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Dual Protagonists – Yay or Nay?

I must be having one of *those* weeks where I’ve slipped into a parallel dimension and become John August (I wish), ‘cos hot on the heels of yesterday’s post for Andrew Tibbs, the sublime Hina, aka DodgyJammer writes in to ask me this:

Okay, is two protags really a bad thing? If done well, you wind up with a richer story. There are a few movies with multiple protags, and Mr and Mrs Smith had two. The only argument I see against the two protag approach is ‘poor characterisation’. But come on, am I wrong to say IF it’s crafted well and the characters are written well, it makes for a richer story and increases likelihood of audience connecting to the film in some way?

First up, let’s address the whole “dual protagonist” thing and whether it *can* done – and of course the answer is a resounding “yes”. IF done well, Hina’s absolutely right; it totally CAN add to a richer story. End of. But…

… Let’s look at Hina’s example – Mr. And Mrs. Smith. Is Mr & Mrs Smith a dual protagonist story – really? ‘Cos looks to me like Mrs Smith is the one who has to *really* learn something – ie. to trust Mr Smith and people in general. But of course this is Hollywood and we can’t have even Ms Jolie learn stuff on her own (she *is* just a woman you know), so they chuck in Brad Pitt as well (‘cos fellas sell pictures *so much better*, you know). But Mr Smith is willing to go for it and abandon the plan much, much quicker than her – she wants to stick to the plan (ie. kill him) MUCH longer and won’t admit she loves him.

I believe we actually see dual protagonists A LOT less than we think. I’d argue often what *appears* to be dual protags on the surface, is instead a protagonist and a very good, very necessary secondary bringing up the rear, which often works best in partnerships, especially those with a comedic element. One such partnership that immediately springs to my mind on this same basis as Mr. And Mrs. Smith is the brothers Val and Earl in the horror/comedy Tremors. I would also argue the “buddy picture”, a staple of comedy is similar on this front – whilst Buzz Lightyear must face the fact he’s not a space ranger in Toy Story, it’s Woody who drives all the action – from shoving Buzz out the window, to rescuing him, to getting the mutant toys’ revenge on Sid AND ensuring they get back to Andy… All in ADDITION to Woody making his own realisation over his jealousy and how he must share Andy.

Far better and more obvious an example of traditional dual protagonists then is the oft-maligned Independence Day – Will Smith (the “brawns”) and Jeff Goldblum (the “brains”), but not seen together in the same room until after the midpoint. They share the same goal (“get to their loved ones”) before they meet; after their loved ones are deemed safe, they switch their shared goal to “save the world” – and of course, they do. More on this in my Script Tips Series: Advanced Characterisation.

Dual protags could work in ANY story, no one’s denying that. But potentially “poor characterisation” on a craft level is unfortunately not the *only* argument AGAINST using dual protagonists in your spec screenplay. This device is a calculated risk for the spec writer – readers (especially inexperienced ones) may call you out for it as a “mistake” and it could hold your script back, even IF the script is written well. It’s no accident the established writer has far more “irons in the fire” in terms of exploring various devices, be those devices dual protagonists, ensemble casts or even stuff like voiceover, flashback and dream sequence. Sad but true. However, just as I’m always saying to Bang2writers, just because something *could* very well happen, doesn’t mean you should NOT do it either.

With all this is mind then, it’s time to make an informed decision about Dual Protagonists (or indeed any other scriptwriting device deemed “risky”):

– is it *truly* best for the story you’re trying to tell?
– If it is, are you willing to take the risk *for* that story?
– or are there other, just as effective, less risky ways of telling that story?

It’s your script; only you can know. So decide!

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12 thoughts on “Dual Protagonists – Yay or Nay?”

  1. Following your post yesterday, I was already having a think about this. In particular with a film like Se7en. I've had heated arguments insisting that Somerset (Morgan Freeman) is the protagonist but I would say that it's no problem that Brad Pitt nearly takes that title – largely because of what you say about each character having a simple, clear backstory that is never more interesting than who they are right now.

    Then I watched BEETLEJUICE on Fiver last night. A film I have incredibly fond memories of but which I've not really seen in a good decade. If you rule out Michael Keaton, then you've still got Alec Baldwin, Geena Davis and maybe Winona Ryder in there.

    But I definitely agree that, more often than not, there still is a single protagonist – just with very developed supporting cast. In this case, I think Alec Baldwin is the lead as it's him that pushes them into the bureaucratic afterlife and suggests and convinces Geena Davis along into trying the scary antics. But that he's often doing it FOR Geena Davis just means they have a nice dynamic, even if it does get a bit overshadowed.

    So I agree. There probably are good examples of dual protagonists. But not as many as we'd probably think.

  2. I went away and thought about this, alot.And as much as it pains me to admit it, you're right Lucy, more often than not one character does take the lead in a story, even if it's just slightly. Very good post, I was working on a psychological thriller in which I wasn't aware the true story was between the Detective and Serial killer and not the sole survivor of his previous attack. I knew my story very well, perhaps too well and this dual protag confusion was solely a result of not wanting to cut out any of the protags, as a writer, you can't help but love your characters, but need to bear in mind each character serves a purpose for the story, and there are ways to achieve this purpose without said character being present. After cutting my initial 3protag plot down to 2protags (and after much discussion with Lucy via twitter) I raised my hands and discovered which character of my 3 protags' story I really wanted to tell. Now, back to dual protags: yay or nay? I think yay, as Lucy said we come across those less than we think. Therefore there are a few well written ones, like Butch Cassidy and Independence Day. If it drives the story and you can execute your story clearly, go for it.

  3. DJ – it's hard being right all the time you know ; ) I think screenwriters *want* to see more than one protagonist a lot of the time in a kind of "shaking it up" way, if that makes sense. But like I said on twitter, culture has to inform audience preference – stories have been told in similar ways for 1000s of yrs now and there's not necessarily anything wrong with that. To me, telling a story in a different way "for the sake of it" is not organic and probably not something the audience will relate to.

    John H – I agree with you completely and don't understand the fuss about SE7EN; it seems very clear to me Somerset is the protagonist, with Mills doomed from the off "I'm all over it…" Somerset doesn't want the case, goes along with it against his better judgement, learns about himself and Mills throughout the case (like Mills' wife's pregnancy) and must realise he cannot save everyone, hence *that* ending he can have no power over. With regards to BEETLEJUICE, I'd agree re: Alec Baldwin too; he is the one driving the action, for sure – *for* Geena Davis, as you say.

  4. Nice post, Lucy.

    A nice 'original' example of dual protags is in Joe Dante's 'Inner Space' where you've got both the shopkeeper and the airforce dude sharing the same personal objective of returning to normal, plus both combining with the external objective of beating the terrorists.

    Both change in their own way, with the meek, cowardly shopkeeper gaining confidence and happiness, and the miserable airforce dude finding love and happiness, and of course they join forces to beat the bad guys. Hurrah!


  5. The screenplay for Se7en makes it much more clear that the protagonist is Somerset.

    I've heard people argue Shawshank Redemption is a dual protagonist film and I can understand why. Andy Dufresne is the central character and most of the plot centres on his actions in planning and effecting an escape. But the film is primarily told from Red's perspective. In terms of character arc, I don't think Andy Dufresne changes much. He maintains his innocence all the way through and he spends the whole film with a single minded purpose, that of escaping. But he has an effect on Red and we see this change – exemplified in the parole board hearings at the beginning and the end of the film. Arguably, the character who is actually redeemed (as per the title) is Red and not Andy. But, apart from acting as a facilitator for Andy's escape (providing the posters and the rock hammer), Red doesn't actually do that much.

    Then again, it's been a while since I read the screenplay or seen the film so I may be mistaken.

  6. Lucy-I agree completely with 'don't do it' if writers do it 'just for the sake of shaking things up' etc. But I think there's potential for some brilliantly written dual protag films, I'm surprised I can't think of any dramas! (Although, I hate those)

    Jared- good example!

    John H- Beetlejuice is a classic! I love that film, it used to terrify and amuse me all at once. Sometimes Multiensemble casts are great (Inception, A-Team, The Losers, Sin City, beetlejuice too), but again I think it all comes down to how its executed.

  7. Drac, good example! I'd argue that whilst Red doesn't DO that much physically, his life and perspective is changed by meeting and being friends with Andy… So whilst Andy *isn't* the protagonist per se, he's still a change agent for those around him, putting Red in the traditional narrator's role… And since it's pretty much seen via Red's eyes too, that makes him the protag and not Andy. Though like you I can see why people think he is.

  8. Hello all. First timer here. Re Innerpsace, while Tuck Pendelton seems the obvious choice for the hero, I reckon there is an argument for Jack Putter as maybe the main protagonist. They're both flawed but in different ways – washed up drinker pilot and spineless nerd. But the film seems to dwell most on re-shaping Jack in order to save the day. He is the guys who learns the most I think. He starts off a nervous hyperchondriac wreck and is confronted with the most extraordinary situation. He has to almost become Tuck in order to save him. Tuck is the literally the little voice in his head directing him to positive action, making decisions he would never have contemplated at the beginning of the film. Tuck pushes him on through verbal challenge and even physically (he stimulates his adrenaline gland with his pod technology), literally turning him into a different man at one point. So, I think while there are definitely two protagonists who share the same objective (and Tuck has even more incentive when he discovers impending fatherhood), it's Jack who grows the most. The three characters who represent his lack of self worth and position at the beginning even get the literal heave-ho from him at the very end. Or is this maybe an example of main character and protagonist being different characters? I think my brain just burst…

  9. Hi Brian,

    Great post! Your post supports my 'dual protags increase likelihood of audience connecting with atleast one character in a film' Theory (still working on producing a shorter name for it :p). But this demonstrates it, different members of audience connect with different people in films. I find this fascinating, simply because I have a friend who always ALWAYS roots for and focuses on a supporting character more than the protag him/herself. Also a reason for my urge to write a dual-protag script is, I love the way two characters (complete in their own way) work to complete eachother's stories. Mild tangent, I know, but I think a dual protag situation could be brilliant if *and I'd hate to drill at this* it is executed well. The only way to execute is well, is to write a damn good plot integrating both characters purposefully into story. If you never try, you'll never know. I know for certain I'm thinking of annoying Lucy and continuously submitting dualProtag specs to her for notes at some point in the future. :p

    Lucy-Just noticed the adjective 'sublime'…;)? *consider my eyebrows wiggled*

  10. A quick little footnote on a variation on dual protagonists: the movie "Changing Lanes", while not a timeless masterpiece, is interesting in that it features what I would describe as 'crossed protagonists'. Samuel L. Jackson and Ben Affleck are both protagonists, however they also act as each others antagonist. They have equal character arcs and a pretty much equally responsible for setting the ball rolling. The film refuses to sympathise with one of them over the other. An elegant structural device I thought.

    Could the same be said of a film like "The War of the Roses"? I can't remember, it's a time since I saw it.

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