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Column D: Writing Your Main Character - Have You Seen This Man?

Drew Yanno is a screenwriter, author, script consultant and teacher. Follow Drew on Twitter @drewyanno.

invisible man

One of the most common problems beginning screenwriters seem to have is grasping the notion that your script must have a single main character who drives the story. There are two exceptions to this: (1) the dual protagonist story (“buddy picture”); and (2) the multi-protagonist story (“ensemble piece”). I’ll talk about each of those in separate posts. But for now, I want to talk about the importance of telling the story through your main character.

In my previous post, I instructed you to try to frame your idea and eventual logline using this paradigm: “somebody wants something badly and goes after it against great odds.” Of course, the first word there is “somebody.” Your main character. And that’s an indication of the importance of the main character from the get-go.

As you may have heard me and others say before, it’s all based on the myth tale, which has been the dominant model of storytelling for centuries, crossing every geographical and cultural boundary. I believe it’s ingrained in our DNA. My kitchen-sink psychological take on this is that we are, at our core, a goal-driven species. In our primitive years, that goal may have been simply to hunt down the mastodon to get some food. Today, it may be to get the big job or the pay raise or the prom queen.

For whatever reason, we like to watch stories that involve a single main character pursuing a goal. Beginning screenwriters tend to get the concept on some level, but often have trouble with the execution. The result is that they’ll fall in love with some secondary character or characters and pursue some secondary storyline for an extended length of time while their main character all but disappears. I’ll offer a separate post on the importance of great secondary characters, as well as one on the magic of subplots. But if your goal is to write a commercial script that attracts big-time producers, know that you must have a main character who dominates the story.

Whenever I consult on a script from a writer who has failed in this regard, I always ask them to guess on how many pages of the script their main character appears. Almost without exception, they’ll overestimate. Of course, I will have counted before asking, and when I give them the raw data, they’re surprised. More importantly, they suddenly get it.

For my money, in a 105 page script, your main character should appear on no less than 90 of those pages. If you go more than two consecutive scenes or five pages without your main character appearing, alarm bells should go off.

In novels, this isn’t such a hard and fast rule. Readers will go along for the ride if the main character in a novel takes a breather for awhile, so long as the writing is good and the story moves forward. Hell, there are successful novels that don’t have easily identifiable main characters, The Help being a recent example. However -- and this is making my point for me -- notice that they changed that in the film adaptation.

The reason for this difference between novels and films is the delivery device. A novel is a one-to-one relationship between the writer and the reader. It’s long term. The book is not meant to be read in one sitting.

On the other hand, film is a relatively short form story that, for those psychological reasons I mentioned, almost forces us to walk in the shoes of the main character and be done with the experience after two hours. Want proof? Tell me you didn’t watch Cast Away and put yourself in Chuck’s home-made shoes and ask yourself what the hell you would have done if you were him on that island.

Finally, there’s one more practical reason for not going away from your hero for any length of time. A main character who’s featured on almost every page is going to attract an actor. The more they are going to appear in the film, the more enticing the role. And you want to write a script that will attract a great actor.

So remember, like your toddler, keep a close eye on your hero. And don’t let them out of your sight.

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