Monthly Archives: December 2021

The likeable protagonist in films and novels

The likeable protagonist: Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The likeable protagonist: Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark.

In his book, Writing Screenplays that Sell, Michael Hague, stresses the need to create a likeable protagonist if our stories are to succeed.

Likeable protagonists make for more popular films and novels. Unlikable heroes make for unpopular ones.

“A likeable protagonist is exceptional, interesting, eccentric. He stands out from the crowd. He is the sort of person we would like to know long after the story has ended.”

Here are four simple but effective ways to write a likeable protagonist in a screenplay or novel:

  • Make your protagonist someone who represents something bigger than himself. Indiana Jones is likeable and heroic not only because he is able to do things no one else can—his actions showcase his passions and skills—but because he fights to preserve the values that define and enrich society. This increases his aura.
  • Make the protagonist funny and entertaining, as in Deadpool.
  • Make her a kind, good person, as are the heroes in Norma Ray, or Crimes of the Heart.
  • Write a protagonist who is tough, or good at what he does, as in Gladiator.

Using one or more of these traits, indeed, preferably all four of them, will make your protagonist more likeable and engaging. This is vital in helping your audience or readers to form a relationship with the character—one that will endure throughout the story and beyond.

Most importantly, establish these positive traits as soon as possible—especially if you are dealing with a complex, flawed characters. Once an audience gets to like the character it will more easily tolerate his or her flaws.


Craft likeable and engaging protagonists for your screenplays and novels by having them display likeable traits early, before exposing their flaws. This will grant us time to get to like them.

Check out my latest video on writing compelling characters!

The grand surprise in stories—how to set it up!

Shutter Island contains a story-altering surprise.
Shutter Island contains a story-altering grand surprise.

What is a grand surprise and how do we set one up?

If story structure could be represented on a sheet of paper it would look like a zig-zagging line mediated by two or three radical turns. The zig-zagging lines and turns represent surprises of varying strength.

Telegraphing your punch eliminates the surprise, making your story predictable and boring. In his book, Film Scriptwriting, Dwight. V Swain reminds us that stories should be unpredictable but logical, in other words, contain development that is plausible but unforeseen.

One way to achieve this is to set up an anticipated line of action then spin off in a different direction.

But the surprise can’t feel inauthentic or forced.

Shutter Island opens with Deputy Edward (Teddy) Daniels, and his partner, Chuck Aule, arriving on the island to investigate a psychiatric facility where a patient has mysteriously disappeared. But things are not what they seem. The surprise in the story turns the narrative on its head but is effective because it has been carefully prepared for by the film-makers.

“A grand surprise changes the path of the story fundamentally, forcing it in a direction that we didn’t see coming. Use it to keep your stories fresh and exciting.”

Suppose you’ve written a story where your hero encounters numerous obstacles in order to sneak into the room where his girlfriend is supposedly waiting for him. He struggles up the drainpipe outside the house and finally reaches her open window. The room is in darkness. He climbs inside, and, panting with passion and fatigue, he tiptoes to the figure lying on the bed. The bedside light goes on to reveal that the figure is not his girlfriend but her mother.

This sort of surprise might not necessarily rise to the level of a turning point, or be as story-altering as the one in Shutter Island, but it does constitute a deviation from the story’s path. Providing that the set-up is right, twists will help keep your stories unpredictable.


To keep your stories fresh and unpredictable spin your readers and audiences away from expectation through a grand surprise.

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Write compelling characters through this simple technique.

Obsession makes for compelling characters in  Weathering Heights.
Obsession makes for compelling characters in Weathering Heights.

Writing compelling characters for your screenplays and novels is a must. A plot without such characters to drive it is unconvincing. 

There is no shortage of advice on how to set about creating compelling characters – from lengthy and detailed backstories, to charting their moral, political, social, and ideological viewpoints, to details about their personal tastes. What food do they like? What’s their favorite colour? Do they have all their teeth? And so on, seemingly, ad infinitum.

Call me lazy, but I have always found such an approach demotivating. 

Of course, the writer needs to know how a character will react to certain challenges presented by the plot. And, yes, character reaction needs to be rooted in an understanding of who the character is. But do we really need to know about his dental health, unless that impacts the plot directly?

My experience has been that brooding too long and too deeply over the background of the characters may block the writing of a story. I tend to get lost in the details. Indeed, excessive detail, which initially seems like a beacon that sheds light on the story, often freezes me in its glare like a rabbit caught in the headlights.

“Compelling characters are obsessed with winning their stated goal, but are tormented by inner wounds and secrets.”

The point is that for some writers, the act of writing embodies an organic, spontaneous fusion of many serendipitous elements – textures, senses, feelings, values, facts, intuitions, plot points. Pre-planning them is impossible. 

My approach, therefore, is to learn as much about the craft as possible, identify, in broad strokes, the overall direction of the plot and the chief motivation of my characters, then get down to writing. 

In her book, The Novelist’s Guide, Margret Geraghty, stresses that in order to get to the heart of a character we need to know what that character wants – and not wants in some mild, would-like-to-have sort of way, but wants in a compelling, urgent, obsessive way. To which I’ll add, we also need to know what inner obstacle or secret may hold the character back.

“Compelling characters drive the plot.”

Is it love? Then our character must desire it more than anything else in the world.

Is it wealth? She must be willing to push herself to breaking point to acquire it. 

Is it revenge? He must be willing to risk death to get it. 

Not only does obsessive desire increase the intensity of a character, it gives the story direction. After all, the character’s wants and needs are what drive the tale forward. 

Just think of Hamlet’s desire to avenge his father’s murder, or Cinderella’s compulsion to go to the ball, or Heathcliff’s obsession with Cathy.

You get the idea.

Which brings me back to my opening remarks: What must I know about a character before I begin writing her story?

I need to know what she desires and how far she is willing to go to achieve it. Additionally, I need to know what wound or secret she harbours. I can then begin to generate the plot by placing internal and external obstacles in the path of that desire.


Compelling characters are driven by obsessive desires, struggle against formidable opponents and harbour deep wounds and secrets.

Watch my latest YouTube video on writing techniques below!

The evolution of story

Inception is an example of a closed multiform narrative that points to the evolution of story.
Inception is an example of a closed multiform narrative that points to the evolution of story.

In life as in culture evolution is inevitable.

In his book The Screenwriter’s Workbook screenwriting guru Syd Field wrote this about the screenplay: […] I think we’re in the middle of a screenwriting revolution, a time where screenwriters are pushing the form in new directions.” 

My PhD thesis, Multiform and Multistrand Narrative Structures in Hollywood Cinema, traces the impact of digital media on the story-telling form. I suggest that since stories are structured to reflect our experiences their form is likely to change when our experience of the world changes. 

The increasing non-linearity of life, reflected in the web environment in which we spend so much time, must influence our understanding of action – even of time and space. 

Context, and our interpretation of it, which rests on our understanding of how time and space structures experience, has to shift under such pervasive and persistent pressure.

“As we evolve so must the stories we tell. Nothing reflects this evolution as much as the change in structure—from linear into non-linear story telling.”

This may explain the popularity of films such as The English Patient, Cold Mountain, 2046, Pulp Fiction, Memento, Donnie Darko, Inception, and many others.

These films muddle our understanding of linearity, of cause and effect. They rearrange past, present and future, making the status of what is real problematic. The idea is to reflect, at the level of structure, the bewildering complexity and multiplicity of contemporary life.

The danger in tinkering with the traditional form defined by Aristotle as a narrative that has a beginning, middle and end, however, is that the emotional impact on the reader is lessened. Stories that fail to evoke strong emotions through character action and consequence fall flat. Inception works as a film because it innovates form while placing the characters in life-threatening situations within the story.

Authors and screenwriters who choose to use evolving, non-linear forms, then, ought to ensure that their characters continue to evoke powerful emotion such as passion, sadness, joy, disdain—the strength of traditional story-telling. 

An evolving form and structure, then, should never dazzle us at the cost of lessening the emotional impact of our characters. Not if we want our audiences and readers to care about them.


The evolution of story form should not get in the way of characters who engage readers and audiences through emotion.

Catch my latest YouTube video on writing techniques here!