Skip to content

Weighing It Up: The #1 Problem of Dual Protagonists In Screenwriting

UPDATED!

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.

But-But-But-But …

… 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!

To commemorate this occasion, I have revisited book and updated it for its anniversary.

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.

Share this:

13 thoughts on “Weighing It Up: The #1 Problem of Dual Protagonists In Screenwriting”

  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!

    THE END

  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.

  11. Pingback: Sexism in Film | Broom Games

  12. First of all, sorry for the long comment. I just finished watching Career Opportunities. I was wondering if you could help me find out what type of story this fits into. I think it is a dual protagonist movie. I really came to like it, though, because it actually reminded me of Collateral. I know that’s strange because those are two very different movies. They both have two main characters who are stuck in a closed environment together. The two characters have different backgrounds and viewpoints, but their time together, offering their viewpoints, shows how much they can actually teach each other and develop a respect for each other.

    In Career Opportunites, Jim (Frank Whaley) and Josie (Jennifer Connelly), I think, both have the same goal as young 20 year-olds to find purpose and meaning in life while dealing with the pressure put on by their parents. But they grew up differently and unexpectedly ended up in the same locked Target store. Josie is surprised when Jim says he likes living at home with his parents, and that he asks her to finish a dance together when she was supposedly expecting him to just ask for sex, because she grew up lonely and not feeling respected by her dad or anyone. Josie is the tease, according to the townsfolk. She tricks us into thinking she would choose a violent path, but she ends up tricking the unexpected visitors. Jim is the liar and he uses it to protect him and Josie. They both contribute, they both affect each other to make decisions, and they both drive off together in the end. Also, where did Josie park her car?!

    Collateral is similar because Max (Jamie Foxx) and Vincent (Tom Cruise) are also stuck in a locked environment together, Max’s cab. Vincent is an assassin and a sociopath. Max has career dreams and so he claims his taxi job is part time… even though he’s been doing it for 12 years. Vincent is the go-getter. Max is the total opposite. He’ll just keep driving the cab and lying to his mother, and the girl he met doesn’t matter. They both have the same goal: get through the night as smooth as possible. Vincent, by killing his targets discreetly and using the cab driver as collateral, and Max, by getting through his shift as normal. The entire movie is Max and Vincent having to work together to get through the night and expressing their resentment toward each other, to where it becomes like a brotherhood, because each side learns from the other, and they each have a respectable viewpoint. Vincent is the messed up antagonist, but he has charisma and carries himself like a gentleman. Even though Vincent meets his fate, it still seems like he had a big transformation and came to respect Max. Vincent had a huge effect on Max because he challenged Max’s life approach and gave him motivation. Is this a dual protagonist movie even though Vincent is an antagonist? The movie Heat by the same director is sort of similar, but the 2 characters don’t really have the same goal and are not in a closed environment. It’s more of a cat and mouse chase.

    The difference between Collateral and Career Opportunities is that 1/2 characters is an antagonist. So I wonder if there is another name for this type of story or “psychological storytelling model” containing opposite characters in a closed environment, where they end up learning from each other. It’s like the goal is for the audience to really come to understand both sides, like the expression of two different people (maybe enemies) stuck on a boat together become friends.

    Also, are buddy cop movies considered dual protagonist movies, like Rush Hour and Lethal Weapon? I think they are very effective at portraying how two wildly different characters can come together and share a goal. I wish they were still in style.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *