Opinion: Interesting protagonists need time to be interesting

TL;DR Helping our protagonists experience more than conflict in improv scenes

We’re so used to improvising “opposing force” conflict stories that we lose track of other ways to engage our protagonists

I’ve seen countless improv scenes where the protagonist is nearing the end of the story but still facing escalating conflict bordering on the insurmountable; often performers pile on elements outside the scope of the story to satisfy and reinforce “realism” in the scene

If we build every scene with that constant bombardment of duress, how do we explore stories beyond ourselves — across genre, periods of time, different universes? More concernedly, what’s fun for the protagonist if we’re constantly stacking the deck against them?

I acknowledge the number of times I’ve waylaid protagonists beyond the call of duty — from stopping their movement to talking them to death. This post is my apology and promise to improve too

Does the protagonist have to win every story? Naturally no. But there are alternatives to adding every type of problem on our stories

Real World Proof

A new age of filmmaking confronts the underlying causes of conflict. The Story of Conflict rears its head, but the narrative finds a way past it to the deeper tale — e.g., intergenerational trauma. Shoutout to Encanto as one example of this storytelling evolution

Let’s give our protagonists…

A Story of Discovery

We can spend time exploring the declaration of their want. How does it feel to announce that desire to the world? Is this a new want in the world or the first time this character became aware it could be possible for them? Is that realization exciting for them? Is it dangerous?

A Story of Reflection

How do we explore the impact of striving for those wants, if we’re busy solving yes another (unrelated) conflict offer from our partners? How do we appreciate the impact of achieving those wants?

It is said that chasing one’s wants are meant to eventually reveal the unhealed wound to the character — through these new experiences and reflection. How do we get the chance to discover the need if we’re in never-ending conflict?

A Story Without Conflict

Kishōtenketsu is a plot structure that does not have conflict “built in”; it contains four acts: introduction, development, twist and reconciliation. It would be refreshing to experience stories with change and without confrontation. I’ve only had a cursory look at this story form so I’m not seeking to replace “everything we know” about storytelling

Trivia: Kishōtenketsu is Japanese, though the structure first originated in China based on the Chinese jueju poem form

In my “The Protagonist Gets What They Want” workshop, I tried to convey that the improvisor playing the protagonist is the first person with permission to let go of conflict-seeking offers. Their partners can supply these offers, as needed. Let distractions and hindrances that don’t serve the want be easily solved.

Unfortunately, my missed opportunity was letting the antagonistic behaviour of stopping the forward action remain, instead of focusing on facilitating a change in the protagonist. Going forward, I’m going to reinforce the following as the paradigm shift, I’m seeking:

What if we collaborated in the protagonist’s exploration of their want?

We could create scenes that go deeper instead of further. Explore the inner complexity — accountability, patience, “doing the work”, the emotional and psychic labour, presence in silent moments while things sink in, failing and trying again. Okay, that might be a niche area of fun

Overcoming defeat isn’t the only joy-filled avenue available to our protagonists. If Monsters Inc. taught us anything (aside from “2319“), it’s that there is greater opportunity when we “follow the fun” by embracing joy, work together, and discover the new worlds that fun unleashes!

Imagine the moments protagonists could discover if they weren’t busy being conflicted? I’d love to see more of those scenes

Even if we’re not helping, what if we didn’t rush the scene beats?

The acting aphorism “less is more” applies to conflict too. If we give our protagonists time to discover more about themselves through success in addition to any “failure”, we give more stage time to them while they’re being interesting

p.s. As a fan of the John Wick franchise, I acknowledge my hypocrisy in trying to sway us away from conflict-heavy stories. We can unpack this dualism more in person some other time. Let me make a dinner reservation first 😀

Published by thedukers

Velvet Duke is a Black autistic queer entertainer from Toronto, Ontario, Canada

2 thoughts on “Opinion: Interesting protagonists need time to be interesting

  1. These are complicated questions, Velvet, and well worth some serious thought. In improv we are always balancing between process and product — and in a parallel way, I think we are balancing the focused journey with the human interactions that may not be immediately useful to the quest. Joseph Campbell’s version of the universal story of “the quest” is popular among some improvisers, but I find it very gendered. In the archetype, the male quests. The female waits to be rescued as a part of the quest, and becomes the reward to the quester at the end. If not the quest, we can look at the Aristotelian plot structure where the protagonist is also driven along a fairly clear story of struggle, realization, result. But you also mention having the opportunity to experience intergenerational or intercultural relationships. In the quest model, this exploration would seem to be delaying progress and veering into inessential conversation. But in improvisation, could we find a model where the process is foregrounded? I don’t have the answer, I’m thinking as I type. If we diverge from the goal-oriented structure, there’s a danger that audiences will feel the story isn’t progressing. But the Japanese model you mention seems to have some alternative possibilities. Does the protagonist gather shards of insight from interactions with unexpected sources? Could the protagonist piece things together like a mosaic or a quilt instead of plot? I’m not sure. I’d like to learn more about the Asian model, too. Thanks for raising such a thought-provoking question!


    1. Thank you for raising some of the inherent bias in how story is approached in North America — the idea that the “quest” is the only satisfying metaphor. Incorporating emotional and psychic intelligence, regardless of the number of generations or cultures involved, seems like the next “new frontier” for storytelling


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