Instead of thinking of the creation of a protagonist as grafting together different characteristics into some sort of Frankenstein’s monster, consider the act as refining a search string with additional terms. As an example, we’ll use Dr. Alan Grant in Jurassic Park:
- A man – 3,700,000,000 results
- An unmarried man – 2,050,000,000 results
- An unmarried man AND paleontologist – 15,075 results
- An unmarried man AND paleontologist AND doesn’t like kids – 2,482 results
- An unmarried man AND paleontologist AND doesn’t like kids AND technophobic – 603 results
Specific Doesn’t Always Mean Unique
Creating a specific character isn’t always about creating a character so unique that there is only one result. Not every protagonist is The Chosen One, but every protagonist should feel specifically connected to the story being told.
Going back to a previous post on having elements to a premise that are both unique and relatable, if a character is too specific; too much of an individual, they’ll be difficult for the audience to connect with. A combination of relatable characteristics can mesh together into a character that is specific enough to give the appearance of being a unique individual.
It’s actions that take a specific character and make them unique. Using the (completely arbitrary) numbers above, there may be 603 men like Dr. Alan Grant, but he’s the only one of them in this situation.
Character Traits Anchor Plot Points & Conflicts
The situations Dr. Grant finds himself in reflect the specifics of his character traits.
Paleontologist? He needs to survive on an island full of living dinosaurs. Technophobic? He’s wary of the science used to breed these dinosaurs, and he needs to cope with the failures of technology that put everyone in danger. Unmarried relationship status? There’s tension between himself and Dr. Malcolm when Malcolm flirts with Dr. Sattler. Uncomfortable with kids? He’s thrown into a situation where he needs to protect the lives and sanity of two children.
The character and the story reflect one another in specific ways and offer opportunities for increasing the story’s tension. Consider how different the story would be if Dr. Grant liked children. He might have sat in the same jeep as Tim and Lex during the tour of the park. He would have kept them calm during the T-Rex attack and prevented them from attracting its attention with the flashlight. Everything that follows after that would have happened differently, and their trek through the middle of the park would never have happened.
Making Sure The Audience Is In On It
Building the character and understanding their traits is the first step, but how do you make sure that the audience understands these things so they can see how the conflict ties in with the character?
There are many ways to hide exposition, and Jurassic Park has an excellent example with its introduction of Dr. Grant. The crew of the dig gathers around to look at a new piece of technology to give them a picture of a fossilized skeleton still underground. Dr. Grant inadvertently touches the monitor and shorts out the image. He’s confused about what happened, but continues to describe the velociraptor until he’s interrupted by a child who thinks it looks harmless, like a big chicken. Dr. Grant then goes through a lengthy, grotesque description of the raptor, scaring the bejeesus out of the kid.
There’s conflict: Dr. Grant vs. technology with the monitor, then Dr. Grant vs. the child. This scene gives us not only the two aspects of Grant’s personality he’ll have to overcome during the story, but also introduces the velociraptor, which will be one of the primary antagonists of the film.
With that one scene, the audience knows much of what to expect from this character. When further scenes play off these characteristics, the viewer can try to anticipate what will happen, increasing their involvement with the story.