The Liar, The Witch, and the Wardrobe

Her personality is full of contradictions and her actions beg more questions than provide answers. Sure, that’s pretty close to real life, but if I don’t have my protagonist figured out—if I don’t know her better than she could know herself—we have a problem.

One of my protagonists in one of my several half-baked scripts is temporarily named Anna. Maybe that will be her name, maybe it won’t. Tonight as I read over the pages of the first two acts of Anna’s script, it became apparent to me that I didn’t know this girl at all. Her personality is full of contradictions and her actions beg more questions than provide answers. Sure, that’s pretty close to real life, but if I don’t have my protagonist figured out—if I don’t know her better than she could know herself—we have a problem.

Right now, when I reflect on Anna, one word runs like a digital marquee across my mind: stressed. Anna is stressed. She’s a girl from the South trying to make it in New York and she is stressed. But not like Nicole Kidman in The Interpreter kind of stressed. This isn’t thriller kind of material warranting thriller kind of stress. This is good ‘ole romantic drama kind of stuff where stress often comes across in one of three not-so-positive ways. Misplaced or exaggerated stress makes a female protagonist the victim, the b—witch, or the accessory.

The victim is in her circumstances against her will. She wallows in her predicament, and then whines her way out of her pit into her happy ending. Audiences mistrust the victim because there is something terribly insincere about a character that does not adapt and grow. Sure, she can start out a victim (see Must Love Dogs) but she better start learning something fast or audiences will detect that she’s lying to herself, to other characters, and to them.

The witch takes her stress out on everyone else. She is an alpha female whose abrasive response to the drama around her is barely tolerable, at least at first (see Girl Interrupted or Erin Brockovich). Again, the witch is a fine place to start, but the growth has to start happening soon enough that audiences don’t start hating her.

The accessory lets her stress dominate her character to the point that the audience virtually gives up on seeing her develop. She is a piece of wardrobe to the rest of the drama in the script. A connective piece, but a piece nonetheless. This I don’t have an example for because it’s a relatively crippling fault to catch in the writing process. It’s that point we suddenly discover that our sidekick has become our main character because the protagonist we thought we wanted to tell a story about doesn’t have the depth needed to carry the audience to the end of the story.

I think this is where my dear little Anna is at the moment—the glue that holds the story together without the depth of character to back it up. Buggers. My plan? Coffee. I’m going to sit down and interview my protagonist like I was meeting an estranged friend over coffee tomorrow. I’m going to figure out if she’s got what it takes to lead this story or if I need to find someone else for the job. Cross your fingers I can save this one without a full rewrite.

Maybe her name will actually be Zena or something.

–Amanda Morad