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How to Know Who the Protagonist Is

In any movie, but we'll use Collateral as an example

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In keeping with the topic of unlikeable protagonists we’ve been talking about the past few weeks, a friend of the newsletter challenged me to identify the protagonist of the movie Collateral. Is it likeable Max? Or unlikeable Vincent?

There are good arguments on both sides and it’s worth thinking about which one you see as the protagonist. And – more importantly, as always – why?

Using Collateral as an example, let’s look at how we determine who is the protagonist of a story, and whether that even matters to the audience or the writer.

Define “protagonist”

According to Grammarly: “The most common definition of protagonist is the leading character of a drama or literary work.

I use the terms “protagonist,” “main character,” and “hero” all pretty interchangeably. We’re talking about The One Whose Story It Is.

The majority of movies are about one main character, and in most of those, it’s pretty obvious who that main character is. It’s almost always the one doing the thing that the movie is about.

But when it’s not clear who that is, there are a few qualities we can look for to identify the protagonist. And we can start with the aspects that Grammarly pointed out.

What does it mean to be the “leading character”?

  • We could think of it as the one in the spotlight. Our main focus in the story.
  • We might also think of it as the one who “leads” the story by driving the plot forward with their actions.

So let’s start there: the protagonist is the character the audience is most focused on. If we’re captivated and engaged enough to focus on them, we are probably empathizing with them and rooting for them because we understand what they want and what’s at stake.

And for the second part: the protagonist pushes the plot forward. That means they’re doing something, trying to achieve something. They’re taking action in pursuit of a goal or objective.

Something that Grammarly doesn’t mention but which is an important aspect of a meaningful story, is that the protagonist will be changed or affected by the experience. And usually that means they’re the character who most needs to be changed by whatever the plot is putting them through.

So who is the protagonist in Collateral?

From Wikipedia: Collateral “follows Max, a Los Angeles cab driver and his customer Vincent. When offered a high fare for driving to several locations, Max agrees but soon finds himself taken hostage by Vincent who turns out to be a hitman on a contract killing spree.” (Written by Stuart Beattie. Directed by Michael Mann.)

The argument for Vincent as protagonist might be best made by the friend who posed this challenge to me. His main points are:

  1. It’s Vincent’s goal and actions that drive the movie.
  2. We are intrigued by him and want him to finish the job because he’s so efficient and driven. (And he has a killer suit.)
  3. Max’s actions get in the way of Vincent’s goal.
  4. Just because Max is pathetic and we feel sorry for him doesn’t mean he’s the protagonist and not the antagonist.

And, in sum: “Max’s actions screw it all up and Vincent dies because of it. He’s an evil martyr!

These arguments line up pretty well with our three criteria above. Let’s take each point and see how it holds up.

1. It’s Vincent’s goal and actions that drive the movie.

Vincent is a contract killer and he’s trying to kill 5 people in one night. That’s a clear, strong goal.

But that’s his goal from the first scene of the movie, and when we talk about the story goal what we’re talking about is the goal that the protagonist establishes because of the events in this story. Specifically, what happens in Act 1.

What happens in Act 1 creates the context for the story goal. In this case, Vincent’s 5 kills goal is part of that context, which causes Max to form his story goal: to finish taking this killer passenger on his five stops and, hopefully, make it out alive. Which is what we’re tracking over the course of Act 2.

2. We are intrigued by him and want him to finish the job because he’s so efficient and driven. (And he has a killer suit.)

It’s a strong role with a strong actor (Tom Cruise. Plus, the killer suit.) He is efficient and driven. And it’s true – he’s written to be intriguing.

But do we want him to finish the job? Although this may be too subjective to debate, I personally didn’t react that way. And if we look at the way the story is constructed I don’t think that’s the intended effect. Here’s why:

We know one of the primary functions of Act 1 is to get us to root for the main character to go on the Act 2 adventure.

In Act 1, we see Vincent in the first scene: the drop, when he runs into a seeming stranger, but comes away with a briefcase – and the “stranger” somehow knows Vincent is headed to L.A. (Ooh, intriguing!)

After that, we switch to Max. Meeting Max, learning who he is and what’s important to him. All of that stuff that gets us engaged and invested in the character. The script devotes it’s time to trying to get us to root for him.

3. Max’s actions get in the way of Vincent’s goal.

True, but that’s really just the nature of conflict.

(I’m pretty sure I’m not the first to draw this comparison, but…) Vincent functions a lot like the shark in Jaws. He’s driven to achieve his one purpose. It makes him a nearly unstoppable force that collides with the protagonist’s life, forcing the protagonist to overcome it.

That doesn’t mean we want to see the shark achieve his goal, and the script doesn’t try to get us to root for that objective. The shark attacking is really only a story because of the problem it causes for Sheriff Brody, the “leading character” of that story, who does something about it.

Sure, Sheriff Brody gets in the way of the shark’s goals. But the shark gets in the way of Brody’s goals, too. That’s conflict.

4. Just because Max is pathetic and we feel sorry for him doesn’t mean he’s the protagonist and not the antagonist.

True. However, this sounds like a stakes/alignment issue. If we think Max is pathetic to the point that we feel sorry for him but we don’t root for him? Then the movie either:

  • Hasn’t done enough to get us on his side, to make us empathize or identify with him enough.
  • Or it hasn’t established stakes that we understand and care about enough to want him to succeed.
  • Or both.

We know they were trying to get us invested in Max (because they spend time on those early scenes with him), but it’s always possible to miss the mark. And this may be another point that’s too subjective to debate. Only you can say whether the movie made you root for Max or Vincent.

What about the need for change?

At the end of the movie, Vincent has accepted his fate but hasn’t changed his outlook or behavior.

Max, on the other hand, starts out as the kind of guy who’s so afraid to make an imperfect move that he never makes a move at all. But by the end of the movie he’s rolling with the punches, adapting in the moment for survival. All thanks to what he’s experienced in this story.

And what he’s experienced? Is Vincent. The line about the need to adapt and survival of the fittest that Max says at the end of the movie was something that Vincent said to him in Act 1. Vincent pushes Max to change.

Do you have to know who the protagonist is?

Maybe. Obviously Collateral did just fine box office-wise, even though 15+ years later some of us are still debating who the protagonist is. On one hand, it all comes down to engaging the audience. If the audience roots for the bad guy, I’m not sure it matters much as long as they watch and enjoy the movie.

But on the other hand – from a creator perspective – knowing or deciding who your “leading character” is will make your job of designing the story easier. If the writer is unclear on who is leading the story, there’s a good chance the script will feel like no one is.

Knowing who the protagonist is will help you figure out what you need to include in the script. If you’re clear on who the protagonist is, then you know you’ll want to find ways to deliberately direct our focus to them, build the case for us to root for them, make sure they’re taking action in pursuit of a goal, and make sure the script is structured around that goal.

WRITE SCREENPLAYS THAT GET NOTICED AND OPEN DOORS

Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.

Subscribe