Pursued By A Bear: How to fix a boring protagonist

Pursued By A Bear is our weekly advice column with playwright Adam Taylor.  He’ll tackle your playwriting questions – from practical issues to existential dilemmas – relying on nothing but his bare wits, brute strength, and questionable personal experiences.    

“I’ve just realised that my protagonist is really boring , I’m worried that if even I think this, nobody else will want to watch him, what can I do?”

In reality most people are boring.

There’s that guy at work whose stock response to every question is “Nothing much,” your mate who manages to shoehorn his upcoming Ironman competition into every conversation, and that girl you always get stuck with at parties who only knows sentences that begin with “I.”

This is why we like going to the theatre, because the darkness gives us an excuse to ignore all the dull people around us.

And of course we get to spend our time with the far more interesting fictional people sharing their lives with us from the stage.

No one wants to see plays about boring people, because we all know enough of those already.

The question is… what makes someone interesting?

In my experience, interesting people share a few vital traits.

The first is that interesting things happen to them. It sounds crazy, but we’ve all got that friend who has a new story to tell every time we see them. And I’m not talking about people who seek out stories; anyone can buy a plane ticket to Brazil.

Truly interesting people aren’t even looking for adventure, it somehow just finds them.

I’ve got a mate who epitomises this trait. He recently told me that after a wild night out (unplanned, on a Tuesday) he was standing on an empty street with two friends having a drunken conversation. Pretty standard post-pub activity.

A guy across the street opens his front door and starts shouting at the group. Thinking he’s annoyed about the noise, they start to apologise.

But it turns out the guy isn’t bothered about the noise. He thinks they are selling drugs and he wants to score some cocaine.

Why would he shout this across the street for all his neighbours to hear?

Because he’s wearing an ankle tag which will summon the police if he steps out of his house.

There are only a few people I know who regularly find themselves in situations like this. From the mildly bizarre to the downright dangerous, something always happens to them.

What my mate did next perfectly illustrates the second trait I think all interesting people must display.

Remember, he’s standing in an otherwise empty street with his two friends, in the middle of the night, and a total stranger is asking him for coke.

Most boring (and sane) people would have simply turned and walked away from this obvious lunatic. Probably with a barely audible “No, I don’t have any drugs, sorry.”

But an interesting person would instead reply, as my buddy did, with a hearty “Yeah mate, yeah, we’ve got loads of coke.”

Even though he doesn’t have any at all.

Why would he do this?

Stupidity? A sense of adventure? A lack of concern for his own safety?

Who knows?

He and his two buddies wandered into this angry coke fiend’s house, sat down on his sofa, drank his beer, hit on his sister, and then told him they were only joking and didn’t really have any cocaine at all.

The dynamic trio were then chased from the house by the coke-hungry imbecile, who, remembering at the last second he couldn’t cross the threshold, stood in the doorway launching his own shoes into the street after them.

When something interesting happens to an interesting person, they don’t shy away from it. They don’t turn it down, they don’t quietly walk away. No, they embrace it with open arms, ignoring all warning signs and throwing themselves into undefined peril with a beaming smile on their reckless faces.

Interesting characters are interesting for exactly the same reasons that interesting people are interesting; when something interesting happens to them they take the interesting route through it.

And by “the interesting route,” I don’t mean they have to make a stupid decision or throw themselves into danger. They simply have to make a firm choice which is true to their personality and commits them to a definite course of action, and they have to stick to it.

Essentially, they have to show character.

If their decision is unconventional, difficult, reckless or just plain weird it can give you extra ammunition, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be any of these things. It can be as simple as taking action in a situation where most people would walk away.

The key point is that they make a decision which leads to further obstacles. At each obstacle they must make further decisions which remain true to their original decision.

Or they have to learn from their previous mistakes and keep moving forward.

In the example of my earlier anecdote, my mate found himself in an unusual situation and reacted recklessly. After his initial choice he had several opportunities to back out; he could have just come clean and admitted he didn’t have any cocaine and left the house.

But he was offered a beer. And, having drunk far too much already, he naturally accepted.

He then met his host’s sister. And despite the fact he was already in the house under false pretences and was about to absolutely ruin this guy’s night, he decided to go all-in and try his luck.

His combination of poor choices turned a throwaway happening into a full-blown odyssey of stupidity.

Interesting characters find themselves in interesting situations and make interesting decisions.

If it sounds simple and obvious, that’s because it is.

Try using this to diagnose your problem.

If you’re concerned your protagonist is boring, you first need to consider whether the situation is interesting enough. Are you presenting your protagonist with a problem to solve? What’s unusual about the problem? Is the problem big enough to carry a whole play?

If Hamlet’s hamster had died rather than his dad, would this be a big enough problem to precipitate the rest of the play’s events?

If Sauron had just wanted to use Bilbo’s ring to sneak into an advanced screening of Transformers 5 rather than take over Middle Earth, would it be worth Frodo’s trouble?

If your situation is interesting enough and the problem feels big enough to warrant a whole play then the fault probably lies with your protagonist’s decisions.

If Hamlet just calls in the royal exorcist to send ghost dad on his way, there’s no drama.

If Frodo just sends the ring to Mount Doom by motorbike courier and sits down to finish his dinner, there’s no drama.

In every play, novel and film I’ve ever read or seen the protagonist has opportunities to walk away. There’s always an easy way out. Interesting characters never take it.

Michael Corleone could have abandoned his extended family and run off to build an orphanage in the Congo, but instead he took over the running of his dad’s criminal empire, against his better judgment and moral outlook, because it was important to his old man. He then followed this one decision through with an escalating campaign of murder and corruption over three movies.

Vladimir and Estragon could have taken offence at Godot’s poor sense of timekeeping and jumped on the first bus home, but instead they waited and waited, and… *spoiler alert!* Godot never showed up. I don’t wait longer than fifteen minutes for anyone, which is what makes these characters so interesting; they make a conscious decision to continue waiting beyond any reasonable expectation of lateness.

Once you’ve identified the problem, it’s just a matter of considering the possibilities.

If your situation isn’t interesting enough try writing down every possible (and impossible) thing you could add or change to make it so.

Let’s say your protagonist, an aspiring graphic designer, can’t get a job. That sucks.

But it’s not quite a play.

Then she receives an eviction notice. Damn, now she really needs a job.

This is bad, but a lot of people are in this position, it’s not particularly remarkable.

Then her dog gets cancer and she’s faced with a hefty bill from the vet. Can this girl get a break?

Okay, now we’re talking. People love dogs, shit just got real.

As if all this wasn’t enough, a large, intimidating man from Wonga.com shows up demanding the 5,000% interest on that loan she took out six months ago.

Damn, she’s home alone, already feeling vulnerable, and a nasty debt-collector type has shown up. But surely he’s a professional, just doing his job, how bad can it get?

Just when it seems things can’t get any worse, it turns out the Wonga guy’s mum just died in a graphic design related accident for which he has sworn vengeance on all designers everywhere. Now he’s hell-bent on exacting a violent and bloody revenge.

A little bit of a ridiculous example but I’m sure you get the somewhat dubious point. Now this man has a reason to take the situation beyond what’s expected of him. He also has a story to tell. And maybe the girl will bond with him over the imminent loss of her dog and they’ll end up being friends.

Or maybe he’ll murder her in a symbolic and scathing indictment of payday loan companies.

Escalating the situation is a surefire way to make everything more interesting. If in doubt, raise the stakes.

But say our situation is already this well-crafted and intriguing, yet we still feel our protagonist is boring? She still hasn’t really taken any action.

So now we need to examine our protagonist’s decisions.

When she is unable to get a graphic design job, she sits down with a computer and uploads her CV to Monster.com. She then sits indoors and waits for the offers to come rolling in.

I was bored just writing that. Who would watch it?

No offers are forthcoming so she signs up to teach an art class at her local community centre.

At least this is proactive, and it has potential nudity. Still not that enthralling though.

A local pimp, with a passing interest in watercolours, offers her a job airbrushing images of his girls to make them look more attractive so he can get the edge on his online competitors. She beats down her self-worth, launches her moral compass into the ocean, and goes to work full-time marketing prostitutes.

Now we’ve got some drama; young innocent girl is corrupted by unfortunate economic circumstances and sells out her gender to survive.

The debt collector shows up, she defuses the situation by making him a cup of tea and they amicably agree on a flexible repayment plan which will see her debt free in ten years, as long as her new career takes off.

Boring.

The debt collector shows up, she panics and gives him a fake name, saying her indebted flatmate will be back later. He says he’ll wait.

Now this is tense. The flatmate will never show up because she doesn’t exist. And this man is clearly determined to get his pound of flesh. What exactly is our heroine planning to do now?

As he’s admiring a heavily photoshopped image on her laptop, she knocks him out with a snowglobe she’s had on the mantelpiece since Christmas. She then ties him to the radiator with an improvised rope made of old knickers.

Now she’s got the upper hand, and someone on whom to take out all her frustration.

When he refuses to negotiate the interest on her loan down to a reasonable level, she flips and starts torturing him with a car battery and a pair of pliers. He has a heart attack and dies.

Shit.

Instead of handing herself in to the police, she decides to move to Peru and teach graphic design to impoverished children. She hatches a plan to rob the pimp and go on the run with nothing but her cancer-stricken dog and trusty iMac Pro to keep her warm at night.

Now this is a woman I’d like to meet at a party.

Obviously this is just an example. And it might be a bit ridiculous, but the point stands. It doesn’t matter what sort of play you’re writing, if the situation isn’t interesting it’s very difficult for the protagonist to be interesting.

And an interesting situation doesn’t automatically create an interesting protagonist. It’s the way in which characters react to their circumstances that makes them interesting.

Put your protagonist in a difficult situation and explore all their options. What would you do? What would the stupidest/bravest/weirdest/most interesting person you know do?

What would you love to see someone do?

You often hear established writers say that they love spending time with their characters or they feel down when they finish a play or novel because the journey is over. This should be your first thought when working on anything; are you enjoying it?

If not, always ask yourself why. Try to take an honest look at the work the way we’ve done above and choose the situations and actions you think would be the most interesting to write.

You mentioned in your question that if you’re bored by your own work other people will likely be bored by it too. But the opposite is also true; if you’re excited by your work it’s likely other people will find it exciting as well. Not everyone obviously, we’re all different, but as long as you’re not a complete weirdo you won’t be alone.

In fact, scrap that, a lot of successful writers are absolutely bonkers and people love them all the more for it.

I think the key is to make sure you’re enjoying the process of writing. If the work doesn’t excite you as you write it, you can’t expect others to get excited about reading it.

Have a question or problem you’d like to send in?  Email advice@londonplaywrightsblog.com and keep your eyes peeled to see if the answer turns up on our site!

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One thought on “Pursued By A Bear: How to fix a boring protagonist”

  1. Great article! You have answered a few questions relating to my play and life!

    Hope your own writing is going well and here’s to an interesting 2016!

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