Stripping Down: 4 Things Your Protagonist Must Shed to Succeed

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by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Guiding a character through a journey is a process of negotiating their inner desires and outer goals. While many films are constructed around the idea of a character that will gain one key thing over the course of the story, we sometimes forget that well-rounded characters will also lose some things along the way. Here are four things you may want to strip away from your protagonist as they make their way toward their goal.

1. THEIR PARENTS OR HOME

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Throughout the history of storytelling, characters have chosen to leave home in order to begin the journey they are called to. Joseph Campbell speaks at length about this in his work. Some have suggested that this is important for a character to do because all people relate to this decision. (Almost) every adult has made the choice to leave home at some point in order to begin his or her own life.

Both Ben Gates (National Treasure) and Indiana Jones (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) leave behind disappointed fathers before taking off on their adventures. Luke Skywalker leaves his home planet to go and fight the Empire in Star Wars: A New Hope. Huck Finn runs away from home to raft down the Mississippi River. Mikey and his friends in The Goonies must ironically leave their parents and homes in order to ultimately save them. Even young Buddha leaves his father’s palace to embark on his spiritual quest in the forest. Strong character development often begins with moving your protagonist out of their comfort zone and into more dangerous territory.

2. THEIR CRUTCHES

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Crutches can come in many forms. Friends, magic, shortcuts, masks, and comfort blankets can all be forms of crutches. Ultimately, a crutch is anything your protagonist uses to avoid having to face the thing what will bring the most change and development to their life.

As wonderful as his powers are, Bruce Nolan cannot use them to save his marriage in Bruce Almighty. He must give up the magic he has been given in order to succeed. In Pitch Perfect 2, Becca and the Barton Bellas must give up their reliance on musical mashups and take a chance on original music in order to complete their journey (read Pitch Perfect). Anastasia Steele must give up her “comfort blanket” to go on her adventure with Mr. Grey in 50 Shades of Grey.

3. THEIR PAST

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Sometimes, it’s a “ghost” that still haunts them. Sometimes, it’s the thing that has worked for them before. Sometimes, it’s the memories they just can’t stop thinking about. Like a snake in the spring, strong characters often must shed their old skin – the baggage they have traveled with for better or worse.

Cheryl Strayed must shed the skin of her old life and the pain of her mother’s death in Wild. Mac Radner and his wife must shed the polite tactics that have worked so well for them in the past in order to defeat the rowdy frat house next door in Neighbors. Prince Hakeem must hide the luxurious life he grew up with to find true love in Coming to America. In The Judge, Hank Palmer’s slick courtroom presence must be put aside to achieve his inner goals. Even Joe Dirt must eventually give up the past he works the entire film to validate in the story that bears his name.

4. WHAT THEY WANT, IN ORDER TO GET WHAT THEY NEED

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Often, the thing the protagonist must shed is their reputation or what others think of them in order to truly be themselves. We see this in the journeys of Marty McFly (Back to the Future), Cady Heron (Mean Girls), and more recently in Ben Stiller’s character, Josh, in While We’re Young. In The Imitation Game, what Alan Turning wants is to be left alone to do his work privately. He must give this up in order to get what he truly needs – the acceptance that only comes through relationship.

Sometimes, our protagonist must give up a physical object. Indiana Jones gives up the Holy Grail he searches for the entire film (Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade); in order to gain something he needs more desperately – the respect and acceptance of his father. In the end, asking our protagonist to give something up must always be for the greater good of granting them something more valuable than what they had before.

Sacrifice is always rewarded in powerful storytelling.

~

John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.

One thought on “Stripping Down: 4 Things Your Protagonist Must Shed to Succeed

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  1. Good advice. But I must throw caution to the wind. Do not get bogged down in rules and artificial semantics. Write from a place deep inside and let it flow. Don’t filter your thoughts through any filter. Let your inner writer speak without shame. Only then will your own unique voice emerge. Only then will you create an unabashed character that speaks to our collective souls.

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