by Larry Brenner
Spalding MFA Faculty, Playwriting and Screenwriting
It was in my first semester as a Spalding MFA student that I got perhaps the single best writing note I’d ever gotten.
“Your protagonist isn’t your protagonist.”
I had just written a play (Saving Throw Versus Love) in which a guy named Sam invited his fiancée Carol to play Dungeons and Dragons with him and his friends. In my mind, the guy was the protagonist- he had a problem reconciling his secret passion for role-playing with his new status as an adult in a serious, committed relationship. And the play wasn’t working quite right.
Because Sam wasn’t the protagonist. Carol was. I just didn’t realize it.
Carol was the outsider, being brought into a world she had never experienced. She’s the one in a new circumstance; she’s the one facing the challenge. As such, she was the audience surrogate, the one the audience would connect to and experience this new space through her eyes.
I’d like to say that, having learned that lesson once, I never needed that note again. But I constantly go back to it. It’s at the top of my checklist whenever something in a script isn’t working.
Now, I see it everywhere. I was watching Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with my kids. It’s a classic, and I love it. But Snow White is a lousy protagonist. She makes no choices, she learns no new truths. She is essentially the same person she was at the beginning of the movie. She gets adopted by the Dwarfs, and she’s like… ok, I can do this for the rest of my life. Her song “Someday, my Prince will come” might as well be “Someday, someone will do something, but not me, not now, would anyone like some lemonade?”
So of course, she’s going to be completely overshadowed by the Dwarfs, especially Grumpy. Grumpy is the only character in the movie that goes through a real change- the other Dwarfs are charmed by Snow White instantly, but he’s the one who wants to turn her out in the woods. Despite himself, he’s slowly won over by her. And when she’s “dead,” It’s Grumpy who leads the charge to avenge her death. It’s like Grumpy is Jack Nicholson in As Good As It Gets, but with squirrels who do the dishes.
Am I saying the movie should be called Grumpy, the Six Other Dwarfs, and Snow White? No, of course not. But the fact remains- no one’s watching the movie for Snow White. Your protagonist needs to be interesting in and of herself, if she’s going to be the center of our movie.
That’s the big takeaway. If a movie stalls out in Act Two, if other characters are taking over, if your main character seems to be stagnant and unchanging…it’s all signs that the protagonist isn’t doing what they need to do. Make them protagonize!
Larry Brenner is a graduate of Spalding’s MFA program, where he now mentors students in Playwriting and Screenwriting. His original screenplay, Bethlehem, was purchased by Universal. Other screenplays include Angelology (SONY) and Disney’s Labyrinth (Disney).