Why Protagonists Must Have Some Virtues

In my past essays I have explained how Australian feature film stories could be improved by paying attention to originality, substance, and universal themes.  Today I will focus on another consistent weakness I see in Australian features:  Central characters who are unimpressive, unheroic, and quite often dubious.

by Steven Fernandez

Some writers may try to defend the use of unheroic protagonists under the excuse of trying to be “gritty”, or “realistic”, or “un-American”.  Others may resort to the excuse of being intellectually “sophisticated” and/or post-modernist.  I say that excuses are all these rationales ever are.  And feeble ones at that!

In the first two essays of this series, I have decisively refuted all these standard excuses.  Go back and re-read those essays if you today think any of the standard excuses have merit.  In addition, I will repeat what I said in essay two:  Compelling stories come from making a stand.

Look into my eyes....Now, your story won’t make a clear stand if your protagonist is wishy-washy or substanceless.  Why?  Because viewers will experience your film through the lens of your protagonist.  If your protagonist is flimsy or lacking in any praiseworthy qualities, then the viewer will be drawn to the conclusion that your film makes no real stand.  And they will conclude this even if you, as the writer, did in fact have a concrete stand in mind.If your protagonist is flimsy or lacking in any praiseworthy qualities, then the viewer will be drawn to the conclusion that your film makes no real stand.


 Viewers will experience your film through the lens of your protagonist.

A second important point about flimsy and unpraiseworthy central characters is that they are not likeable!  Which means that few people will truly enjoy your film when it screens.  And so word of mouth (which is always the best form of advertising) will go against your film.  Which won’t make your producer interested in your next film!

So the first requirement of any protagonist is that they have some praiseworthy qualities.  In short, that they are at least part-way heroic!  For anyone out there who is right now writing or rewriting a funded screenplay, I command you:  Stop perpetuating the local convention of having a loser or a dubious person as a protagonist!  You are not being either clever or “artistic” by doing that.  You, instead, are just fooling yourself.

BatmanThe need to make your protagonist heroic should not be interpreted to mean that this character must be some saintly figure.  Nor does it mean that he or she must be some super-skilled person who can take on a CIA mission that has hopeless odds of success.  All it means is that the character possesses some virtues after all.  Even if those virtues are not immediately obvious to the casual viewer.  Let me give you three examples to make this point concrete:-

1) A drug-taking street girl might have a strong sense of social justice.  Perhaps she even participates in peace and environment rallies.  And she has this sense of justice despite (or, perhaps, because of) the grim and dire conditions she lives in.

2) A dismissed and shunned nerd-boy might have the inner qualities of courage, integrity, and chivalry.  And this fact might only be hinted at until, say, he rescues a cat being chased by grunt schoolboys.

3) A sexually confused young artist might sleep around and be minimally employed.  Yet, at the same time, he may have a selective code of honour where he, for instance, never deserts a friend in need.  Alternatively (or, even, additionally), he may possess a superb work ethic when it comes to his own art.  Such that he is prepared to do whatever it takes to deliver the very best of his painting talent to a client.

None of these characters are all-perfect.  Yet each have a heroic streak in them.  And this is exactly the way it should be with the protagonists that you, yourself, create in your own screenplays.

By the way:  None of the three characters, above, are either boring, superficial, or stereotypical.  Which smashes a preconception I have sensed from some local writers.  Namely, that virtuous characters are necessarily boring ones.

Apart from inner virtues, a protagonist should also have a goal that is engaging.  In fact, preferably a goal that is noble as well.  This is another aspect of the protagonist that Australian films typically fall flat about.

Apart from inner virtues, a protagonist should also have a goal that is engaging.

Too often in local films the protagonist has either no clearly discernable major goal, or a major goal that is lame.  For example, a male protagonist who just wants to camp out with his drinking buddies does not have a major goal worth speaking about.  Unless, I suppose, this goal is just his initial goal … A goal that will lure him into an impending upheaval that will happen at the campsite.

no commentFor the major goal to be engaging, it must be one that the protagonist must step right out of his comfort zone to attempt.  It also must be a goal that will be not at all easy for him to accomplish.  For example, a young man who is afraid of heights might briefly meet an attractive girl at some party.  After asking all his friends, he might discover that she is a skydiving instructor.  Suddenly the man has a taxing goal:  Will he succeed in pretending to be a skydiving student so that he can begin a relationship with her?

It is also advisable that the protagonist’s major goal is noble (or at least praiseworthy).  While I won’t go as far as to say that this is an unbreakable rule, I will point out that few protagonists elicit viewer sympathy more deeply than ones with noble intentions.  Even if those protagonists are seriously flawed, hopelessly misguided, or comically incompetent.

No matter how ‘corny’ you may think it is for a protagonist to have a noble goal, it is inescapable that viewers sympathise the most with such characters.  In contrast, the typical Australian film protagonist is an invertebrate bore.

To sum up, Australian feature film stories need to start presenting central characters that have some praiseworthy (if not noble) qualities in them.  Even if those qualities are not immediately obvious to the viewer.  On top of that, the protagonist needs to have an engaging major goal that will tax him or her.  And, again, it is preferable that this major goal is noble, or at least praiseworthy.

Photo Credit: Antoine Hubert – Johan J.Ingles-Le Nobel – Adam Bailey

-Steven Fernandez

Steven Fernandez is a writer-director of short films and theatrical shows in Sydney, Australia.

He is currently writing Human Liberation – an epic novel and screenplay package set in mythic ancient Greece.

2 thoughts on “Why Protagonists Must Have Some Virtues”

  1. Taking a Stand =/= Praiseworthy Qualities!

    The protag does not need virtues, so much as redeeming qualities.

    An often quoted and good example is the thoroughly unlikable Melvin Udall of “As Good As It Gets” or Patrick Bateman of “American Psycho” or my personal favourite – Deckard in Blade Runner.

    But yes, he has to stand for something, even the most despicable thing. But he can be as unlikable as necessary, as long as he is fascinating. It is not about likability at all, it is about the strength of what he stands for or the intensity of what he believes in.

  2. That’s why Mad Max is still the best Australian film (IMHO).

    As apposed to say the latest aussie film: The Wedding Party – What are they thinking?


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