Protecting The Protagonist

A while back, I wrote 40-odd pages of an action screenplay.  Then I stopped.  I couldn’t write any more because frankly, the script sucked.

I took some time to dissect what went wrong, and after re-reading those 40 pages, I realized that the biggest problem with the script was that the main character wasn’t interesting.  

The script had a unique premise, fun set pieces, and colorful supporting characters — but the main character (a dude named Roman) felt flat.  I thought the problem was that he was too generic, but even after layering him with quirks and personal baggage, something still felt off.  I decided that I’d come back to the script once I figured out why the character of Roman just wasn’t working…

Recently, I’ve been watching the show Smash with my girlfriend.  It’s campy and silly and enjoyable, but throughout the first season the show’s ratings have been declining steadily, and if you’ve watched, the reason why is fairly obvious.

The main plotline of the show follows the battle between two actresses who are vying to play Marilyn Monroe in a Broadway musical — Ivy, the seasoned professional, and Karen, the rookie.  Karen is played by American Idol alum Katharine McPhee, who has top billing on the TV show, and presumably will eventually play Marilyn when (and if) the main plot line resolves itself.

The Karen character is the weakest part of the show.

Originally my girlfriend blamed Katharine McPhee herself for the character’s weakness, and this criticism isn’t unwarranted.  McPhee is, after all, the only non-actor on Smash.

But after a particularly ridiculous line reading (“I love church!”) I realized that the problem really isn’t McPhee.  The problem is that the writers are protecting the protagonist.  

Every character on the show (other than Karen) is going through real struggles, and is dealing with background issues that put them into constant conflict with each other.  Karen, on the other hand, is treated like a fragile baby lamb.  She’s from a stable, loving family.  She has a boyfriend who has put her aspirations ahead of his career.  When the musical executives bring in a veteran movie star to compete against Karen, the diva becomes her instant best friend.  

Karen even has the backing of the musical’s director, even though all of the other characters recognize that she doesn’t have the necessary experience to carry a Broadway show.   

In short, Karen has no real struggles, and as a consequence she is the least interesting character on the show.  By a huge margin.  The meager character motivation Karen has (to make it big on Broadway) is the same motivation of her nemesis Ivy, and Ivy clearly wants it more than Karen does.  In fact, almost all of the other characters want to make it on Broadway more than Karen.  Life is easy for her.  And she’s getting progressively less interesting to watch.

The movie Black Swan has basically the same setup (if you swap ballet for theater), but Natalie Portman’s character wants to be the lead so badly that she is literally driving herself insane.  That’s a good struggle.

Smash should take Kurt Vonnegut’s advice about protagonists:

Be a Sadist.  No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them – in order that the reader may see what they are made of.

The Smash writers are being too nice to Karen.  She doesn’t do anything interesting because everyone in her world wants the best for her.  She hasn’t surmounted enough obstacles to show the audience that she cares about her own goals.

I think writers may fall into this trap because they worry their protagonists will lose their innocence by struggling, or the writers view protagonists as a versions of themselves — and who really wants to suffer?  But without making Karen suffer, Smash has no spine, and the audience will continue to dwindle away.

As for my action script, the reason it wasn’t working was that the protagonist, Roman, wasn’t personally suffering through the setbacks of the story .  He was around while other people were suffering — hell, he was even taking a stand for the most downtrodden of the supporting characters.  But if he just packed up and went home, it really wouldn’t make a difference.  He would just go back to his old life.  My mistake was thinking that Roman’s problem was that his background wasn’t interesting.  The real problem was that Roman wasn’t suffering enough to show the audience his passion and commitment to his goals.   

In short, the protagonist has to suffer more than any other character.

Don’t protect your protagonist.

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