Five Personal Questions to ask Your Screenplay’s Protagonist

Here are some probing questions to prove if you really know your screenplay’s protagonist as well as you think you do. (psst… If you don’t know your protagonist, no one will.)

1) What does the protagonist most want if he or she could wave a magic wand?

The easiest answer here is, to achieve the external goal…but what about on a personal level? What would he or she change about life? About his or her situation? If you think this is an easy question to answer, consider what your answer would be if someone asked you this question. What would you do if you had a magic wand? What would you most wish for? And what does that reveal about who you are as a person? Being able to answer this for your protagonist gives you a strong sense of what the protagonist values…and thus why it’s imperative he or she succeeds in the quest.

2) What does the protagonist most fear, on a personal level?

This one is generally far easier to answer, both for ourselves and our protagonists, as fear of ___ can often be the thing that drives our actions forward. So, what’s your protagonist most fear? Rejection? Humiliation? Of being revealed as not being strong enough, smart enough? Fears for the safety or protection of others? For family? For community? For love? For a way of life being threatened?

3) What are the protagonist’s virtues?

These are the personal strengths at the heart (and often in the heart) of your protagonist, which get revealed during moments of conflict or crisis. But the question remains: Are these virtues, all of which should be stated in the positive (ie, intelligence, optimism, resourcefulness, ambition or drive, loyalty), going to be enough to overcome the obstacles? And, on a related note…

4) What are the protagonist’s shortcomings?

As is often the case in life, your character’s greatest strengths can also lead to his or her greatest shortcomings or weaknesses—for example, a youthful optimism might also be, in the negative, naiveté…leading the character to be trusting when he or she ought to be guarded, or to make a decision based on faith rather than reason or intellect. Or, a character who’s quite intelligent might have trouble getting out of his or her own head…unable to be intuitive, perhaps, or only seeing a problem from one reasoned angle. The fact that a character’s greatest strengths also reveal greatest weaknesses is one of the ways the audience will see, and be able to feel for, the character as a person.

5) In what ways is the protagonist ill-suited to the job (ie, completing the external goal)?

The importance of this question can’t be overstated—the protagonist must be ill-suited in some way to the job at hand in order for there to be real risk of failure, and, thus, in order for us to feel real investment in the quest, and real hope that it succeeds (and thus real tension when a conflict calls that into question).

To see how these answers inform a protagonist, how would you answer them for, say, Luke Skywalker? Frodo Baggins? Clarice Starling? Neo? How would you answer them for your own protagonist?


These tips came from the workshop

Construct Compelling Characters

In online lectures, supplemental readings, video clips, and written assignments and exercises, we’ll consider how character affects all other aspects of story, including plot, theme, and structure; how to build a protagonist with whom the audience identifies; the necessity of empathy and sympathy in crafting character, and how a character’s own shortcomings allow for these; how to both use and play against character types and tropes; the relationship between character arc and plot arc; and more.

Learn more about Construct Compelling Characters today!.