Monday, November 28, 2016

Perils of the Writer: Who is the Protagonist?

So, this past week I went and saw Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, which was largely an "OK" movie with good performances.  But it's got some fundamental flaws, that largely tie to its storytelling structure, and that it doesn't actually have a protagonist.
Needless to say, Spoilers follow
Now, I imagine you must be saying to yourself, "But surely Eddie Redmayne's character is the protagonist.  He's on all the posters."  Well, here's the thing: the movie believes he's the protagonist, and all the filmic language throughout signals him as the protagonist.
Problem is, he's not.  He's the Mysterious Stranger.  
See, Newt Scamander arrives in New York City with a box of secrets and he acts secretively, and we spent much of the first half of the movie not knowing anything about who he is or what he wants.  We don't know anything, really, until he brings Jacob down inside his case to his transportable menagerie.  And that's when we finally know why he's in the United States (to release a creature in its native Arizona), and that his own goals involve the care and protection of magical creatures.  He's made a bit of a mess, which he cleans up, and then he helps clean up the larger mess that happens incidentally around him.  The movie constantly keeps Newt at arms length from the audience.  He doesn't give us viewpoint, nor are we invited to sympathize with him.
So, then, obviously, the protagonist is Jacob.  He, after all, is a clear viewpoint character with a clearly defined goal.  He wants to get out of the cannery job and start a bakery.  He's a no-maj, so through his eyes we see wonder and magic and experience everything new the story shows us.  He has almost the classic Campbellian journey where he gets the call to something fantastic, to then return to the normal world changed.
Except, he isn't changed.  He is forced to forget it all.  And, on top of that, he doesn't DO anything that requires active choice and affects the plot.  His most active moment is punching a goblin, but that doesn't have any impact on events-- things would have proceeded more or less the same without that goblin being punched.  He basically floats through the movie being awed, and ends with a reward, but he doesn't affect the story.
Who does make choices?  Tina.  Tina has all the markings of the protagonist-- she's got an arc of needing to redeem herself, she makes active choices, and she's the one whose life the Mysterious Stranger impacts.  But the movie doesn't want her to be the protagonist-- it wants her to be the (other) plucky sidekick to Newt, and thus consistently minimizes or sidelines her.  It places her in the position to be rescued from the execution*, it tries to establish her bond with Credence, but then does nothing with that in favor of having Newt connect to him.  
So this gives us a thing to look at in your own writing: figuring out who your protagonist is, and WHY they are the protagonist, and the key things are ACTIVE CHOICES and CLEAR MOTIVATIONS.  You need to know, and you need to show clearly to your reader, what the protagonist wants and what they are choosing to do to get it.
Don't do that, and you've got a muddled mess.
Speaking of, I've got a group of protagonists who need to pull their collective fat out of the fryer, so to work I go.  See you in the word mines.
*- I think nothing highlights how screwed up the wizarding world in this movie is more than the two scenes where Tina tries to talk to the authorities about Newt.  The first time, she's basically told "We don't want to hear anything you have to say" and the second time she's told "Why didn't you mention this sooner, you clearly need to be put to death."  

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