Making A Hero: Protagonist Development for Film & Fiction | Rebecca Loomis | Skillshare

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Making A Hero: Protagonist Development for Film & Fiction

teacher avatar Rebecca Loomis, Compulsive creative with too many hobbies

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Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Watch this class and thousands more

Get unlimited access to every class
Taught by industry leaders & working professionals
Topics include illustration, design, photography, and more

Lessons in This Class

    • 1.



    • 2.

      Habits of Highly Successful Writers


    • 3.

      Two Sides of the Coin


    • 4.

      Q1: What Does Your Hero Want?


    • 5.

      Q2: How Does Your Hero Need to Change?


    • 6.

      Q3: Why Do We Care?


    • 7.

      Q4: What Are The Stakes?


    • 8.

      Q5: What Are The Obstacles?


    • 9.



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About This Class

What is it that draws us into a story? It’s not that we haven’t seen a boy-meets-girl before, or watched a movie about a heist. There’s nothing new under the sun. What makes us care is not that there is an explosion, but that a character we love is caught in the blast.

Stories are not about happenings; they’re about the people who experience what happened. Though many stories can be categorized as being either plot-driven or character driven, the best of them balance both. To figure out what your story is about, you need to also figure out whom it’s about; because your protagonist and plot are irrevocably intertwined. They are the two sides of the same coin, each mutually defining the other.

In this class, we’ll explore the two sides of that coin. I’ll be walking you through a series of questions to help you generate ideas and solidify who your main character is in relation to your plot.

Meet Your Teacher

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Rebecca Loomis

Compulsive creative with too many hobbies


Rebecca is a freelance photographer, graphic designer and author, with experience in marketing, videography, and more. When she crawls out of her introverted Hobbit-hole, Rebecca enjoys adventuring the great outdoors, social dancing and making delicious food!

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Level: Beginner

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1. Introduction: What is it that draws us into a story? It's not that we haven't seen a boy meets girl before or watched a movie about a heist. There's nothing really new under the sun. What makes us care is not that there is an explosion, but that a character we love gets caught in a blast. Stories are not about happenings they're about people who experience what happened. Some stories can be categorized as either plot-driven or character-driven but I think the best balance both. To decide what your story is about, you also need to figure out, whom it's about? Your plot and your protagonist are irrevocably intertwined they are the two sides of the same coin, each mutually defining the other. In this class, we'll explore the two sides of that coin. I'll be giving you a series of questions that will help you generate ideas and solidify who your main character is in relation to your plot. I'll draw from examples from different movies such as The Hunger Games, Die Hard, A Christmas Carol, and Shrek. Your class projects will be to create a protagonist. Whether or not you use that protagonists in your story, is up to you. This could just be a fun exercise to help you practice. But either way, I am so excited to be sharing some of these resources with you that I've been so beneficial to me in my own writing. My name is Rebecca Loomis, and this is making a hero. 2. Habits of Highly Successful Writers: Habits of highly successful writers. Before we really dive into our idea generating questions, there are a few habits we should begin developing. Creating realistic fictional characters requires a general love for and interest in the diversity and complexity of mankind. Habit Number 1 is people-watch. We've all heard the phrase, great artists steal. Some of the best tidbits in our stories will be things we've heard or witnessed in real life. The more I developed my own characters, the more I grew in love and affection for the uniqueness of each individual. I trained my eyes and ears to pay attention to the things people wear, say, believe, and so on. There was one time I was at an airport and I saw someone so unique, I thought, "You can't make this stuff up." Among other interesting fashion choices, she had a wicker backpack that looks like a picnic basket propped up sideways. It was so intriguing, I threw it directly into my novel, A Whitewashed Tomb. Whenever you're on a subway, sitting in a doctor's office waiting room, or at a coffee shop, lookup, you'll be surprised at what you find. Habit Number 2, take notes and name collect. Most of us have smartphones, and if we don't, we can easily carry a notepad and pen around with us. When you see the way someone walks without bending their knees, or hear that brash statement by an alien worshiping conspiracy theorist, write it down. Even if it doesn't seem applicable to your story now, it may prove useful in the future. Another helpful habit is to collect names. This is something I believe Charles Dickens did, and boy, was he good at naming his characters. I've started jotting down names that I see in the credits of movies, and if found countless gems that Google searches failed to reveal. Habit Number 3, journal. Not only is journaling everyday therapeutic, it gets your mind into the habit of writing regularly and helps you develop a greater knack for describing the happenings of the day. This is especially good to do if you haven't started writing your story yet and are still in the planning phase. Like any exercise, the more you do it, the better you get. Habit Number 4, examine your life. Another reason to journal is that it aids in a general examination of your life, which will benefit your writing substantially. I've heard it said that you should write what you know. We are all connected by a mutual human experience but your outlook on life is unique to you. When you draw from the people and experiences in your own life to develop your fictional world, the outcome will likely be more meaningful, believable, and dynamic, both to your reader or audience and to you. Here are a few prompts that I've pulled from one of my favorite books I'm writing called The Art of Character, to help you examine aspects of your life that can kick your creativity into gear. Try to recall and reflect on the following. A family member to whom you feel particularly close. A family member from whom you are estranged, you dislike or dislikes you. A stranger whose path crossed yours this past week. Someone you know personally and fear. A mentor you admire. The love who got away. The love you wish had gotten away. Your first love. Your greatest love. Your greatest childhood nemesis. Your greatest adulthood nemesis. The person in your life who annoys you the most. Your least favorite neighbor. Your favorite co-worker. An older person who has inspired you. Someone on whom you have a secret crush. Someone you believe has a crush on you. A person you envy. A person whose life you would never trade for your own. Now call to mind these emotionally important incidents in your life. A moment of greatest fear. A moment of greatest courage. A moment of greatest sadness. A moment of greatest joy. A moment of deepest shame. A moment of most redemptive forgiveness. A moment of greatest pride. A moment of greatest danger. Your greatest success. Your worst failure. The most memorable moment of tenderness. The most frightening incident of violence. Your first experience with death. Your most shattering loss. A time you were struck or beaten. The first time as an adult you told someone you loved him or her. A time you said, "I love you," and wished you hadn't. The most memorable moment with a parent, sibling or a child. The most memorable moment with a stranger. I think it's safe to say that we all have an arsenal of experiences to draw from as we move forward. Now we're well-equipped to start developing our protagonists. 3. Two Sides of the Coin: The two sides of the coin. As I mentioned earlier, your story is a two-sided coin defined equally by your protagonist and plot. On the one hand, your protagonist will determine a great deal of your plot, because your hero is not just another one of your characters. There's a reason that the story is about your main character and not his sidekick. Your hero is why there's a story at all. He moves it forward to its climax. For that reason, there's no such thing as a passive protagonist. A good protagonist does not merely let the story happen to them. They drive the story forward. They change its course. Your heroes desires, fears, goals, and flaws will directly impact the happenings of your plot. On the flip side, your plot may also impact a great deal of your protagonist development. If some of your story points are set in stone, you'll want to maximize their emotional effects, by creating a character that is best or worst suited to them. Here are a few examples. Say you already know that your hero is a resentful video game addicted teenager, because your story is going to be very character-driven. This will determine the plot. You decide you want to put him in his worst nightmare, which in this case is a family camping trip, where there is no Wi-Fi or electricity. This forces your character into a story that will make him change and ultimately give him what he truly subconsciously wants, a connection. Here's an example of the opposite. Say your plot is set. You want to write a story about a genetically altered super shark. Your hero has to save her scientists father, who was marooned on an island amid the waters of the sea. You could make her completely equipped to handle the task, fearless and familiar with marine wildlife. Or you can make her a shark attack survivor with an amputated leg who swore she would never go near another ocean in her lifetime. Suddenly the story becomes a whole lot more interesting. The point is, your protagonist will affect your plot, and your plot will affect your protagonist, more or less depending on whether your story is plot or character-driven. As we move forward in developing your hero, keep the storyline in the back of your mind as well. In the next lesson, we'll explore the first and possibly the most important question you'll need to ask yourself, as you develop your hero. What does he want?. 4. Q1: What Does Your Hero Want?: Question number one, what does your hero want? Pretty much every story is about whether or not your protagonist gets what he wants, so to finding what exactly that is, is extremely important. Just like our hopes and dreams, what your character wants and how it relates to your story can be complex and multifaceted. In Die Hard, for example, there is an immediate desire paired with a long-term desire. John Maclean's goal that drives the story forward is to save his wife from terrorists. What he wants and the real reason he's there to begin with is to save his marriage. Other times your character's core desire can be boiled down to one straightforward phrase. In The Hunger Games, Katniss's goal is simple, to survive. You can even use something that your character doesn't want as his goal. Shrek, for example, doesn't want to be rejected anymore, hence why he starts off in isolation. He wasn't looking for true love, but he ended up finding someone who wouldn't reject him, which is just what he wanted. Some other examples you might use are freedom, love, justice, victory, knowledge, belonging, and revenge. Whatever it is, your hero's goal is what's going to motivate him to act, and that will drive your story forward. Here are a few additional questions to help you flesh out your hero's goal. What makes your hero get up in the morning? What is his heart's deepest desire, conscious, or otherwise? What does he think he wants? What does he actually want? What tangible goals has he set to achieve them? Is his goal possible? How can we relate to his goal? Why do we want him to succeed? In the next lesson, we'll pave the road for creating a character arc by asking the question, how does your hero need to change? 5. Q2: How Does Your Hero Need to Change?: Question number 2, How does your hero need to change? Real life stories leave people changed and your hero is no exception. By the end of your plot, your character will have been shaped in some way by his experience, hopefully for the better. For you as the writer, you'll need to know where you're headed before you begin. So let's talk about flaws. In some stories, especially character-driven stories. The heroes flaw is very obvious. Take the classic A Christmas Carol, for example. It's no secret that Ebenezer Scrooge has issues, and the story is happily resolved when Scrooge goes from Bar Hamburg to, "I'm as giddy as a drunken man". In other stories, the change can be more subtle. Personally, I like it when a hero's need for change, is also a direct obstacle to them getting what they want. Shrek is a good example of this. His desire to be accepted is in direct opposition with his flaw, of purposefully not having any friends. It's when he finally accepts donkey's friendship that he's able to succeed. Here is some more questions to get you brainstorming. What are your protagonist's flaws? Which of them will pose the biggest hindrance to his success in attaining his goal? Where does his primary flaw come from? What are his wounds and backstory? How can we relate to his flaw? Why do we want him to change? I will mention that there are exceptions to the rule in stories where the main character actually doesn't change, but maybe brings about change in other people, or where their need for change is more of an external phenomenon such as a physical illness or disability. This is perfectly fine to do. But if you decide to bend the rules, just be sure you are doing so for a reason. Next up, we'll be talking about the things that make a reader or audience invested in a character. 6. Q3: Why Do We Care?: Question number 3, why do we care? You're about to take your hero on an adventure that helps him overcome his need for change while moving towards his deepest desire. But whether or not a reader or audience wants to tune into this adventure is dependent on if they care about your protagonist. Why do we want him to succeed? This is one of the most complex yet simultaneously simple concepts we'll be covering in this class, and it's why I had you practice people watching in the first lesson. As humans, we have a natural draw to one another, and the funny little things that set us apart, spark our curiosity and affection. Why do we follow the celebrities that we do or fall in love with the people that we do. It sell them for one characteristic, but rather a jumble mix of things from their lifelong causes to the way they laugh. In the Hunger Games, it's hard not to like Katniss when she bravely volunteers to take her little sisters places tribute, knowing it will likely cost her life. We care what happens to her for multiple reasons. She exhibits qualities worth aspiring to, bravery, selflessness, goodness, and our relationships with our sister and mother make her relatable. Other times, it's hard to like a protagonist but easy to care. Using a Christmas carols Mr. Scrooge, again we've invested in the story not because he's a like-able guy, but because they are like-able people in his life, such as his nephew who think he's got a shot at redemption. That enes pessimism is so outlandish that he's almost comical. So what's important to do from page one is to give your reader or audience a reason to believe that this character is worth their time. Why do we like your hero? What does he stand for? How can we relate to him? What are his quirks, habits, and mannerisms? What does he look and sound like? What makes him unique? Who matters to him most in the world? What does he fear? How does he act in front of his greatest idol? What makes him cry? What makes him laugh? If his house was on fire, what's the one thing he would save? Who cares about him more than anyone else in the world? You might not know all the answers to these questions yet and that's okay. When I wrote my book, a Whitewashed Tomb, I was surprised by how my characters sometimes had minds of their own. It can help to put your hero in a few different scenarios and just see what comes out. Now that you've constructed an irresistible hero, let's see how your plot will affect him. 7. Q4: What Are The Stakes?: Question number four, what are the stakes? We know why we care. Now we have to ask, why is it absolutely necessary for a main character to succeed? What terrible thing will happen if he doesn't get what he wants? What terrible thing will happen if he doesn't grow in the way he needs. The stakes can be set by filling in the blanks after, if and then. If Mr. scrooge doesn't grow, he'll never connect with what's left of his family. If John McLean doesn't stop the terrorists, his wife and countless others will die. If Shrek doesn't accept friendship, he'll be alone for the rest of his life. If Katniss doesn't succeed in the games, she'll be dead. Now that we know and care for our characters, these devastating stakes will keep the audience and readers on the edge of their seats, dying to know how the story ends. 8. Q5: What Are The Obstacles?: Question number five, what are the obstacles. You've defined your hero's goal, their need for change, and why we like him, and the stakes of what will happen if he doesn't succeed. Now it's time to define why he might not succeed. These obstacles are the kinds of things that would begin to shape your plot. I save them for last, because now you can decide them while looking through the lens of character. What happens matters, because who it happens to. Now that you know the who, you're more equipped to determine the what. Here are the last set of questions for you. What or who is standing in between your protagonist and his goal, this will be the antagonist. In Die Hard, the antagonist is external, it's the terrorist, Hans Gruber. Whereas in A Christmas Carol, the antagonist is himself, Mr. Scrooge. The next question is, what or who is standing in between him and positive change. In Shrek and, also in A Christmas Carol, what's standing in Shrek's way and in and Mr. Scrooge's way, is their pride. Shrek doesn't want to accept friends into his life, because that risks rejection. I guess you don't entertain much, do you? I like my privacy. Mr. Scrooge doesn't want to stop being a scrooge. If I could work my will, every idiot who goes about with merry Christmas on his lips, should be boiled on his own pudding, and buried with a stake of holly through his heart. Come on uncle. The next and last question is, how can the obstacles between him and his goal, act as a catalyst for change. In Die Hard, it's because of the terrorist attack, that John McClane is actually able to become a better husband and prove to his wife that he's willing to make his marriage work. I want you to find my wife, don't ask me how, but then you'll know how. I want you to tell her us something. I want you to tell her that, tell her it took me a while to figure out what a jerk I've been. But that the moment things started to pen out for her, I should have been more supportive and I just should have been behind her more. Now that you've set a few obstacles in his way, your hero has something to overcome. That's really what your story is going to be all about. You'll begin with the status quo of your heroes life, then turn it on its head with some inciting incident. Then we get to sit back and watch how he responds and adapts to what happens. If you're hungry for more info on developing the plot side of the coin, I do teach a class called Story Structure: Eight Essentials for Outlining Your Novel or Script, which may be helpful, paired with this class. 9. Conclusion: I feel as though we've only just scratched the surface of protagonist development in this class. But I hope that was helpful for you. See, I believe in the power of story to shape society. From the dawn of humanity, stories have been used in countless ways to pass on history and traditions and messages from one generation to the next. In times of war, story was used in the form of plays and poetry to keep people's hope alive. Like music, story is a universal language that captivates the emotions and ignites the spirit. Good stories can change lives, so keep writing. Your story matters and there's no voice quite like yours. That story that's banging on the inside of your skull, begging to get out deserves to be written. I hope this class helps you do it. Once again, my name is Rebecca Loomis. Thanks for joining.