How does a script work structurally when there seems to be two central characters? Michael Tabb explains how to determine who is the hero.
WGA writer Michael Tabb has written for Universal Studios, Disney Feature Animation, comic book icon Stan Lee, and other industry players. Michael's new book, Prewriting Your Screenplay: a Step-by-Step Guide to Generating Stories, is available now. Follow Michael on Twitter @MichaelTabb and Instagram @michaeltabbwga.
Many writers face an odd conundrum when trying to understand a fantastic script that appears to have more than one central character. Have you ever watched a film and asked yourself, "Who is the hero? Which one is it?" Well, I'm going to help you find an answer by dissecting a trio of very well-written, dual-protagonist films: Lethal Weapon, Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl and the 2007 remake of 3:10 To Yuma. All of these films appear to contain two protagonists, but that's where the similarities end. To start, each pair of heroes has a different type of relationship.
- Lethal Weapon's duo are partners that share an external goal of solving a crime,
- Piratesteams two characters with different goals (treasure and saving the girl) unified by common enemies, and
- 3:10 To Yuma's pair have external goals that are in direct conflict with one another (one character's job is to get the other on a train to prison).
These three films are very different with varying genres: crime, fantasy and western. Yet, as different as they are, you will see that there is no conundrum. I will demystify how a great two-hander is structured because all three of these character pairings are structurally identical.
We’ll start with the more classic-protagonist half of each pair: Roger Murtaugh, Will Turner and Dan Evans. They all have their film’s central love story, but that’s not all…
- Roger Murtaugh is a family man and career cop close to retirement. He has a large, likeable family worth protecting, and he truly values his life. He also has a personal stake in solving the crime the pair is investigating (the murder of a war buddy’s daughter). By his own admission, he’s too old for this job, but he’s still going to do it.
- Will Turner is a sympathetic orphan with respect for authority and the unrequited love of a beautiful maiden. He will risk anything to rescue the girl he loves.
- Dan Evans is a hard-working cripple bullied by the henchman of the west’s equivalent of big business. He has a family he loves dearly and is on the brink of losing his meager farm. He risks his life to keep them safe by escorting a murderer to the prison train with the convict’s posse of deadly killers on their tail.
These characters dive into the second act facing evil with everything in the world to lose. Their missions are personal as well as heroic. They have people to protect, and all of them have higher stakes than any other character. So, by all pre-existing definitions and common cultural understanding, we would traditionally identify these characters as the protagonists.
Each heroic character above has a yang to their yin with whom they are forced to pursue their goal. These other characters are never what the heroes would want for a counterpart on their mission (i.e. “outer journey”).
- Martin Riggs is the quintessential loose cannon, suicidal cop with no loved ones in the world and no personal stakes in the outcome of the case.
- Jack Sparrow lives up to the term scallywag. He shows constant contempt for authority, no morals, no loyalty to romantic relationships and no gumption. He’s only involved with Will’s rescue mission for personal gain.
- Ben Wade makes the other two look like boy-scouts. He’s nothing short of an escaped, convicted thief and killer. The closest thing he has to family is his band of truly evil outlaws.
Two of these characters would be traditionally thought of as allies and reflection characters, while the third could easily be mistaken for a potential antagonist at first glance.
These latter characters are the opposite of what the heroes should evolve into during their stories. They serve the purpose of reflection characters like Vivian Kensington in Legally Blonde, Han Solo in Star Wars, Reggie Hammond in 48 Hours and Lazlo Hollyfeld in Real Genius… They are a warning to the hero. They represent the antithesis of the hero’s personal goals. Don’t become this character! The hero must be careful to not let their “outer journey” change them into these dubious counterparts. However, this less-than-ideal character is still needed as an ally. The hero must rely or depend upon them during a period of crisis.
So it all makes sense… Three heroes stuck on a mission with characters that mirror what they should not become. Now here comes the reversal: the three reflection characters are actually the protagonists of their films.
Do not forget that a character needs to have an “outer journey” as well as an “inner journey” to qualify as the protagonist. It’s having an “inner journey” that makes those reflection characters the protagonists. Ask yourself which character has the character arc? Who grows? Who creates the success and battles the ultimate villain of these films, face-to-face? Jack Sparrow is influenced by Will Turner, not the other way around. Jack Sparrow turns around the boat loaded with treasure to go back and do the right thing in the end. He is the one that battles Barbosa. Martin Riggs breaks free from horrific torture, rescues his partner and his daughter, chases down a speeding car, has the final climactic fistfight and illustrates a complete arc when he surrenders the special bullet he was saving for suicide. Ben Tate kills his band of outlaws and voluntarily gets on the prison train in order to save Dan’s family from losing their home. Before the 1940s in cinema, you will be hard-pressed to find this kind of protagonist in film, but that all changed with the birth of the antihero, Samuel Spade, in a daring, new noir genre novel turned feature, The Maltese Falcon.
Roger Murtaugh, Will Turner and Dan Evans help resurrect the protagonist’s humanity, awaken their consciousness and help the protagonists achieve their character arc. It’s these heroes that set the example of how the protagonist should arc during the story. Ben Wade should put others before himself, Riggs should find something the live for and Captain Jack Sparrow must put other people above personal gain. That latter movie contends you can be a pirate and a good man. Now, I’m not so sure of the logic in that last character arc since pirates are career criminals by trade, but don’t blame the messenger… That’s what they wrote.
What most viewers perceive as dual-protagonist films usually are not. As for the characters we would have assumed were the protagonists, they pretty much stay the same from beginning to end. They only went on an “outer journey.” Upon reflection (no pun intended), you realize the “heroes” were the shining examples for the protagonist, helping them accomplish their character arc. They were actually the trustworthy allies and mentors all along. So the twist of this article is that the protagonist is not always the hero. The “Hero” is a character trait that can be assigned to any character. Let me explain why all this confusion between hero and protagonist exists.
Ever since the birth of Joseph Campbell’s theory of The Hero's Journey, writers have been confusing a hero for the hero. This title inspires many to assume that the protagonist is the hero of the story, but that doesn’t make him or her the hero of the story. The protagonist traditionally does something “heroic” by the end of the film while the true hero is some type of reflection character that inspires the protagonist to change. For the sake of clarity, this method of story structure should be titled The Protagonist’s Journey or A Hero’s Journey. The protagonist is simply the character whose perspective we tell the story through, who is internally, deeply changed by their experiences. It is this specific fact that makes a protagonist the most human of the characters, because they are flawed and still growing. That humanity is what makes it a hero’s journey. All this confusion stems from the fact that you can call the protagonist a hero in the end of the film, but that does not make him or her the film’s hero.
In Silverado, Emmett serves the same heroic counterpart to Paden. In Saving Private Ryan, Miller is the protagonist, but Ryan is the hero; he refuses to leave his post and men when he has a free pass to go home. Katsumoto is the hero and true title character in The Last Samurai. In a classic example, Victor Lazlo is the hero of Casablanca, and Rick is the protagonist who finally arcs at the end, doing the truly selfless thing.
Meanwhile, some characters are both the protagonist and hero, such as William Wallace in Braveheart, John McClane in Die Hard, Moses in The Prince of Egypt, Dick Tracy in Dick Tracy, Joe Clark in Lean On Me, Nathanial “Hawkeye” Poe in The Last of the Mohicans, and Captain James T. Kirk in the original Star Trek films. The latter two have mentors, but the protagonist drives the action and serves as a constant hero of their films.
So… “Who is the Hero?” There are five major character archetypes and each one serves a different purpose in the telling of any story. The protagonist is one of them, while the “hero” is just a character quality that can be applied to any character.
- More articles by Michael Tabb
- Jeanne's Screenwriting Tips: Character Evolution - Finding Your Character's Wound
- Rewrite: Tips for Strengthening Your Protagonist's Aim by Paul Chitlik
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