The Guide Character: Creating Someone to Lead Your Protagonist

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

Characters most effectively develop as a result of interacting with other characters. A standard trope in storytelling is that our protagonist will not figure out solutions to their conflicts on their own. They need experiences that will teach them what works and what doesn’t. They need training that will prepare them for the ultimate battle that lies ahead. And they need other characters who can guide them towards victory. Sometimes these characters are mentors, teachers, or parents. Other times these characters are peers. Regardless of what social groups your character’s guide comes from, there are a few principles that will help create an environment where the guiding character is both believable and effective.

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THE SCARRED GUIDE

Giving the guide their own weaknesses, doubts, and failures makes the instruction and advice they give the protagonist more believable. We struggle to trust advice that has not come from someone who has been there. In Queen of Katwe, Phiona’s chess coach, Robert Katende can help her navigate the ups and downs of her journey towards greatness because he comes from an even more difficult background than she does. Anything she faces, he has also faced, often in more extreme circumstances. His experience gives him credibility not only with Phiona but also with us as an audience.

Amanda Waller of Suicide Squad and Nick Fury of The Avengers both serve as scarred guides for the heroes within their franchises. Even Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid is revealed to have a painful past of war and loss. His scars give him a deep well to draw from while guiding Daniel to victory both in the tournament and with his relationships. Doc Brown understands Marty in Back to the Future because he also knows what it’s like to be shunned.

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THE EXPERIENCED GUIDE

Every good teacher has also, at one time, been a good student. While we may accomplish the establishment of this in a variety of ways, demonstrating that the guide has lived through experiences that have taught him or her the lessons the protagonist needs to learn is important. Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino can speak into Thao’s life because he has lived through similar experiences, though in a different culture. Patches O’Houlihan can advise a flailing dodgeball team, because he is an ex-dodgeball champion in Dodgeball. Irv Blitzer is basically the same character in Cool Runnings.

John Keating has been a student just like the boys he leads in Dead Poets Society.  Red’s experience in The Shawshank Redemption allows him to guide Andy Dufresne which in turn allows Andy to guide Tommy. Perhaps the most memorable scene of any character touting their experience in the presence of an over-confident hero is in Good Will Hunting when Sean Maguire dramatically guides Will Hunting with his park bench speech.

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THE MOTIVATED GUIDE

When the guide has their own reasons for wanting the hero to succeed, it brings a complexity both to their character as well as to the overall story.  Sometimes the guide’s motivation comes from an allegiance to a greater cause, as with Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi in the Star Wars saga. Sometimes, it originates from selfish motivations as with Jack Donaghy’s mentoring of every aspect of Liz Lemon’s life on 30 Rock. Other times it comes from a place of compassion as with Giles, the mentor figure in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Many times the motivation for the guide comes from nepotism as with Uncle Ben in Spiderman, or neo-nepotism as with Alfred in The Dark Knight. Charles Xavier in X-Men is driven by his own dream to see humans and mutants live together in peace. Frankie Dunn is a reluctant guide at first, but transforms into a very motivated guide after seeing the tenacity of his student in Million Dollar Baby. Dumbledore of Harry Potter lore and Gandalf of The Lord of the Rings both serve as guides from a place of position. They both feel a sense of duty because of who they are.

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A FINAL CHALLENGE

In researching this piece, I was disheartened to find a great lack of female guides in film and television. Even when the protagonist is female, it seems that the guiding character is often male. The Devil Wears Prada and Miss Congeniality both feature wonderful gay mentors for our protagonists, which is different than what we often see, but still they are male. Some have pointed to the Pygmallion myth and its never-ending presence in storytelling as the reason behind a lack of female guides.

So, I conclude with this challenge for all writers. Find opportunities to use female characters as guides for female and male characters. This is a gaping hole in the quilt of storytelling that we should begin repairing immediately. I look forward to seeing how you step up to the challenge.

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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 Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S.  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 site, tellingabetterstory.com.

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