Show them a unique protagonist.
To be unique or not to be…that is the question on every writer’s mind when developing their protagonist. Are Andy, Bella and Don really so different compared to them (the audience) that they should be popular? With these 7 steps to engaging the audience any work can be popular too. In step #4, by showing the protagonist out of sync with their world they are relatable to the audience while still unique.
In The Shawshank Redemption Andy felt disconnected, almost cold to his circumstances. He’s been wrongly convicted. The great legal system has failed him. He’s being made to accept all manner of indignities, he has no pride left. Or does he? While he appears passive to his predicament, Andy is wholly aware of opportunities to improve his lot. He methodically sets up systems to deal with prison life. He requisitions a rock hammer to make a carved chess set and other carvings to pass the time. He obtains a pin-up to spruce up his cell and routinely calls upon what’s in his Bible to fortify himself. Instead of fighting his jailers like you’d think an innocent man might do, he suggests breaking the law, creating tax shelters for the guards and laundering money for the warden.
Instead of hating or judging the other inmates, he forms friendships and determines to build a library where the men can gain an education and create new circumstances for when they get out. Even the scene with the record player and the PA system shows how Andy is bursting to share his hope. In his shoes I’m sure keeping my head down would have been a higher priority, but this is why we are so taken with Andy. The other inmates settle to their punishment while Andy determines to remake it in his own image. While I might have very well given into despair and anger, I’d like to believe I’d coldly and methodically escape. Andy didn’t react the way the majority of us would believe a wrongly imprisoned man would, so he took us on a journey out of sync with our expectations.
In the Twilight Saga, Bella is caught between choosing what her heart tells her and what the world says is right. Coming from Phoenix, she feared continued anonymity, only to find herself the most sought after girl in her new school. Not comfortable with her sudden popularity, she pursues Edward, the one guy repulsed by her presence. Even though I love supernatural stories if things added up to vampires with the guy I was attracted to, a hefty dose of fear or even skepticism seem a healthier response. Not so for Bella. When she finds her blood inspires a strong lust in Edward, she remains firm in her belief of his willpower and her attraction. After Edward abandons her she resists using the men in her life to get over him. Instead she seeks out cheap thrills that manifest hallucinations of her chiding lover. When a friendship develops between her and a werewolf, she fights to stay a part of Jacob’s life while rejecting his suit as her new lover. There is an intimacy, a revelation of even her most shallow fears that balance out to a sense that Bella has the soul of a real woman.
Yet over the course of the series, instead of college, career or even an acceptable suitor to present to the world, she chooses marriage with a vampire and a child she’ll have to fight multiple societies to keep safe. Women today are expected to glut on their desires, sow their wild oats and pursue dreams for dreams sake. It’s no longer okay to seek love, family and commitment. Bella sought it anyway against society’s norm. We are so captured by this girl because we’d like to believe we’d choose our hearts over the world in the same situation. Don’t we get enough from the world telling women to reject love and hearth for a career, to choose relationships easy to shed just in case it doesn’t work out? Bella went for it and I’d like to believe I’d have risked everything for love too. Through it all Bella consistently accepted the hard and rejected the easy, which is definitely out of sync with the real world.
In Mad Men it’s pretty clear Don Draper is unhappy and yet he has the rare innate ability to attract others of both sexes. This season, Don expected Megan to fall in line as a new wife and mother instead he reluctantly forces himself to support her ambitions as an actress, in turn destroying his own dreams for their marriage. After he expresses to Roger his disappointment in their agency’s lack of motivation, Roger challenges Don that it’s only through his own example. Racked with guilt at Lane’s death, Don is unable to consider it is because he wrongly rejected his brother; a man truly connected to him and whom wanted more than to pattern his life after Don’s successes. Probably the most fascinating arc is with Joan. He attempts to stop her prostitution for their agency, yet shares her pain when she goes through with it. Later, he commiserates with her desires to get ahead as well as the bad taste it left in her mouth, going so far as to suggest ways she can move past her feelings. Peggy’s job offer was a nice contrast to these sharper emotions. He’s genuinely regretful to see her go yet hopeful she’ll be happier than he’s been through his own choices.
Through Don’s bond with the secondary characters we can explore his feelings and motivations as they mirror and reflect his unhappiness back on himself. In this way Don consistently stays in character when reacting to a situation while also becoming unexpectedly unhappy at the outcome. I found his arc with Megan the most profound as you can see in him a desire to change his pattern even if no actual progress in changing. She even goes so far as to warn him of the damage he does: “Every time we fight it just diminishes us a little bit.” Don relies on his attractiveness yet is puzzled when others become disillusioned to it. While in a fever dream, we witness his attempt in killing off this propensity for unhappiness in himself, when he murders the woman with whom he cheats on Megan. We are certain this failed as Don is ponied up to a bar in a fog of déjà-vu. Because having both appeal and talent is rare, even in the real world, the audience is captured season after season by this enigmatic man out of sync with happiness.
I wanna be popular too you say…and you can be. Show them a unique protagonist. If a writer does their job right, the protagonist is the #1 draw for me in a work. I love to slip into their shoes and walk around in their world. The best characters show me a perspective that is different from the majority of others I already experience in the real world. With so much media out there it was no surprise that, by giving them (the audience) a unique experience, a character can attain popularity. The audience wants to relate to the protagonist but it’s boring if they relate too much to them. The secret is finding the balance between relatability and uniqueness, all the while staying consistent to that out of sync attitude through the entire work.
As a writer, take the fourth step in your own work to engage the audience: show them a unique protagonist. Continue reading how, with these 7 steps to engaging the audience, any work can be popular too.