In my workshops, one line of questioning I often pose to the writers I work with about their story’s Protagonists is this: Who would they become if your story didn’t happen?
If the specific events the Protagonist participates in and specific characters with whom they intersect in your story don’t play out the way you imagine… if the Protagonist goes on with their life unaffected and unchanged because they somehow miss out on the story you had planned…
What would happen to them?
This question actually arose for the first time in a workshop I led years ago at UCLA. We were discussing The Wizard of Oz, focusing on how at the beginning of the story, Dorothy feels a sense of alienation, like in some very real way she doesn’t belong where she lives:
- She’s a young girl surrounded by people older than she (in the Kansas scenes, there are seven other humans and each of them is an adult).
- Everyone on the farm — from Auntie Em and Uncle Henry to the hired help Hunk, Zeke, and Hickory — has a specific job or task. Dorothy does not.
- Nor does she have anyone (other than Toto) to play with, one reason she gets into trouble while “walking along the railing between the pig pens” and falling in, necessitating Zeke to rescue her (this incident reinforces how she just doesn’t fit in with the ways of the farm).
- She even dresses differently than everyone else in a crisp blue-and-white dress whereas the others wear dingy work clothes.
- Perhaps the single biggest contributing factor for Dorothy’s sense of alienation is a fact we may tend to overlook: she is an orphan.
So we can say Dorothy begins The Wizard of Oz in a state of Disunity: She’s living in a home that doesn’t feel like home. She yearns to “fly away” to some dream-like place “over the rainbow” where she will find a sense of belonging.
Indeed it takes a magical trek through Oz with all its challenges and complications, allies and enemies to help Dorothy transform from an alienated girl into someone who by the end feels about the farm and its people — “there’s no place like home.”
But what if she had not gone to Oz? No running away. No tornado. No yellow brick road. No encounter with Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion. No realization that her home in Kansas really is a home.
As we considered that question, one of the writers raised her hand and said this: “I think she could have grown up to become Miss Gulch.”
Ooh. Interesting thought. With no Oz experience, Dorothy may never have experienced being a true part of a family with Uncle Henry and Aunt Em. She may never have felt loved and accepted. She may have developed a cynical view of life. Always different than other people. Increasingly isolated and bitter.
From that perspective, Miss Gulch represents a glimpse of Dorothy’s future… if she did not go to Oz.
Hence the value of the question: If your story does not happen to your Protagonist, who will they become?
In Citizen Kane, if Charles Foster Kane had not been plucked from his idyllic life in Colorado, he may have remained a perfectly happy fellow.
In Casablanca, if Rick Blaine had not reconnected with Ilsa Lund, he may have remained a broken cynic.
In The Apartment, if C.C. Baxter had not spent those few days with Fran Kubelik in his apartment as she recuperated from her suicide attempt, he may have become another corporate toady.
In Tootsie, if Michael Dorsey had not lived as Dorothy Michaels, he may never become a better man, still stuck with his sexist tendencies.
In Up, if Carl Fredericksen had not gone on his adventure to South America and found a surrogate family, he may have simply lived out his string of days until he died… alone.
The point of the question is this: What does your story mean to your Protagonist? It’s another way of asking my very favorite question of all:
Why does this story have to happen to this character (Protagonist) at this time?
It’s not an arbitrary thing. Their life leading up to FADE IN. The inciting incident. The world of adventure they enter. The many characters they meet along the way. The complications, roadblocks, and reversals. Everything that happens is part of the Protagonist’s narrative destiny.
And a great way to sharpen your focus on what that narrative destiny is all about is to ask…
Who would my Protagonist become if this story does not happen?
Here’s what I’d like to see in comments: Take one of your favorite movies and pose that question about the story’s Protagonist. See what you come up with.
Then try it with the story you’re working on now.