Thursday, May 27, 2010

How to Emotionally Connect a Protagonist to Your Audience.

A  recent workshop attendee who works with a talented group of teen filmmakers asks this question as the young filmmakers tackle their next script:
What are the basic/major events a protagonist must face, experience and overcome in a story to make sure the audience can emotionally connect with the main character?
That question, however, suggests that the filmmakers are thinking it's the ACTION or the EVENTS that the protagonist experiences that connect with the audience. But that is only true because of who the protagonist is.  It's his CHARACTER, or who he is INSIDE, that really dictates the emotional connection with the audience.  Of course it's who the protag is on the inside that determines what EVENTS occur in his life. The major turning EVENTS however are outlined below.



The answer to the question is comprehensively answered in The Moral Premise book. But my job here is to try to make things simpler to understand. Or at least short-hand it.  In one version of my workshop I discuss the 10+ secrets of successful screenplays and movies. What I should also say is that the secrets of successful screenplays are ALSO about the main character, the protagonist, whether that character is a good guy or bad.

Put yet another way, for your audience to emotionally connect with your protagonist there must be somethings that are true about the character in a character sense, and then other things that must happen in a story sense that are also TRUE, or natural expectations of cause  and effect. So, the question is a little bit off.  Notice in the list below, it's not just events, but motivations that come from within. That's the power of the moral premise. It describes both the type of events and the type of moral thinking that motivate everything the characters do. Some right, some wrong, some productive, some not.

For review, the moral premise statement that drives all this is:
[a psychological vice] leads to [physical detriment] but
[a psychological virtue] leads to [physical betterment].
Here's the list:

SHORT FILMS. You won't have an Act 1 Climax, or an Act 2 Climax, but you will have a Moment of Grace, a Goal, and the consequences of applying the positive or negative sides of the moral premise to the protag's life. Otherwise, in longer form, check the list below. (see addendum at the bottom for GLIC)

LONG FILMS

1. Every character action must be logically connect to the character's value motivation. [see the MP statement... the psychological is the motivation]. You do not have to tell the audience what that value motivation is. But you must be consistent about it. All action is preceded a decision that finds its motivation in a psychological value (virtue or vice). You will loose your audience if you have the character doing things that cannot be explained logically as coming from a value.

2. Every major character must take action based on either the vice or virtue described in the moral premise statement, and the consequences must be described by the statement's consequences.

3. There should be only two major values (a virtue and a vice) that define what the protagonist is thinking, should be thinking, or refuses to act up.  In fact, EVERY main character must deal with same values, but in different ways unique to their life. These values must be visceral and common to all people in the theater. Those values play tug-a-war with the protagonist as they arc either toward a better life, or a worse life throughout the movie.

4. The protagonist must be a mixture of imperfection (faults) and perfection (virtue). This allows the audience to identify with the characters and feel as if they are one with them because everyone in the audience knows they are not perfect either. Audiences' come to movies to seek how to improve their lives through the simulation that is the protagonist's decisions. Every decision has a consequence. 

5. The protagonist must strive to change and hate the status quo. (The audience did not come to watch someone who likes to sit around. That's the audience's job.)

6. The protagonist must have a PHYSICAL, VISIBLE GOAL, that the audience cares about. It does not matter if the goal is a good thing (the audience wants it to happen) or if the goal is a bad things (the audience does NOT want it to happen.) That is, the movie must be clearly redemptive, tragic, or delicately ironic.

7. It is the protagonist's decisions that drive the story forward. These most fundamentally occur at the following turning points of the movie. The story is about the protagonist, so make him make the decisions that drive the story.
  • At the Act 1 midpoint, it's the protagonist that is asked to go on a journey but he/she refuses. This is the inciting incident, and it is usually triggered by the bad guys. But the protagonist's action creates doubt that he can achieve the goal. It seems too impossible.  The audience hopes for him (or her).
  • At the Act 1 climax, it is the protagonist that decides to go on the journey after rejecting the call. We hope for the protag to meet the challenges that come at him or her immediately with the first half of Act 2.
  • At the Moment of Grace (Act 2 mid point) it's the protagonist that accepts or rejects the moral premise secret to bask in success or cash in failure. The audience will connect with the protagonist when what happens to the protagonist as a result of their moral decisions, is true to natural law (or common sense).
  • Just after the Act 2 Climax, (during which the protagonist is nearly destroyed or defeated by the antagonist), the protagonist drops all fakery or masks and becomes his or her true self, and decides to risk all in the struggle to reach the goal. This create sympathy with the audience.
  • At the mid point in Act 3 the protagonist literally dies to self in order to accomplish the goal. 
  •  The audience is overwhelmed with the character's self-sacrifice, or offended by their ego.
8. The protagonist's goal cannot be reached until they first overcome their vice, the inner obstacle. They can't be generous until they overcome greed.

9. The physical obstacles must come out of the protagonist's psychological vice, if only indirectly. And the physical obstacles appear to be insurmountable to the protagonist's current level of skill.

10. There must be a Moment of Grace (mid point Act 2) where the protagonist is offered the truth of the moral premise and either accepts or rejects it, and then natural consequences follow.

11. You must make clear to the audience what that it is the protagonist that is making the major, life changing decisions, and those decisions cannot be forced on him or her. He makes them voluntarily, although pressured by circumstances.

12. Every other dramatic beat should communicate an alternating positive then negative emotion. Every scene is not a beat, but several scenes together usually create a beat.

13. The filmmakers need to SUTURE the audience into the movie and he characters, by using various cinematic techniques to make the audience part of the film. These techniques are in three categories:
  • Physical Suturing: POV and NEAR POV shots, Long takes, ECUs, Hearing character's thoughts, visual and narrative gaps that the audience automatically fill in, and the dark and silent theater that force the audience to put themselves in the place of the characters. (See Purple Rose of Cairo.
  • Emotional Suturing: Create for your characters (to be experienced by your audience): sympathy, jeopardy, relatable-ness, or make them funny, powerful, or skilled. Audience's are drawn to such characters. 
  • Moral Suturing: Always construct your story around a TRUE moral premise. (True = Natural Law or Common Sense). Consistently apply the moral premise to every scene's conflict, and every character's arc (whether they are the good guys or bad).  Recognize that natural law trumps government laws at times. Jack Bauer (24 Hours) is always breaking the law to bring safety and justice to the U.S., and we love him for it.  Moral choices always have consequences that are consistent with natural law; don't avoid your characters experiencing what your audience would experience. Suffering, which is a consequences of natural law, can lead your protagonist to purpose and hope... and audiences' will love to see a protagonist suffer if the result of that suffering brings a bigger good to others. (See BRAVEHEART)
GEORGE LUCAS IN LOVE (GLIC)

For short films, study something like the DVD "George Lucas in Love". It's very simple, the goals are established in the first few seconds, and right off the bat the protagonist is rejecting the moral premise. But when the protag accepts the moral premise, demonstrated and indirectly articulated by the muse (his love interest), then things turn around. The moral premise for this satisfying study in storytelling can be articulated like this:
Disrespect for others and no interest in what's around you
leads to ignorance and writer's block;
but Respect for others and interest in your surrounds
leads to KNOWING and inspiration.
In other words: "Write what you know. And how do you know stuff? Observe, take notice. Don't strive for inspiration, inspiration will find you, if you just respect your surroundings.

About the only things from the longer list above that are not used in GLIC is the extra turning points mentioned earlier.

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