Monday, April 11, 2011

The Protagonist: Using Character Clusters

I’ve just started this series on working through the whole Story Elements Checklist to expand the discussion on each element – and already, I’ve gotten a little
stuck trying to figure out how I could approach the next story element (or even what the next story element should be!).

No, really, I know what I need to handle next is the protagonist. But I’ve already written a lot of posts on that, actually.

Creating Character: The Protagonist

Rules of Character? Don’t Ask Me

What Makes a Great Protagonist? Case Study: Jake Gittes

Character Introductions

Collecting Character

So today I wanted to focus on just one particular trick of creating a well-rounded or deep or interesting protagonist, and that’s by using the characters around the protagonist to illuminate facets of the protagonist.

The characters you surround your main character with will tell us a lot about your main character. In real life our families, friends and significant others say volumes about who we are as people – through both the choices that we’ve made and the things that we had no choice about. It’s exactly the same in books and films: the characters who surround your hero/ine should be characters in their own right, but they can also reflect a lot about your hero/ine. Let’s look at just a few examples:


The person whom the protagonist is fighting is often a dark mirror of the protagonist; in many stories we see that it wouldn’t take much for the hero/ine to become the antagonist, metaphorically speaking. In fact, Belloq says pretty much exactly that in RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. The hero/ine and the antagonist often want the same thing, whether it’s an actual object, like the lost Ark of the Covenant; or money; or a power, like control of a town (IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE) or a country (THE LION IN WINTER), or a family (ANOTHER PART OF THE FOREST); or a person: a child (KRAMER VS. KRAMER), or a lover (five billion romantic comedies). And sometimes the only thing that distinguishes the protagonist from the antagonist is what methods they’re willing to use to get what they want; the hero/ine, we hope, is moral about it (though crossing the line is almost an inevitable part of any story), and the antagonist is willing to lie, cheat, hurt or kill for it.


The annoying – I mean, amazing - thing about a good mentor is that they know the protagonist better than the protagonist knows her or himself. From Glinda to Yoda to Hannibal Lecter, the mentor often represents the hero/ine’s higher power or superego, sometimes both, and always holds the key to the life lesson the hero/ine most needs to learn. And the great thing about a mentor character is that they’re allowed to be on the nose and say exactly what it is that the hero/ine needs and wants, and why they’re too screwed up to ever get it (unless of course they do exactly as the mentor tells them to).


This character generally plays a dual role: the love interest can also be the antagonist (in most love stories), an ally, or a mentor. The object of desire is very often the opposite of the hero/ine – and thus represents all the qualities that the hero/ine needs to become whole.


The sidekick, the roommate, the best friend, the love interest, the brother or sister – all of these can illuminate different sides of the protagonist, whether it’s by providing contrast to the protagonist’s character traits or helpfully pointing out why the protagonist is wrong about what s/he wants in every possible way.

But I’ve noticed that the allies of a protagonist often fall into a combination that I call a CHARACTER CLUSTER – and when you become aware of these clusters, you might find you can use them to your own advantage.

The Freudian Model
: One type of character cluster you see a lot is a hero/ine with two sidekicks, one of whom is all superego, one of whom is all id – like Harry Potter balanced between hyper-academic, hyper-rational Hermione, and more earthy, appetite-driven Ron. Then there’s Luke Skywalker balanced between spiritual mentor Obi-Wan and appetite-driven warrior Han. And James Kirk balanced between hyper-intellectual Spock and hyper-emotional Bones. As you can see from those examples, this is a very effective cluster; the hero/ine acts much as the ego does to balance between the two extremes of thought and action, and this superego-ego-id cluster feels familiar and right to us because that Freudian model is so ingrained in our consciousness.

You could say that Jake’s agency operatives in Chinatown are id and superego characters, but in that case I think those two function more as Jake’s good and bad angels, two very different sides of his character. But maybe that’s a difference that’s apparent only to me!

Another interesting cluster uses a more Jungian model. In The Wizard Of Oz Dorothy has to deal with external representations of her anima (inner woman) and animus (inner man) in the forms of Glinda and the Wizard. And Miss Gulch/the Wicked Witch is an extreme form of the destructive anima. In Sense and Sensibility you see extreme forms of the destructive animus (in the form of the passive male relative John Dashwood) and destructive anima (in the form of his bitch-on-wheels wife Fanny). This pair makes a great villainous team I think partly because they are such archetypally warped forms of the animus/anima. A reader or viewer may not know anything about Jung but will still be able to recognize these characters.

Sense and Sensibility contains another character cluster: the polar opposite model. In this story we have two sisters: one all sense, and the other all sensibility (passion). Each one needs to assimilate the qualities of her sister to be a truly balanced woman, wife, and human being, and we see those arcs play out in the story.

Another kind of character cluster is the Three-Brother or Three-Sister cluster. It’s used brilliantly in The Godfather, which modernizes the fairytale story of the dying old king with three sons, one of whom will take over the kingdom. The whole question of a story like this is “Which brother will win?” And of course, the youngest and least likely brother is the one who prevails.

Jaws uses a three-brother structure – Sheriff Brody goes out on that boat to hunt down the shark with Hooper, the oceanographer, and Quint, the ship’s captain – and it’s Brody, the least likely to prevail on the water, who faces down and kills the shark after the other two have failed. (You also have the contrast of Hooper, the intellectual scientist, and Quint, the crazy ship's captain - a kind of superego/id pairing again).

And Cinderella is the iconic example of a three-sister structure – again, the youngest sister prevails.

But you also see the three sisters show up as three female villains that operate almost as one person– as in Heathers and Mean Girls. And you can see three evil brothers at work in The Matrix in the form of that triple agent.

Then there’s the Motley Crew cluster: the team of vastly different oddball characters that gets assembled to perform a certain task in caper, heist, and war movies like The Magnificent Seven, Ocean’s 11, Armageddon, and Inception.

The Three Supernatural Allies is another classic character cluster, seen in Harry Potter (Dumbledore, McGonagall, and Hagrid), and Sleeping Beauty (Flora, Fauna and Meriwether), and more ominously in Macbeth (the three witches) and the Pre-Cogs in Minority Report.

In The Matrix we see another kind of trinity: Morpheus, Trinity and Neo – a modern version of the pre-Christian Father/Mother/Son trinity that patriarchal Christianity de-feminized into Father/Son/Holy Ghost. The Matrix is full of references to all kinds of world religions, and the character trinity is part of that story’s thematic image system.

The Wizard of Oz uses a three-ally cluster in a different way: the three allies, Scarecrow, Tin Man and Lion, represent three specific character traits – brains, heart and courage - that Dorothy must assimilate into herself during this inner journey in order to be able to face Miss Gulch/the Wicked Witch as a strong, confident woman instead of a scared little girl.

And Harry Potter uses a Janus type of character cluster constantly: not only are Harry and Voldemort two sides of the same coin, but also that two-sidedness is carried out in pairing after pairing in that series: Harry and his useless cousin Dudley, Harry and Draco, Snape and Quirrell – and in imagery, too: the Janus head of Quirrel with Voldemort as a bizarre tumor on the back of his head; the idea that Harry and Voldemort have wands made from the only two feathers that a particular phoenix ever produced.

Hopefully that’s enough examples to start making sense! Can you think of other kinds of character clusters? I'm sure we could all name dozens if we just started to think about it.

- Alex


Screenwriting Tricks For Authors, available on Kindle and for PC and Mac - now at $2.99.


Anonymous said...

Alex, this is seriously the most helpful thing I have ever read on character. Please keep up the brilliant work, I lovelovelove your blog!

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Well, awesome. It's always good to hear that these observations make sense to other people besides me!

Unknown said...

Alex, this is a super post!! Thanks so much for helping us pay close attention to those characters around the protagonist. I've been studying SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and after watching the movie recently several times in a row started to notice how the story uses Clarice's ally and best friend ARDELIA MAPP. With the exception of the big "First principles" scene (@ 86 minutes into the movie) between Clarice and Ardelia that kicks off Clarice's journey to Belvedere, Ohio (and the Third Act), Ardelia is literally in the movie for only seconds.

I was curious about this, so just for the heck of it I made a brief list of all the times Ardelia appears:

((I need to break the comment into two sections to post it. More to follow.))

Unknown said...


Minute 21 - Clarice and Ardelia are jogging and testing each other on FBI statues. This is a very casual way to introduce the character. Because they are jogging together we instantly can see the two are friends. Also when the boys jog by in the other direction and turn to watch the girls the movie gets across the theme of women in a mostly male world and that helps show the special bond Clarice and Ardelia have. All that in about 20 seconds and no heavy-handed exposition!

Minute 21:30 -- Clarice is studying microfilm about Lecter. Ardelia hurries over to tell her Crawford is on the phone. Clarice says, "Thanks Ardelia." It's the first time we hear Ardelia's name. And also the first time she tells Clarice about a phone call. All this takes about 5 seconds.

Minute 35:16 -- Clarice is boxing with a guy. An instructor calls out: "Starling, let's go." As Clarice walks out she sees Ardelia give her a questioning what's up look. Less than 5 seconds. Ardelia helps define how Clarice is being singled out from the rest of the class for her special abilities. No dialogue between them.

Minute 49:40 Clarice and Ardelia are walking together through campus when they spot a TV with the news that the senator's daughter has been kidnapped. As they watch the broadcast they have a very brief conversation. Ardelia comments on what the senator is saying: "Boy that's smart. Jesus, that's really smart." And Clarice, our hero, shows her own intelligence and adds: "She keeps repeating her name so he's Catherine as a person and not just an object." The entire scene runs about two minutes.

Minute 84:50 Right after the set-piece of Lecter's escape we smash cut to Ardelia running like hell through a dorm hallway -- acting as the messenger who will tell Clarice the news: "They found the ambulance at Memphis airport. The crew was dead. He killed a tourist... He could be anywhere." Clarice says, "He won't come after me." Ardelia, skeptically says, "Oh really." Clarice: "I can't explain it. He would consider that rude."

So here Ardelia is carrying the thoughts of the audience -- is Lecter going to try to kill Clarice? The scene continues as they discuss the hints Lector gave Clarice to solve the case (as Alex has mentioned he is Clarice's mentor).

The girls discussion is interrupted very briefly for a beat with the killer at his sewing machine sewing human skin.

Then we cut back to the second half of this scene with Clarice and Ardelia going over the clues lead to Clarice flying to Belvedere, OH.

Minute 111:10 - Last time we see Ardelia. We're at the graduation and Ardelia walks through the crowd to tell Clarice "Phone call." This is the third time in the movie Ardelia has acted as the messenger. To put a button on Ardelia's arc we see one of the entomologist who was hitting on Clarice brush up against her and ask someone to take their picture . . . hinting that Ardelia might be going on a date with this charming science geek. And meanwhile, Clarice walks across the room to say goodbye to Crawford and then take that phone call from the mystery caller -- of course it's Lecter.

So, Ardelia appears in the movie six times for a total of, what? . . . less than 6 minutes. She has only one extended scene (@ about 86 minutes into the movie). We really know very little about her -- there's no need to know her backstory -- yet her brief presence in the movie gracefully gives us a MUCH stronger understanding of Clarice.

Would love to hear your thoughts and thanks again for the great post.

Alexandra Sokoloff said...

Absolutely outstanding analysis, George! I've always thought that character and relationship was a miracle of compression, but you really spell out why. It also seems to me that Ardelia being African-American underlines Clarice's tough childhood: these women are friends because life hasn't been easy.

You also totally buy that Ardelia is concerned about Clarice's graduation (they function much like law enforcement partners do - each has the other's back). And Ardelia has just as much stake in saving Catherine - it's a young woman's life at risk. Very few film allies are this well-realized and believably motivated with so few scenes.

The character was defined by Harris in the books, but I also thought the casting of Kasi Lemmons was inspired - a hugely talented writer/ director in her own right, which gave instant weight to the character - in the tradition of other such director castings: John Huston in Chinatown, Alfonse Arau in Romancing the Stone, Sydney Pollack in Tootsie, etc.

Unknown said...

Thanks, great thoughts. I agree, inspired casting choice.

laughingwolf said...

great tips, alex...

will incorporate them after i find a place to move to, and get back to serious writing....

Lori Sizemore said...

Love, love, love when someone takes a difficult concept and makes it easily understood. Thank you!