One of the most difficult things to do when writing a screenplay, is finding a way to immediately activate your protagonist. While the main story itself doesn’t start off until the inciting incident, your protagonist still needs to be active in the world; fighting towards a goal of some kind. This goal is typically linked back into the film at a later time. This is a tough thing to do; making sure your character is active in the story even before they are technically “activated” by the plot. In an effort to learn how to active a protagonist from the very beginning, I have chosen three heroes as examples of how to do it properly. Those are: Snake Plissken from Escape from New York, Ashley Williams from the Evil Dead franchise (specifically Army of Darkness), and James Bond from the 007 franchise (Specifically Goldeneye and Octopussy).
The first film that is a great example is Escape from New York. What is interesting is how long the director (John Carpenter) chooses to introduce Snake Plissken. Snake is not fully introduced until nearly seventeen minutes into the film. But this is on purpose. A quick summary of the story sees the President of the United States crash land inside New York City, which at this point (the far future of 1997) has become one massive prison. Snake Plissken, played by Kurt Russell, is seen only as a last resort solution and the story treats him that way. Snake isn’t introduced until he is needed. But when he is, he instantly has character.
Snake is needed because of his specific set of skills and he knows this. He used to be an incredible warrior, but with his glory days in the rearview, he has been living as a thief and getaway man. Snake is aware he is the only man who can do the job he and uses this as leverage. He immediately wants to get out of prison and will do just about anything to be free. The second he is told that he may be released (upon completing the mission) he begins planning a way out. Snake is a tough, smart, and manipulative man and he oozes those characteristics the moment he appears on screen.
Another character that goes through a lot, but is immediately active, is Ashley Williams (Ash for short). Ash is active the moment each movie opens. The first two films feature a rather simple way to activate him: girls. At the beginnings of both The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II, Ash is actively trying to have sex with his girlfriend. It is among the reasons he visits the cabin in the first film, and the sole reason he visits it in the second film. Once the Evil becomes activated, Ash’s goal becomes survival. But until that moment, he is all about making his girlfriend (and himself) happy.
The third film, Army of Darkness, is a little different. Since Evil Dead II ended with Ash being thrown back in time, the ultimate goal of the third film becomes “getting home to my time period”. The film opens with a recap of the final moments of the last film, signifying Ash’s need to return to the present. From the start, that is what he needs and wants to do. Ash actually doesn’t even want to go on the journey the film throws at him. But he HAS TO in order to get back home. By forcing the character to go on a quest, you are making him fight for what he wants. Ash would rather snap his fingers and have a wizard zap him back to the present, but it can’t happen that way. He needs to fight, much to his chagrin, and that causes his character to grow and change before he returns to the present.
The last example of a good active protagonist, is the character of James Bond. The Bond films have a certain structure which helps to activate the protagonist immediately. Nearly every 007 film opens with an opening action sequence; a prologue of sorts. This is used to immediately activate Bond as a character. He is a secret agent, and the opening scenes are examples of what secret agents do. These scenes help active the character, and show the audience that Bond will be able to survive the extreme stunts and villains he will fight throughout the upcoming film.
Nearly every 007 film opens with an opening action sequence; a prologue of sorts. This is used to immediately activate Bond as a character
While every Bond film opens in a similar fashion, there are specifically two films that are great examples, as the opening sequences are used to link to the rest of the story together. These are Goldeneye and Octopussy. Curiously, both films open with a sequence that highlights one of Bond’s fellow agents. Goldeneye establishes who Bond is, what his skills are, and what some of his typical missions are. However, this time, Bond is not alone. He has been paired with a fellow 00 Agent, 006. Not only is 006 a fellow agent, but he is a personal friend of Bond’s: Alec Trevelyan. The opening scene sees 007 and 006 on a mission together. But Alec does not make it, causing Bond to feel guilt for his friend’s death. This guilt is used as an explanation for some of Bond’s behavior. His guilt is the reason he sleeps with so many women, etc. But later, when Alec returns to life, we as the audience realize that this was a ploy from the beginning and Alec’s death was a fraud. Alec is now back for revenge and Bond must deal with the fall out. By using this specific opening sequence, director Martin Campbell is able to activate Bond early, birth his new villain, and give Bond a more emotional connection to the larger story. All in one sequence.
This is used similarly in the film Octopussy. We follow another 00 Agent who is being hunted. He stumbles into a party before being gunned down. As this was the thirteenth Bond film in the franchise, the viewers expected this person to be 007. So it was shocking when this agent was killed. But the reveal that it was in fact 009, immediately activates Bond in a different way. He is now angry, and hunting for revenge for the death of a fellow agent. By not even showing Bond in the opening sequence, but replacing it with a fellow 00 Agent, Octopussy is able to activate James on an emotional level. Instead of him fighting for “Queen and Country”, Bond is now fighting for a personal vendetta.
These are just a few examples of how screenwriters and directors are able to activate their protagonists from the very beginning of the story. This is something that I personally as a writer struggle with, so finding good examples of how to make it work really does help. Sometimes the film needs to start out with your protagonist stuck in a predicament; like Snake being in jail in Escape from New York or Ash being stuck in time in Army of Darkness. Other times, it is as simple as giving an example of your main character doing what they do best like a James Bond film. As long as you are able to link the activation of the protagonist to the rest of your story, you should be fine. It sounds simple, but sometimes the simplest thing can be the toughest to get right. That is why I hope using some of these examples will help my fellow writers.