Nick has raised an interesting point over at his film blog in a post about “Who are we“. He asks a question about what writers should do when writing a scene. Writers should always know who the focus of a scene is. There should always be a protagonist per scene (even in an ensemble performance). There should also although not touched on in the post always be a clear “want” or “reason for the protagonist to take part in the scene” and a conclusion, eg. Did the protagonist get what they wanted or not.
But on the particular point about protagonists there is a very clear argument that you should always have one protagonist. Most people don’t notice it, but there always is one in good drama. Things aren’t wishy washy. You must have a focus. In sitcoms its usually obvious, Seinfeld and Frasier are about the person in the title and the family around them. But what about the modern archetype of Friends. All of the actors had the same salary, all of them were given equal screen time and none of them were famous first (essentially). But in reality Rachel was the protagonist of the series. She was the most normal character so people could instantly identify with her, she didn’t really have any massive idiosyncrasies (Ross – Nerd, Chandler – Joker, Joey – Sex / Food, Monica – Obsessive Compulsive, Phoebe – Kooky). Rachel was the fish out of water. All of the other characters know each other before the first episode starts, and Rachel is the one who makes the decision to end the series by going and then not going to Paris, she hooks up with Ross at the end and then the premise set up in the first episode is sealed. As was said originally by Blake Snyder it was the promise of the premise. The side line that Monica and Chandler were moving isn’t the key that’s the writers ratcheting up the ticking clock of the ending, it isn’t even mooted as a concern in the first episode so can’t be considered. Most times in an ensemble the protagonist is the fish out of water, they help us understand the group. They draw us in, usually are near repulsed or excluded at the beginning and through the film or series learn to love the group as do we.
I’m writing an ensemble drama at the moment. I must say it is one of the hardest things to write for because of this particular difficulty. I think the essence is that you want at the beginning to leave things free and easy. Let the protagonist emerge or rather the balance emerge. I particularly want, like Friends, for it not to be obvious who the protagonist in the series is. But I have learnt through writing it that it is vital at the very least to have a protagonist per scene. And as I start getting into re-writes I’m going to have to do far more work to reshape the first episode because of an inability to commit to what effectively boils down to your “in”. The vessel through which the audience accesses your drama.
It doesn’t have to be the ing’enue who is the “in” to your drama but in many ways it better be if the series doesn’t have a clear main character. The only successful ensemble drama I can think of which has neither is “The West Wing”. Who is the protagonist? Charlie is the ing’enue so to speak, and the President is the most obvious main character. But actually Charlie doesn’t even appear until episode three, and the president isn’t the most on screen character at all. In many ways Sam Seaborn’s character is the protagonist because he is the one who is still learning the most. But could you guess that character who is in the most episodes? It’s CJ. It almost by default makes her the winner, but I think this has happened perhaps because Rob Lowe quit. CJ did have a transformative character arc but then almost everyone did. In fact in some ways Toby Ziegler is the only character who doesn’t change at any point and therefore should qualify for some kind of accolade – maybe not changing at all makes you special. Bradley Whitford’s character Josh Lyman (one less episode than CJ) is probably the most likely protagonist because he is the only one going on at the end whereas everyone else stops. But it’s pretty clear that the West Wing is one of the least clear cases of protagonist that there is.
Well I have tried to hide it in my series, but who knows if I will be successful. I think that whatever happens the key is that the author knows what is going on. That’s what the audience picks up on. They can tell instantly if the author hasn’t thought about it, if the author isn’t sure. If the author is sure but holding it back that creates a very different sensation for the viewer.