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Four Tips to Create a Great Main Character

28 May 2014

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 May 28, 2014
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Did you love SAVING MR. BANKS as much as I did? First, let me start by saying that if I could pick anyone in the world to be, it would be Emma Thompson. She is my personal goddess of acting, writing and comedy. Plus, she looks amazing. Plus she’s married to Greg Wise (British McDreamy.)

 

If you haven’t seen the film yet, SAVING MR. BANKS tells the tale of Walt Disney’s 1961 attempt to get Pamela L. Travers, the prickly woman who wrote the Mary Poppins book, to sign over the rights so he could turn her children’s story into a movie. Yes, this movie has been called “reality adjacent,” and whitewashed, but as a piece of filmmaking, it grabbed me by my tear ducts and refused to let me go.

 

In the film (and in life, apparently) Pamela Travers was unlikeable. Brusque, imperious, the personification of uptight, Travers is not a protagonist we immediately warm to. However, by the end of the movie we have come to such an understanding of her that we are sobbing sappily and love her more than any saintly saint we’ve ever met.

 

So how did the writers, Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith, do it?

 

Here are the 4 criteria necessary to make a great protagonist. Let’s go through each of them and see how they apply to the Travers character. Hopefully, this will help you flesh out and strengthen your own main character!

 

1) Your main character must have a strong goal and stop at nothing to achieve it. In SAVING MR. BANKS, Pamela Travers wants to protect the characters in her book from Walt Disney’s “cartoonifying” influence so badly that she offends everyone in sight, insults the talents and motives of all the people she meets, and is your basic nightmare. She refuses to sign over the book’s rights to Disney until she is assured she will have total control over everything.

 

2) Your protagonist needs to have something important at stake. In Pamela’s case, her stakes are both physical and emotional. She needs the money to be made from signing over the rights or she will lose her home, AND she refuses to destroy the integrity of the story she is telling about her beloved father.

 

3) Your main character must be somewhat sympathetic or understandable. Pamela Travers is not likeable at the beginning of the movie, but as we are “not liking her,” we experience the hardships of her childhood through flashbacks, which portray her in a highly compassionate light (plus, how can we not love a child with gorgeous hair riding on horseback in the Australian wilds with her sexy dad played by Colin Farrell?) Mean adult + showing her as an innocent child = we understand her. Tricky and brilliant, this.

 

4) Finally, your character must have a secret or a fear. Pamela T has a secret (her father was an alcoholic failure who put his family through hell) AND a fear (that he will be remembered that way and not as the truly imaginative loving father he was.) This secret or fear is usually what the character must face in the climax of the story. In SAVING MR. BANKS, Travers is forced to face both these things and is ultimately deeply moved by Disney’s realistic and yet uplifting portrayal of her family.

 

By the way, this film is also great to watch if you are writing a book or movie with interweaving parallel story lines. Both Travers present day conflict with Disney, and her troubled childhood are intercut such that they merge beautifully in the climax and reveal the theme of the film.

 

Take action! Does your protagonist have a goal and something important at stake? Are they somewhat sympathetic/understandable? Do they have a fear or secret?

 

If not, brainstorm ways to give them all of these four features, and watch them come alive.

 

Happy writing!

 

xo Pat

 

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