family, and he realises he can bring his sister in to teach art, this realisation is an Event (to him). Telling mother Park he knows a good tutor, constitutes an Action for him and an Event to Mrs. Park.
We’re only looking at Ki-woo now… Can you see what happens when we consider the full character ensemble? What is an Event for one character, may be an Action for the other, etc. Things can get awfully complex, but this doesn’t mean you can overlook it!
This is why I recommend that beginning writers focus on a single protagonist, single POV story first.
Writers sometimes assess their stories simply in terms of how much stuff is going on. They may fill their script to the brim with action, but they forget to focus that action on their MC. By first anchoring our POV, you will never make this mistake.
Even a single-protagonist story requires a methodical approach to assess the story. I may have exactly what you need to help you with this.
And when you apply the analysis to your story or script, you may be surprised to find how little Action is really there…
The Step Outline
To ensure the protagonist is central to the story, and remains active, you can use a Step Outline. This is a bullet point summary of your story, with one line for each scene. And by scene, I mean dramatic scenes; not just any script block with a slugline. A simple establishing shot, or a still shot of your character asleep would probably not qualify.
Because I keep seeing poor handling of POV and Passive Protagonist in so many screenplays, I designed a form to help you write a truly effective step outline…
To the standard Step Outline, I added a column to the left for the POV, and one to the right for Action vs. Event:
(In the next update, I will make sure that the report only counts Action scenes from the protagonist’s POV, and if you register for my newsletter today, I will make sure you get that update later as well.)
You can download a working version of this Step Outline form, including a POV and Activity reporting tool for your story from here, or by completing the form at the bottom of this article. Just follow the link to the online form, then create a copy for your own use.
A Brief Note On Events
If an Event is “an incident or occurrence happening to the character,” this may apply to any of the following:
- a physical, external incident: e.g. The MC’s car runs out of fuel.
- an action by another character: e.g. A neighbour kicks in the MC’s front door.
- dialogue by another character: e.g. The MC is told by her husband: “You’re an idiot.”
- a (sudden) memory, realization or revelation: e.g. Ki-woo in Parasite realising his sister can do the tutoring job.
Avoid Passive Protagonist
In a story that works, the number of Events and Actions will be roughly in balance, with more Events in the earlier scenes, and more Actions towards the end. If your screenplay has an abundance of one and a lack of the other, it will suffer from:
- an unmotivated MC: too many Actions, and insufficient related Events; or
- a passive protagonist; too many Events, and insufficient deliberate Actions in response.
Using the step outline during development in the way I describe above can help you in diagnosing your story, and avoiding these common issues.
Please let me know in the comments if you believe your story can be helped by this approach (and if not: why).
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.