Thursday, December 1, 2011

Dormant protagonists.

Every story, Frank Daniel theorizes, is about someone who wants something badly, but has trouble getting it.

That “someone” is called a protagonist, and what he wants is called an objective. The story ends when the protagonist either succeeds or fails to achieve the objective, and we’re satisfied with the result.

David Howard and Edward Mabley add that “protagonist and objective are so closely identified in our minds that it is impossible to consider one without the other.”

Their relationship is symbiotic because of us. We know Dorothy Gale because, in the Wizard of Oz, she wants to return to Kansas.

From her perspective, sure, returning to Kansas is important, but it’s only one of a billion goals she’ll have in her lifetime. Maybe she aspires to overturn Roe v. Wade. It’s not impossible--she’s from a red state. But if it’s true, we wouldn’t know it, because it doesn’t affect her objective, so we don’t even think to ask.

That’s how important the bond between the protagonist and the objective is. We like watching someone rise to a challenge so much that we’re willing to ignore everything else. The more ardently a protagonist pursues her objective, the more invested we are in the story.

In the Wizard of Oz, the protagonist and her objective are inextricable. If Dorothy isn’t in the story, we can’t root for her to get back to Kansas, and if Dorothy doesn’t care about getting back to Kansas, then we don’t care either, and there’s no reason to watch the movie.

But the link between a protagonist and his objective doesn’t have to be so straightforward. While a protagonist cannot exist without an objective, an objective can exist without its protagonist.

Not for too long, of course. If the protagonist is missing for most of the story, then he doesn’t really care about achieving his objective, and we’re likely to get bored. But if a protagonist goes dormant, another character can pursue the objective in his place.

There are three effective ways of transferring the objective between a dormant protagonist and his surrogate.

The Tardy Protagonist.

If a protagonist isn’t introduced in the beginning of the film, then he’s tardy.

In Star Wars, Luke wants to join the Rebellion and defeat the Empire.

Luke is a quintessential protagonist. The script of Star Wars was modeled after the Hero’s Journey--a story structure that’s used in most mythologies in most of the cultures around the world. So in addition to being relatable because he’s someone who wants something badly but had trouble getting it, he’s also an everyman whose familiarity transcends the cultural divide.

And we don’t meet him until seventeen minutes into the movie.

No one says his name, no one knows where he lives, no one knows who he is. If there’s a bright center to the objective, Luke is the character that it’s farthest from. But somehow, the moment he steps onscreen, we know he’s our guy.

Star Wars devotes its first seventeen minutes to establishing the objective. The first thing we see is Darth Vader capturing Princess Leia’s ship, choking a guy, and looking like a bug. We want someone to defeat him!

Unfortunately, the characters we meet aren’t up to the task. Leia shows promise, but we don’t spend much time with her before she’s captured. The droids, C-3PO and R2-D2, are so subservient that one of their first lines is, “There’ll be no escape for the Princess this time.” They’re clearly supporting characters.

We’re not, however, left without hope. Before Leia is captured, she gives R2 the means of achieving the objective, and then sends him to find a protagonist capable of opposing the indomitable, planet-exploding villains.

The next character who’s important enough to be named is Luke. John Williams’ score--which is evocative enough to narrate an audiobook--addresses us, saying, “Excuse me, old chap, but this gentleman has voiced an interest in pursuing the objective. Would you care to indulge him?”

Luke is a babyfaced farm boy, and probably the least likely person in the galaxy to defeat the indomitable, planet-exploding villains. Naturally, this makes him an ideal--if tardy--protagonist.

It’s only a matter of gaining the experience to achieve his objective. We’ll discuss that process in greater detail in the next section.

Star Wars provides a melodramatic example of a tardy protagonist. The first seventeen minutes are a reveille, crying out, “Can no one save us?!” If you shut off the DVD player before then, you won’t know anything about Luke.

It’s much more common for a tardy protagonist to be mentioned before he arrives, gowhether by name, reputation, or both.

In the Odd Couple, Felix wants to cope with his divorce, but avoids doing it by treating his best friend like a spouse.

The story opens with Felix’s friends. They’re worried because, despite his stringent personality, he hasn’t shown up for their poker game. Gradually, they learn that he and his wife have separated, and he’s gone missing, and he’s sent his wife a suicide telegram.

For a guy we’ve never met, we know him embarrassingly well. And we’re curious to see how he’ll cope with his divorce, and hear his side of the story, and learn if we should take his suicide telegram seriously. We’re on the edge of our seats, and delaying the protagonist’s introduction has put us there!

The Apprentice Protagonist.

If a protagonist is inexperienced, then he might need a mentor to teach him how to achieve his objective. If the mentor joins the pursuit of his objective, then he becomes an apprentice.

In the Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo wants to throw a ring into a volcano, but he has to walk past the assembled forces of evil to get there. To make matters worse, he doesn’t know where the volcano is. Also, his only skill is eating breakfasts.

While his inexperience is a hindrance to adventuring, it’s vital to our understanding of the story. Middle-Earth is a land full of monsters, magic, and biblically dull history. It’s all new to us, and we have a lot of questions. Conveniently, Frodo is as much of a newcomer as we are, so he acts as our avatar.

This is a simple way to keep us engaged with the protagonist. Since we’re stranded in an overwhelmingly alien world, we cling to the character who says what we’re thinking. Frodo doesn’t wear shoes, but if he did, he’d be sharing them with us.

His mentor, Gandalf, guides us--figuratively with exposition, and literally over mountains. He also advocates for us, provides light for us, and fights demons atop very thin bridges for us. In many movies, mentors appear for three minutes and spend the whole time preaching aphorisms, but Gandalf joins the action and dominates every scene he’s in.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Frodo is glad to surrender the pursuit of his objective to someone who’s actually qualified to pursue it. Except this arrangement can’t last for long. If Frodo’s surrogate has everything under control, then there’s no tension, and we don’t need to be there. We’d feel like we’re only getting in the way.

Our interest in the story demands that Gandalf be incapacitated. The more dramatically, the better. When he dies, it’s shocking. We realize we can no longer afford the luxury of being an apprentice, and we worry that we haven’t learned enough to achieve the objective on our own.

Mercifully, we remember that the responsibility is Frodo’s, and not ours. But we’re so engrossed that we’re actually grateful to have the fourth wall!

Star Wars offers its own example of how captivating the relationship between an apprentice protagonist and his surrogate can be.

For a quarter of the movie, Luke is an apprentice, and Obi-Wan Kenobi is his surrogate. Obi-Wan works quickly: he converts Luke to a telekinetic religion, teaches him to wield a laser sword, and ultimately sacrifices himself so that Luke can escape from the Death Star.

In the aftermath, Luke takes a moment to grieve Obi-Wan, and Leia consoles him.

Think about that. It’s not clear how much time passes during the movie, but Luke and Obi-Wan are wearing the same clothes the whole time. It’s possible that they’ve known each other for less than a day.

It’s also possible that the preceding scenes take place the day before. If that’s true, then in the last two days, Princess Leia has been imprisoned, tortured, manipulated into betraying her political allies, and forced to watch her planet--and by proxy, her family, friends, and subjects--get destroyed.

And here, she’s comforting Luke over a hermit he met a few hours ago.

This doesn’t feel sarcastic or even ironic. Even though millions of Leia’s people are murdered, and Obi-Wan is a single, voluntary martyr, we care more about Obi-Wan. In the context of the story, Obi-Wan was our surrogate, and Leia’s people were a plot device that made us hate the Empire more.

The Prop Protagonist.

If a protagonist wants something badly, but can’t get it, then a surrogate must get it for her. In order to keep the protagonist involved, the surrogate carries her around like a prop, exploiting and stowing her as necessary.

Unlike an apprentice, a prop can’t learn how to achieve her objective. It’s simply out of her league. Normally, we’d find this unappealing--maybe even lazy--but she holds our interest by being helpless, likable, and really, really, really enamored with the objective.

Since she’s so vulnerable, this form of dormancy can last a lot longer than tardiness or apprenticeship.

In Little Miss Sunshine, Olive wants to win a beauty pageant that’s held in another state, so her family goes on a road trip.

There are many obstacles between her and the catwalk, and none of them involve her. Finances must be managed, especially in light of her dad’s impending bankruptcy. Transportation must be arranged, and--when their bus breaks down--it must be rearranged. When her grandpa dies, his affairs must be handled...and the same goes for his corpse.

We don’t expect Olive to deal with any of this, because she’s seven. Her family acts as her surrogate, and they (barely) succeed in getting her to the pageant. For the most part, she’s either offscreen or beneath a pair of headphones, oblivious to the hoops everyone’s jumping through on her behalf.

This naivete keeps her involved in the story. She’s an impressionable girl, and we don’t want her to be traumatized by her family’s respective existential crises, nor their growing hostility for one another.

They don’t want to traumatize Olive either, so when she joins a conversation, they censor themselves. Unfortunately, this only adds subtext to their actions, and transforms the conversation into a cold war.

But no matter how severely they’re feuding, they always rally behind the pursuit of Olive’s objective. They form a collective surrogate, like a hydra bickering with itself.

Surrogates aren’t always so dedicated. Sometimes their allegiances change, and the prop is tossed, like a hot potato, between them.

In the Little Mermaid, Ariel wants to be with Prince Eric.

Boy, does that one simple sentence cause obstacles. For a start, Ariel’s the wrong species. Also, she’s not allowed to swim near humans, nevermind date them. Then she exchanges her voice to become the right species, but ironically, Eric has vowed to marry the girl with the voice that she no longer has. When the couple is finally free to smooch, Ariel is thrown down into a maelstrom and attacked by a giant octopus witch.

Throughout the story, Ariel’s objective remains constant. Rightfully so...Eric is quite a catch! The other characters, on the other hand, are not as steadfast. They each take turns supporting and opposing her.

Ariel’s father, King Triton, forbids her from seeing humans and their ships and their statues and Eric and Eric’s stupid face. This ban provokes Ariel into signing a Faustian covenant. When Triton finds out, he surrenders his crown to save her.

Triton’s servant, Sebastian, tattles on Ariel, causing her collection of human artifacts to be destroyed. By way of apologizing, he not only coaches her when she’s trying to seduce Eric, but also subliminally nudges Eric into puckering up.

Eric, himself, resists Ariel’s advances! It’s only when she regains her voice that he realizes she’s his dream girl. To his credit, he’s kind enough to risk his life to save her.

And even though the villain, Ursula, hypnotizes Eric, enslaves merfolk, and tyrannizes the entirety of the ocean, she also transforms Ariel into a human. Despite her ulterior motives, this is arguably the single greatest contribution towards Ariel’s objective.

While all of these characters relay to and from the objective, Ariel holds the fort. Through the machinations and subplots and shifting loyalties, she serves as an icon, reminding us that the whole reason we’re watching is to see whether or not she’ll get the boy.

On top of that, she’s a gauge. Unlike Olive, Ariel is highly aware of her proximity to the objective. As a result, her reactions confirm the tone of the story.

On paper, the sentence, “Ariel signs a Faustian covenant with Ursula,” isn’t something we’d approve of. But when we see that she’s desperate enough to do it, we’re desperate enough to hope she goes through with it.

If Ariel was active, we wouldn’t accept such submissive behavior. We’d want her to steal one of Ursula’s potions, or try to seduce Eric au naturale. You never know, he’s a sailor...maybe he’s into fish.

But Ariel is so hopeless--and Ursula’s offer is so novel--that she doesn’t consider any alternatives, and she’s swept off her fins like the prop she is. And she’s so convincing, that we don’t consider the alternatives, either.


Luke, Felix, Frodo, Olive, and Ariel all seem like nice people. It would be lovely if they lived in a post-imperial galaxy, or without an ex-wife, or beyond the influence of an evil ring, or with a sunshiney trophy, or on an explorable shore up above.

Yet as much as we like the protagonist and the objective, we aren’t actually interested in either. If we were, it would be like going to see a race for the athletes and the finish line, instead of the racing.

We’re interested in the story! The insurmountable distance between the protagonist and his objective, and the protagonist’s attempts to surmount said distance! Dormancy provides a powerful illustration of how much we prefer the story over both, the protagonist and the objective.

To strain the racing metaphor: the tardy protagonist is an athlete who misses a lap or two. The apprentice is the fat guy in a three-legged race. The prop rides piggyback on her surrogate’s shoulders the whole time.

We wouldn’t root for any of these people in real life, and if we had money on them, we might hate them. With the right context, however, they can be some of the most appealing protagonists in some of the most appealing stories in the history of cinema.


  1. Hey Ian, this was really lucid and illuminating. Thanks for posting.

  2. Wow Ian,
    I'm so impressed! Things I had never thought about before!