Thursday, July 12, 2018

How to Emotionally Connect a Protagonist to Your Audience.

 This is an updated post from 2010.

Our full house at EXTRAORDINARY's premiere
A  recent workshop attendee who works with teen filmmakers asked this question:
What are the major events in a story that a protagonist must face and overcome to make sure the audience emotionally connects with the character?
That question tells me the filmmakers believe it's the external (or visible) story EVENTS or ACTIONS that connect the audience to the character. But that's only half the truth.

The action a character takes is valued by the audience only because of said character's motivation to take said action. If the protagonist kills another character, the event will be judged differently by the audience depending on whether the killing is pre-meditated murder or self-defense. That is, what's important to the audience is WHY the character took said action. And that is all about who the character is internally. It's the character's internal values that mostly dictate the emotional connection of the audience.

The way the audience discovers those values is the work of the plot and how the character responds to the beats of the plot. More about the plot beats below, but first let's look at how the audience will come to recognize the character's internal values. This is how it works in real life, too.

This diagram from a workshop I give will help. On the left side of the circle, items 2, 3 and 4 happen internally to a character. In a motion picture the audience does not see these unless the character shares his thinking with another character. In a novel, internal monologue often supplies these points.  But everything on the right side of the circle, items 1, 5, and 6 are in the visible, physical realm which the audience sees.

So, let's begin with No. 1. Here our character observes a situation in the external world.

2. Almost immediately the character compares what he observes to his own value system.

3. Let's assume that there is an internal value conflict between what he observes and his own value system. That leads to:

4. The character deciding upon a course of action to remediate the situation, and try to change the external situation to be more in line with his own internal values.

5. The character's thoughts morph into the physical realm and he takes some action.

6. As a direct consequence of the action some natural consequence occurs that is totally outside the character's control. Nature has the upper hand now, and some physical conflict may occur.  This physical conflict is a metaphor of the internal conflict from step 3.

And the cycle repeats itself, as the character...

1. Observes the new situation created by his intervening action, and

2. Evaluates....

If the Natural Consequence is evaluated as good in the character's mind, then his original internal value is reinforced. If the Natural Consequence is evaluated as bad, then the character may revisit and revise their original internal value....and transform.


Now this sort of logic appears most dramatically at a story's TURNING POINT or at Major Beats of a story. I discuss these beats in various places in this blog. But here's a starting point: 13 Major Beats.

So, this goes back to the original question.
What are the major events in a story that a protagonist must face and overcome to make sure the audience emotionally connects with the character?
The answer in an external sense are the dramatic story beats reflected in the 13 Major Beats link above. But the key to those beats emotionally connecting with audiences all depends on whether or not the internal value arc of the character's transformation coincides with or diverges from the audience's values.

And that is where the Moral Premise comes in. The decisions and actions that the character makes, if you're going to have a successful story, must all coincide with the moral and physical arc described by the moral premise statement, which we are assuming is true and in compliance with Natural Law.

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