The Importance of Lead Characters
Writer and Script Reader
As the results of the latest open submission window for comedy scripts are being sent out, we asked writer (and script-reader) Robin Taylor to explain the importance of a clear main character in your script and why this might help it to cut through.
During a recent, mysterious ceremonial meeting for the BBC Writersroom reading team, somewhere between summoning forth ancient spirits of creative writing and opening the second packet of generic supermarket oat biscuits, the discussion turned to the subject of lead characters. It was decided that, though a strong protagonist isn’t an essential element in a successful submission, a lot of scripts we receive could benefit from a clearer main character, for a number of reasons. Obviously there are innumerable iconic leads throughout cultural history, but they can be a tricky beast to get right: Not too passive, not too perfect, nor too difficult to care about. If you can create a unique and compelling protagonist, it can carry an idea to the proverbial moon and back. I flapped my gums on the subject a bit, then someone suggested I could write a blog post about it, so here we are! Let’s have a think about lead characters, shall we?
Do You Need A Lead?
The obvious starting point is to ask whether a script needs to have a main character? No, not necessarily. But can a lead character be a valuable asset, particularly to new writers? Absolutely! They can provide real focus and drive to a story, generating the classic concept of a quest, propelling events forward and increasing audience interest and investment. If you have a main character then you can always ask yourself how each scene and moment contributes to their plot, and avoid those all so tempting distractions. It also hopefully pushes you to have a character with a strong identity and perspective, which is always a real benefit in a script. You may want to follow through on your big bold idea for an ensemble or multi-tier piece, but this is a much more complex juggling act which requires parity amongst your characters so they all feel equally strong and three dimensional. And even in such scripts, chances are there is still a character at the centre of events holding everything together so it doesn’t feel too complex and difficult to follow.
Ensemble shows are somewhat rare these days, Derry Girls is one example, and arguably Erin is still the main character in that situation, acting as the core member of the group. It’s not impossible to create a story without a lead, almost anything is possible! But an audience does have a natural instinct to identify a lead. And when starting out it is often a case of trying to do something simple well, before moving onto more complicated endeavours.
Andy (Mackenzie Crook) and Lance (Toby Jones) in Detectorists
Although it simplifies things to talk about a main character in the singular, it is of course possible to have more than one. As mentioned when talking about ensemble casts, it can add levels of complication, mainly because for each additional lead you are effectively increasing your focal points and you’ll need to give them somewhat equal story time.
Frankly, if one character is particularly strong, the risk is that their supposed equals can seem weak in comparison. Also if you are maintaining multiple stories they need to have equally satisfying plots and conclusions. In some ways this can be a strengthening exercise, as it challenges you to match the standard of writing across the board. It certainly isn’t something to be afraid of, but should be approached with discipline and analytical thought. If you are writing with leads who are essentially a duo or group, bear in mind how important their relationships to one another should be. If you send them all off to have separate storylines and they therefore barely interact, it means we don’t really get to witness a vital dynamic which should theoretically be a huge part of the concept. While Andy and Lance in Detectorists [read the scripts here] have their own plots, their interactions are critical to the success of the show. Split storylines may very well be a feature in a well-established series, but when first introducing a relationship it’s nice to witness it in all its glory.
Lesley Manville as Cathy in Mum
So, when creating a lead, how do we make sure they can carry the piece? It’s certainly an intimidating responsibility. I use a term, which I think I made up, called Central Character Syndrome. This is where, as a writer, we are trying so hard to make our protagonist so relatable, sympathetic and basically an everyman (Or ‘everyperson’), that they end up being the most bland character in the story. One such symptom of this is when they essentially become a stoic rock around whom everyone else orbits - the voice of reason in a mad world.
Secondary characters often have the liberty to be as extreme and whacky as we like because they don’t have to be the figurehead of the story. But if all the lead character does is respond and basically roll their eyes at the stupidity that surrounds them, they’re not particularly active or interesting. And in fact it may not really be their story (the great Russell T Davies talks about this here). There are examples where the protagonist is a figurehead of sensible stability, such as Mum, but it is still Cathy's story because she is leading events and has an objective of holding together (and surviving!) her family. Also trying to bite her tongue is a huge part of who she is. It can be true, particularly in comedy, that it’s useful to have an anchor who keeps things rooted to reality if the other characters are so off the wall they’re at risk of stretching credulity too far. In such cases though it’s worth asking if that needs to be your lead. If they are effectively the ‘straight man’ (Gosh, a lot of these old terms are problematic!) they’re not going to get laughs or potentially stand out as much. This approach can work though, but it requires making that character the heart of the piece, and ensuring they are still interesting and involving, despite having bigger personalities around them.
A related problem to this is a lead who doesn’t do much - things happen to them, rather than them causing things to happen in the pursuit of their goals. Remember that the point of a main character is that we are seeing their story. They should be an active agent. Even if events beyond their control befall them, it is then about how they react and deal with these situations, and the problems certainly shouldn’t be resolved without them taking action. Alison in Ghosts inherits a house which is full of ghosts, neither of which she causes, but it is about what she does in this situation. If she spent the whole time doing nothing except being afraid, she is simply responsive and uninteresting. The fact that she wants to turn the house into a hotel and stands up to the ghosts makes her active and establishes her intentions. This ties in to giving your characters clear motivation, a topic you can read about in this blog post if you like!
Far From Perfect
Neutrality and inactivity are of course undesirable, but so are the very extreme ends of characterisation. One of these is making your lead wonderfully flawless. This is sometimes referred to as a Mary Jane character (Though more typically they are in a secondary role) If your lead is never wrong, can complete any challenge with ease and never faces any real troubles, that’s not particularly engaging. Flaws are what makes us human, generating hurdles which we must overcome. Even super heroes have weaknesses that they need to deal with, and they’ve been transformed by intergalactic nuclear snake bites, or whatever. A big reason why Bodyguard was so successful was that the lead wasn’t a dull, perfect hero, he had complexity and depth, strengths and weaknesses, and this made his journey unpredictable and exciting.
A perfect hero in comedy is particularly awkward because a fundamental element of humour is messing things up and getting into sticky situations due to character flaws. A key part of a main character is empathy, so the audience relates to and cares about their story, and most people can’t really relate to someone whose life is constant, struggle-free ease. This is also a big concern if there’s a feeling that the lead is essentially wish-fulfilling self-projection by the writer so everyone can see how smart and popular they are, (and that they’d never leave the washing up overnight because they just can’t face it). And if the character comes off as smug, arrogant or entitled, and never gets any form of comeuppance that can quite simply be a turn off for the audience.
Richard Wilson as Victor Meldrew in One Foot in the Grave
Monsters Are People Too
This leads us to the opposite extreme where the lead is simply so flawed and unlikeable that it’s really hard to care about their story.
It’s understandable why we might be more interested in nasty characters, they can be more fun and get away with more outrageous behaviour than your standard heroes. Antagonists, your typical villains, can be just as iconic as protagonists, sometimes even more so. And there are certainly examples of memorable monstrous leads, such as Basil Fawlty or Victor Meldrew, Jill in Nighty Night, or recently Miri in Back to Life. What’s important in those characters is that their humanity is usually still on display, as they have understandable desires and frailties. Basil Fawlty wants to be successful but is regularly thwarted by events and circumstances, and his responses to such predicaments are terrible. Victor Meldrew basically wants a quiet life, but struggles to get on with others and control his annoyance. There is a lack of malice in their behaviour, they don’t seek to hurt or upset others, but in pursuit of their aims they unfortunately create problems. It’s also significant that we see the sympathetic parts of their personalities - Basil has a kindred spirit in Polly, and no matter what Victor does, Margaret loves him and stands by him. This reminds us that they’re not all bad.
There’s a concept in writing that if a character risks being entirely unsympathetic, give them a dog, because it demonstrates that they care about something and aren’t entirely horrible and self-involved. (Though please don’t think all character flaws can be fixed by the simply addition of a fluffy pupper, you will need a bit more depth than that). But exploring their relationships with others is a good way to get a better understanding of a person. And all of these concerns come with the caveat that it can be possible to get away with a lead being rotten to the core if they are simply fascinating to behold and have an engaging story to tell. It’s still a tricky task to pull off without any trace of empathy or understanding of why they’re an unrelenting arse though!
Miri Matteson (Daisy Haggard) in Back to Life
When discussing lead characters it’s also worth taking some time to consider the use of entry level characters. These are essentially devices for introducing your audience to the world you have created. They are often new arrivals into the situation who can have information and exposition revealed to them in a more natural way than if characters were to explain concepts to each other that they are already familiar with for the sake of the audience’s understanding. Eleanor in The Good Place is a good entry level character as she has her strange situation of entering the afterlife quickly explained to her and we can then get into the meat of the story.
Although an entry level approach can be useful, think about whether it is really necessary for your script. If it’s not a particularly complex or unusual environment, your audience should be sophisticated enough to recognise it without this assistance. Most people are familiar with the concept of an office job, so don’t necessarily need to be introduced to that world by the arrival of a new employee. Also taking the time to introduce a character to the setup can potentially be time taken away from the main story which could be better used elsewhere. There is even the possibility that focusing too much on introducing a character to the world will lead to much more of an establishment episode, where you only set up the concept rather than telling an interesting and complete episodic story.
An entry level character can be a nice vicarious way to welcome the audience into the story and generate natural empathy, but if your characters are interesting and engaging, they should be able to create the same feeling naturally regardless. It can be tempting to assume an entry level character must be the protagonist, however a new recruit could easily be a secondary character, just for the delivery of vital exposition. They may not be the most interesting character though, and someone more established in the world may have a bigger and better story to tell. It may also be a case of quickly assimilating the character into the world. Rachel in Friends handily allows us to be introduced to the other characters, but almost immediately becomes a part of the gang. So although she acts as a way in, that is not a fixed role for her, mostly because she is not simply a device but a three dimensional character.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge as Fleabag
Making Your Lead Take the Lead
So once you’ve figured out the intricacies of your main character and got the balance of their personality right, it’s a question of how you make it clear they are your lead. This should seem self-evident: you give them the lead story. But this comes with certain expectations, and it’s important to establish focus and not muddy the waters. The most obvious and preliminary way of doing this is making sure the story starts with them. That doesn’t mean the very first moment, necessarily, as teaser scenes are often popular. But if the plot commences with one character and we spend significant time with them, the natural assumption will be that they are the lead. If we then shift away from them for a long time, or never see them again, it can create confusion or frustration. Similarly, if you spend time establishing a lead and then wrap up the story focusing on someone else, it may make us wonder whose journey we were supposed to have been witnessing.
If you use certain devices such as narration, flash backs or fantasy sequences for just one particular character, it is tempting to believe they must be our protagonist. Of course you can have an independent character as a narrator, but for example when Fleabag addresses us directly we know this is her story. If we were to then not see her or hear from her for ten minutes we’d wonder what on earth is going on. This ties in to the fact that some protagonists are so central it would not make sense to have any scenes which do not feature them. Some scripts constantly follow the main character, so any secondary stories only occur if they enter the lead’s sphere. Of course if you want to have a strong lead you can still have secondary stories. But they should be precisely that, secondary, and not begin to dominate the main plot. If a character naturally begins to pull focus while you’re writing, it could be an indication that your interest isn’t really in your lead. You may then need to recalibrate in order to put the focus onto the characters who you are more passionate about.
The Main Point
There is one obvious elephant in the room which should be addressed as it impatiently toots its trunk and flings peanut shells at us for attention. That is the fact that the biggest requirement of a strong lead character is that they are simply a strong character. As we’ve established, they should be active, have a clear goal, be relatable but also complex and have a story to tell. And indeed all of the principles that we should apply to our protagonist should ideally be present in every single character we create, because that’s what makes them interesting and compelling.
Returning to our opening question of how important a main character is in a script submitted to the BBC Writersroom, the answer must take into consideration some variables. The fact is that even if your protagonist isn’t as strong as they could be, we recognise that they can be tricky to get right. If there are other significant strengths in the script, particularly secondary characters who demonstrate depth and creativity, then there is a chance the script could still progress. But considering how useful a lead character can be in terms of shaping and focusing a story, and that a particularly strong one can be a powerful tool in selling an idea, it’s certainly worth the effort. Think of it as a fundamental challenge to try your best to get them right and give them the love and attention they deserve.