New Year, New Writing, Still You
Happy 2018! I think I can still say that this far into January? Hopefully, not all the Christmas presents and New Years resolutions are broken yet…
It is a bit artificial, but there’s something about the turning of the year that makes us think of all the things we did, and didn’t do, in the past year. Is there a novel that is still lurking inside you, a play in the long ignored file on your laptop, a stack of notes that may or may not ever make it into poems? This, you say, this IS going to be the year when I do something about that.
And we are here for you. Our New Year’s Resolution is to regularly (we’ll aim for weekly, don’t beat us up if it goes a bit awry in busy times) put up blogs from us, and other writers, that’ll help you on your writing journey, whatever that may be. As we go tell us what has been useful or not. Let us know what you do want to see by commenting below. If you have a play you want us to read, send it over. We’ll read it when we can (it may not be quickly…) And look out for some new writing opportunities coming up soon.
In meantime, and to get you started, here are some thoughts on protagonists. What they are, why they’re useful, and why they are also a problem…
What is a protagonist?
If you’ve had a go at writing a play, the chances are that is will be a protagonist drama. This is a play that is about a central character. If it centres on more than one, it might be a dual, or multiple, protagonist drama. But most pieces have a character that the play is about. This is often one of the crucial questions we ask when working with writers on a play ‘Whose story is it?’ Protagonists in plays mirror the way we experience life. We see life pretty much entirely from our own point of view. We may, if we’re lucky, choose to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes for a bit. But we experience the world through our senses, coloured by our experiences, warped by our prejudices, made sense of by our own histories and expectations. So too protagonists in plays: A play is driven by the wants and needs of its protagonist. The time frame is set by the significant time in that protagonist’s life. That’s not to say you don’t make significant choices in how to tell that play. The most significant one is who is that play about.
Exercise: think about your favourite films, programmes, or plays? Who is it about? Who is or are the protagonist/s in the piece? What do they want/need and how does that drive the drama?
Why are they useful?
Protagonist drama isn’t common because it is easy. No writing is really easy. However, it does feel natural because of the way that it mirrors our experience of the world. And in mirroring how we experience the world in encourages us to identify with the protagonist in the drama. They are a projection of us. Identification with the protagonist is one of the clearest ways to make us, the audience, invest in you drama, engaged with the story, want to know what happens next. It is why so many times what the protagonist wants are the things seen as ‘universal’: the desire to be loved, to be safe, to protect your family, to understand yourself, to accept yourself. Therein also lies the problem…
Exercise: Look at the protagonist in your favourite play or film (or the one you’re working on). Ask yourself what makes you care about them, how, if at all, do you identify with them? See if you can draw a graph of their journey through the drama with high being moments of high drama/tension/stakes, low being opposite. What are the moments that most engage you?
Why are they problematic?
Protagonists are powerful. They are the ones that make the drama, it makes sense through their eyes. Their wants and concerns are our wants and concerns. And like every powerful thing, that can also be problematic. The first problem is who gets to be the protagonist. When people complain about the lack of female leads, or Black, or South Asian, or Disabled, this is part of the problem. We are not used to seeing stories told from these protagonists, from these perspectives. So it becomes harder for people to shift their perspective to centre women’s experience, or Black people, or disabled people. So for example, when Matt Damon complained the problem with #MeToo was that the perspective of men who weren’t abusive wasn’t heard, this was a protagonist problem. In this case, it wasn’t a male protagonist story; it was a story from a woman’s, many women’s, perspective. But it felt wrong because he, and many others, just aren’t used to seeing the world that way.
The other problem is that protagonist drama may actually limit, rather than extend, empathy. I’ve heard drama called a ‘machine for empathy’. The idea being through the protagonist you enter into the life and perspective of someone who may be very different from you. But I wonder if that is true. The problem with it is that you are still entering ONE person’s perspective, the one person who stands for you in the drama, whose wants drive the story, the way your wants drive your life. Other people’s wants, needs, indeed lives are not so important (you only need to see the number of non-protagonists who die by the way side in movies…) Empathy needs us to connect with the wants and needs and lives of ‘not I’. Traditional protagonist drama doesn’t allow for the fact that we are all protagonists in our own lives. Each of us has a story. Which is not to say stop using them, but to consider who gets to be the protagonist, and how you use their story, and what are the other stories being told.
Exercise: look at a favourite film or play (or one you’re working on). Who are the other characters in it? What happens if you tell the story from their perspective? How many perspectives can there be on your story?
At Freedom Studios we are looking at different ways of telling stories that address some of these issues. That maybe open up the world of story-telling to multiple perspectives and empathies. But that is for a future blog…
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