What is the most integral element of a film? What keeps the viewer wholly invested in what’s unfolding on the screen? What is it that draws us so willingly and eagerly into the cinematic experience and makes us feel like we’re a vital part of the action?
If you answered ‘full-frontal nudity,’ well dear reader… you just might be on to something.
But the correct and more church-friendly answer is ‘Character.’ If one were to consider Story as an architectural structure – perhaps a Greek temple – Character would be one of the two largest and most crucial loadbearing columns alongside Plot. Which of these two columns is more critical in the support of Story’s narrative integrity than the other is a debate for another day, but I’m personally of the persuasion that effective characters can compensate for an ineffective plot more than the opposite (think about it – if we care about an individual well enough, it’s fairly easy to get invested in whatever they’re doing).
The most important character in any given work of fiction, of course, is the protagonist. A fancy hardcover book I recently read called The Dictionery (penned by Stephen King, if I’m not mistaken), defines ‘protagonist’ as “The leading character, hero, or heroine in a drama or other literary work.” While there are absolutely some interesting exceptions, the protagonist in a film is generally the main character – the one whose journey through the plot we follow from fade in to fade out.
As anyone who has ever attempted to write Narrative is painfully aware, crafting an effective, compelling protagonist can be a daunting, soul-rending process that’s not unlike venturing into a Force-sensitive cave on Dagobah and duking it out with a Sith Lord who turns out to be none other than yourself (which you heedfully take as a premonition to not sell out your creative integrity to Disney). Back in my screenwriting school days, a dear mentor taught me to ask the following series of questions to guide the development of a Character: “Who is my character? What does he want? Why does he want it? Why can’t he get it? What is he going to do about it? What are the consequences?”
He was a good man, my mentor. Intuitive and caring on many levels.
Answering these guiding questions is paramount in the crafting of an effective protagonist, and you can bet your buttery biscuits that the writers behind your favourite heroes and heroines asked themselves similar questions while at the proverbial potter’s wheel.
Because my hometown’s Theatrical Symposium for Degenerate Fancies has yet to screen anything this year that isn’t carrying a Marvel Studios banner, I’ll be dedicating the next several entries to analyzing some of my personal favourite protagonists across some of my favourite films. Together we’ll be looking at just who the heck they are, what makes them effective leading characters, why they resonate with us as viewers, and how they contribute to making their resident films compelling Stories.
We’ll begin with one of my favourite films – Star Wars.
STAR WARS – A FAIRY TALE TOLD IN SPACE
To clarify, by ‘Star Wars,’ I mean the 1977 film and the 1977 film alone, because yes – I am that snooty. This wasn’t always the case. Like many children of the 90s I grew up with the THX remastered original trilogy VHS boxset – the one where each tape begins with Leonard Maltin interviewing George Lucas, who even back then looked displeased to be alive. Back in those days my favourite episode was Return of the Jedi, because this critic’s precocious six-year-old self actually loved the Ewoks and the lighthearted, comic tone they heralded. Further down the adolescent road my favourite became The Empire Strikes Back, because this critic’s teenage/young-adult self was a brooding, angsty, Holden Caulfield-type who put Vaseline in his hair and carried himself like he had a true friend in the Sex Pistols. Thankfully, this critic’s current manifestation has grown to favour the 1977 Star Wars episode (call it A New Hope if that helps you) because it represents the most effective Story in the whole saga.
Before we can properly address Character, I feel it is important to touch briefly on Plot, because the plot of the first Star Wars film is so simple and straightforward it could have been written by Joseph Campbell. Set against the backdrop of a civil war between an evil empire and a fledgling rebellion, a heroic young farm boy embarks on an adventure across the stars and into a destiny far greater than anything he could ever have imagined. His adventure plays out much like a fairy tale or something from Arthurian legend and includes appropriately similar characters and situations – the wise old wizard, a mystical sword, the damsel in distress, a daring rescue, the fearsome dark lord, a world-destroying dragon, and a chess-playing Sasquatch. There’s relatively little to it, and all the stakes and goals are clear and identifiable from the onset. We don’t even need a forty-minute long senatorial scene with politicians debating the legality of trade routes and space taxes.
There’s a lot of factors that contribute to the first Star Wars’ greatness, to be sure – the groundbreaking special effects, the iconic costumes and models, the dazzling worlds and landscapes, John Williams’ sweeping score, the memorable characters, and the fun and lighthearted tone – but it is its simple and effective story that makes it resonate with us, even on a subconscious level. At its heart it is the time-honored Hero’s Journey practically beat-for-beat – a fairy tale told in space.
Come to think of it, there was quite a bit of the Disney brand in Star Wars long before that four billion dollar buyout…
Grasping now what worked about Star Wars on a fundamental plot level, we may now turn to our protagonist – Luke Skywalker.
LUKE SKYWALKER – THE HEROIC EVERYMAN
When we first meet young Luke Skywalker, he is eking out a meager existence on his aunt and uncle’s farm, herding droids or harvesting moisture or juicing Jawas or whatever the hell it is Uncle Owen does to earn a living on a planet made out of sand. We see that his life is one of frustration and mundanity – Aunt Beru harps him to purchase a droid who can play Bocce ball and Uncle Owen refuses to allow him to go out on the town and pick up power converters (which may or may not be strippers). During his interactions with 3P0 and R2 he expresses dissatisfaction with the tedium of #SandLife but springs to life at the mention of the fight against the Empire – because even on Tatooine the kids play Fortnite and think war is a helluva lot of fun.
It is in these introductory scenes that we come to understand that young Luke is not so different from ourselves, and common ground is established. He’s dismayed by and bored with his banal life – he doesn’t want to be a farmhand in the middle of nowhere, he wants to be out in the universe making something of himself – seeking thrills, living adventurously, and maybe finding a pretty green Orion—I mean, blue Twi’lek to settle down with.
Things boil over following a dismal family luncheon, where he learns that he’ll be stuck on the farm for yet another season despite the fact that all his friends have moved on. At this point Luke despairs of ever getting off Tatooine, which brings us to the famous binary sunset scene – a poignant character beat that gives us a glimpse into our hero’s soul and all its unrealized dreams and stifled potential. As young Luke looks off into the horizon – so far away and out of reach – we see his longing, hopes, frustrations, and eventual resignation. This is probably one of the most effective sequences in the entire saga, because we get all the information we need without having to suffer through any of George Lucas’ blunt dialogue.
In these orienting Act I scenes, we the viewer find common ground with our hero and see a good deal of ourselves reflected in him and his circumstances. After all, don’t so many of us feel cemented in our own little sandboxes watching everyone else grow up and move on with life? How many of us feel tethered to a dissatisfactory job or stranded in our dismal hometown or held back from attending our dream school? We probably all have friends like Biggs and Tank who have left us behind and gone on to lead rich and satisfying lives of their own – lives with trophy wives and extravagant houses and salary positions and lien-free Ford Escapes and God I hate my friends—
Anyway, by this point in the film we are all Luke Skywalker to some degree or another through the sheer power of relatability. We understand what he wants and why he can’t get it, and now we eagerly await what he’ll do when opportunity come knocking. This brings us to the Call to Adventure, or Catalyst story beat.
As irony would have it, when the Call of Adventure that Luke has been so desperately longing for finally comes he immediately refuses it out of consideration for his domestic responsibilities. This represents a classic example of The Debate (or Refusal of the Call), an important beat in which our hero must decide if he will cross the threshold into the unknown or stay safe and sound in the realm of the familiar. As we see, Luke refuses Ben Kenobi’s offer to learn the ways of the Force and accompany him to Alderaan, which is actually perfectly understandable and serves to enhance his relatability. After all, don’t we all fear the unknown on some level? Our longing for adventure is oftentimes hard-pressed to override our inherent desire for comfort and familiarity. As much as we may want to set out on globe-trotting, death-defying, Nazi-evading adventures, invariably we find excuses to let those opportunities pass by unseized. Hell, we have that 9 to 5 to report to, or that looming student debt to pay off, or that pesky house arrest and its corresponding ankle bracelet that inhibits us from wandering past the driveway.
But because “Luke Skywalker: Under the Tusken Sun” wouldn’t sell as many action figures (even if it would most certainly garner Academy Awards), fate intervenes and murders his family and burns down his home in one fell swoop. Now, I will point out that the heroes in stories are generally supposed to be proactive – Frodo Baggins has to decide on his own accord to take the Ring to Mordor after weighing the danger for himself; he can’t let Gandalf or Strider make that decision for him. In the case of Star Wars, Luke’s decision is admittedly fairly reactive – if the Empire hadn’t wiped out his home, would he ever have found the resolve to leave Tatooine? I suppose we’ll never know. At the end of the day, this incident provides the impetus to get him on the road with Ben Kenobi and launches us into Act II – the meat and potatoes of a film.
This is where we begin to see our hero confront obstacles and mature as a character, a phase of development that takes us on a crash course with another memorable character –
HAN SOLO – DEUTERAGONIST EXTRAORINDAIRE
What red-blooded human being doesn’t love Han Solo? He’s the polar opposite of Luke Skywalker in every fashion – dashing, roguish, arrogant, charming, capable, street-savvy, well-dressed, and relatively free of moral scruples. He’s got a cherry starship, a shoot-first mentality, and a sexy grin that makes all the ladies everywhere swoon with delight (not to mention some of the men – mercy me…). His own journey is one of evolution from a bastard-with-a-heart-of-gold to a hero himself, a sort of redemptive arc from a crook who looks out for number one to a man who risks his life for people he now calls friends.
But Han Solo is not our hero – Luke Skywalker is, because a story like this necessitates a hero with shoes we can slip seamlessly into, especially once the adventure begins (frankly, I’m not convinced that Han Solo can work as the protagonist… but I suppose time will tell). On Luke’s first steps into a larger world he gets his ass kicked by a walrus-man in a bar fight, loses his temper after being goaded by Solo, whines about the prices of landspeeders, whines about how dumb the Millennium Falcon looks, whines about having to train in a helmet he can’t see through, whines about—
Yeah, he whines a lot.
But again, we can relate. Few of us adapt instantly on our own journeys into the unknown, whether it be on a new job, at a new school, or in a new relationship. Life has a learning curve, and so do intergalactic adventures. Hell, even Indiana Jones and James Bond were novices at one point in their careers (more on them in a later entry). At this point, Luke Skywalker is inexperienced, unsure of himself, and he has a lot of growing up to do. Whereas he is just setting out on his adventure, Han Solo has been on countless, and their introduction to one another serves as a source of conflict.
Conflict, of course, is integral to Story, whether it’s internal or external in nature. Without conflict on some level there is no a story at all to tell, and the conflict in Star Wars goes beyond the fight against the Empire – it takes place on an individual level. Luke is conflicted about his place in the galaxy, conflicted about leaving behind everything he’s ever known, and faces conflict in waves once he does embrace the great adventure. It has oft been said in the realm of psychology that conflict reveals true character, and I personally believe that it can also shape our identities, either for better or worse (I once skimmed Freud’s autobiography, so I think I know what I’m talking about). Luke’s conflict with Han not only reveals his initial inexperience, but it begins to shape him into the great man and Jedi Master he will eventually become.
And yet again, the dynamic between Luke and Han is something we can identify with. Many of us can probably name someone in our lives at this very moment who is better than us at everything or more experienced in the ways of the world – someone who can make us feel wholly inadequate, even if it’s not intentional. This particular someone may slap our hand when we dare to question their navigation skills or mockingly question where we dug up our old fossils. Maybe this person is a friend, acquaintance, sibling, or mortal foe. Perhaps we look up to this person with a mixture of admiration and envy because deep, deep down we find ourselves wanting to be like them and then hating ourselves for it. Luke’s early interactions with Han remind us that the first steps into the unknown can be bumpy and uncomfortable and likely to make us feel inferior in our abilities – and that’s perfectly okay, because if we stick with it we’ll grow and learn and adapt and eventually become the sort of person who makes other people feel inferior in their abilities.
Just as the Good Lord intended.
LUKE SKYWALKER – ACTION MAN
By the time our motley crew arrives at the Death Star, Luke takes his first major action step in the story – leading the mission to rescue Princess Leia. This is a pivotal turn in his arc and one that bolsters his development as a character. If the rescue had been somebody else’s idea, or if Luke had been reluctant to leave the safety of the Death Star’s control room, then his character would have failed because the hero of the story needs to be a person of action and proactivity. As it stands, Luke does spearhead the rescue of Princess Leia, even convincing the self-serving Han Solo to join him. We see him come into his own during this phase of the adventure, displaying ingenuity and quick-thinking (swinging across the chasm with Leia), suffering a loss (the death of Ben Kenobi), and exercising courage and bravado (helping Han ward off a squad of TIE Fighters). This is the essence of Act II – mountains and valleys, obstacles and triumphs – the rocky road of the protagonist.
The arrival at the rebel base represents our break into Act III, where we see Luke preparing for his final confrontation – the assault on the Death Star. He is still grappling with his place in this strange new world, though not to the extend he was back in Mos Eisley. Ben Kenobi is dead and Han Solo – whom he has come to form a begrudging respect for – has seemingly abandoned him. He has already changed significantly from the time we first met him on Tatooine, having accumulated both experience and abilities that will aid him in what’s to come. He elects to join the assault on the Death Star, and in doing so must put everything Ben taught him during their brief time together to the test. There is a time on all of our journeys when the rubber must meet the road and we must draw on everything we’ve learned to overcome that big obstacle. You know the one I’m talking about – we all have an individual Death Star in our lives that we must vanquish in order to truly come into our own as men and women of the world. My Death Star just happens to be shaped suspiciously like my dad…
By the time Luke has locked his S-foils in attack position, we’re completely invested in his journey and cheering for him to succeed, and not just because the Death Star will blow up Yavin IV if he doesn’t. Through the application of everything he’s learned (not to mention some supernatural guidance from Ben), he triumphs over the Death Star and saves the day. Granted, Han Solo returns and saves him, but Luke Skywalker has still progressed from Point A to Point B. He’s learned to trust in everything he’s learned and secured his position in the universe. As a character he’s come full circle, growing up from a hapless, whiny farm boy on Tatooine into a valiant, whiny rebel hero. He even got the girl—oh wait…
Luke Skywalker is an effective protagonist because he is all of us. On our own journeys through life we all start out somewhere we don’t want to be, gazing at our own binary sunsets and wishing desperately that we were somewhere else doing something different. Like Luke, we all have opportunities to embark on an adventure into life – some of us answer the call later in life than others, but those calls do come and we all have the choice to forge ahead or stagnate. When we do find the courage to answer the call, we can take solace in the knowledge that if Luke Skywalker can succeed, maybe we can too.
As someone much wiser than myself once said, we’re all Luke Skywalker – even if we’d rather be Han Solo.
To be continued in Part II…