On Dual Protagonists
One thing screenwriters love to ask B2W about is dual protagonists. It’s not difficult to see why: as writers, we often struggle to decide which of our characters is the most ‘important’. This means having not one, but two leads in our screenplays can be very alluring.
But dual protagonists can be exceptionally hard to pull off. This is often because those movies we THINK have dual protagonists often well … DON’T! Those movies frequently have a sole protagonist with a very, very important secondary character.
Veteran Bang2writer Hina asks about dual protagonists here:
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, can dual protagonists be done? Obviously, the answer is a resounding ‘yes’. IF done well, Hina’s absolutely right … it totally CAN add to a richer story. End of.
… Let’s look at Hina’s example, Mr. And Mrs. Smith. Is this movie a dual protagonist story – really?
I would argue this one is a big fat NO. In Mr & Mrs Smith, it looks very much to me that Mrs. Smith (Angelina Jolie) is the character who has ‘farthest to go’ in terms of her arc. She must learn to trust Mr. Smith (Brad Pitt) and people in general.
In contrast, Mr. Smith’s arc is waaaaaaay shorter. He is willing to go for it and abandon the plan much, much quicker than her. Whereas she wants to stick to the plan (ie. kill him) MUCH longer and won’t admit she really does love him. (Yes, I agree this movie really does hit different in the 2020s now Brangelina has had that acrimonious divorce. But that’s real life, not fiction).
We see dual protagonists A LOT less than we think (YES REALLY!)
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 (oooh matron).
This often works best in partnerships, especially those with a comedic element, such as Mr. and Mrs. Smith. 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, not Buzz, who drives all the action. Think about it: he shoves Buzz out the window, rescues him, gets the mutant toys’ revenge on Sid AND ensures they get back to Andy. This is all in ADDITION to Woody making his own realisation over his jealousy and how he must share Andy!!!
Dramas are also frequently hailed as dual protagonist pieces. One of the most obvious is probably Good Will Hunting, though another might be Blue Valentine or Marriage Story.
But again, we have to ask ourselves who is DRIVING the action … because that is who is ‘really’ the protagonist. In Good Will Hunting, the answer is clearly Will. We don’t even meet Sean (Robin Williams) until a good thirty minutes into the movie!
Often what we call a second protagonist is actually an antagonist
I would argue that’s the case with Sean in Good Will Hunting. Many writers immediately reject this notion, saying Sean is NOT a ‘bad guy’. They’re right: Sean is the guiding light for Will and can bring him back from the edge of existence.
However, it’s important to note Will is his own worst enemy. That means he views therapy with suspicion. He doesn’t believe anyone can help him. Even if they can, he believes he doesn’t deserve that help.
So Sean must chip away at Will’s hard outer shell to make him realise he DOES deserve help. This is not what Will wants, because he is only in therapy under sufferance. He wants to be left alone.
This makes Sean an antagonist … because antagonists DON’T have to be villains. They can be potentially good influences, like Sean. But antagonists must be ABERRANT to what the protagonist wants.
SO: Will wants to be left alone, Sean won’t do that = antagonist!!
Read more in Your Antagonist DOESN’T Have To Be A Villain, Here’s Why.
But What About Ensembles???
It’s true that since I wrote this article over a decade ago, movies have changed. The lone protagonist – especially in thrillers – has been replaced more and more with ensembles.
We can see this most obviously in Marvel movies, especially phases 1-4 which ran between 2008-2019. The movies in those phases started with Iron Man and ended with Avengers: Endgame. We can literally trace the change over those eleven years as Iron Man is an obvious lone protagonist, with the Avengers being multiple leads in that final movie.
HOWEVER it’s Iron Man who is still *the* most important protagonist there. Why?
Because Tony’s arc goes the furthest again.
Tony begins as a weapons dealer in that first movie, sure he is protecting America from the bad guys. In the course of that movie – and all the movies that follow – he will struggle with what this truly means (particularly in Civil War).
Then in that final movie he will die, having saved the world from Thanos, replete with his catchphrase: ‘I. Am. Iron Man.’
This is where writers will ask about television screenplays
It’s true that TV shows frequently have ensembles at their heart. This is most obvious in sitcom, but can be any genre, tone or style. But again, there’s usually ONE character who ‘edges out’ above the rest. This is because the protagonist usually has the furthest to travel in their arc again.
When TWO characters edge out above the rest, this is usually not because they’re dual protagonists. Instead, one is the protagonist and the other is the antagonist.
In Brooklyn 99, Jake Peralta (Andy Samberg) is the protagonist and Captain Holt (Andre Braugher) is the antagonist. The two men start off as enemies, but come to love each like father and son. That doesn’t stop Holt throwing all kinds of obstacles in Peralta’s way however … because antagonists don’t need to be villains!
I call these characters that edge out above the rest in ensembles ‘umbrella characters’. This is largely because I thought the visual was useful. However, I also noticed it was a trope for such characters to be pictured with their arms above the rest in promo pics. Take a look at the ones here below of Iron Man and Jake Peralta! Pretty illuminating, no?
A REAL Dual Protagonists Story
An actual example of traditional dual protagonists then is the oft-maligned Independence Day. Love or hate that movie, we can see its two stars’ arcs run separately yet concurrently in the first half … then join up in the middle when they band together to save the world.
But why have two dual protagonists, when one would do? Take a look …
- Jeff Goldblum plays the genius David in the movie. He’s not involved in government or politics, though it turns out his ex-wife is. As was popular in the 1990s right through to the mid-00s, he is a genius character. He works out before everyone else the aliens are NOT friendly and manages to save the president just in time. In the rest of the movie, he will work out how to defeat the aliens using a computer virus.
- Will Smith plays Steve, a fighter pilot who is the first person on Earth to capture an alien. He is David’s antithesis in that he is not a thinker, but a doer. However, this doesn’t mean he’s stupid, far from it. He just has skills of a different nature: he’s an exceptional pilot, incredibly brave and will do whatever it takes to save the day.
So, in other words, we have two DIFFERENT types of hero here: the brains (David) and the brawn (Steve). The contrast between them is what makes their dual protagonist arcs work, especially in the first half of the movie.
After all, David and Steve are not even seen together in the same room until after the midpoint! But 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.
The # 1 Problem Of Dual Protagonists
Dual protags could work in ANY story, no one’s denying that. But this device is a calculated risk for the spec screenwriter.
This is because script readers (especially inexperienced ones) may call you out for it as a “mistake”. This might happen even if your script is written well. Sad but true.
However, just as I’m always saying to Bang2writers: just because something *could* happen, doesn’t mean you should NOT do it either. Instead, 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 and good luck!
Did you know … B2W’s book, Writing & Selling Thriller Screenplays is TEN YEARS OLD in 2023!
I’ve added a whopping extra 100 pages!! This includes new case studies, plus information on television pilots as well as movie screenplays. Here’s the blurb:
Writing and Selling Thriller Screenplays has the lowdown on how to get your thriller feature script on to the page, and how to get it in front of producers and investors.
“First published in 2013, this new edition offers an all-new resources section and a host of new case studies that map the considerable changes of the past decade.
With marketplace disruptors such as Netflix and the first phases of The Marvel Cinematic Universe leaving their mark, new opportunities have been created for screenwriters and filmmakers who are keen to get their stories in front of industry professionals.
This time around, Lucy V Hay doesn’t just guide you through the writing of movies, but spec TV pilots too. Putting iconic, mixed-genre projects under the microscope – such as Stranger Things (horror thriller), Brooklyn 99 (comedy thriller) and Lost (sci fi thriller) – she considers what writers can learn from these shows.
She also argues that the lone protagonist in a thriller has had its day and looks at how the genre is moving into a space beyond ‘The Hero’s Journey’. Case studies to support this include The Hunger Games, Captain Marvel, Iron Man and many more.
Finally, the book considers how the screenplay might be sold to investors, exploring high concept ideas, pitching, packaging and the realities of film finance – all updated for the 2020s – and lays out alternative routes to sales and production, including transmedia such as novels and adaptation, and immersive storytelling online.” BUY IT HERE.