Writers dream of capturing the hearts of their audience. To grab the attention of a group of people and have them become so involved with a character’s struggle that they forget their daily lives stands as the Holy Grail of wordsmithing. But how do writers expect this to happen if they don’t give the audience a way in?
It’s one thing to craft a harrowing plot of escalating complication, one that excites and surprises at every turn. To then be able to wrap it all up within a meaningful and thought-provoking exploration of thematic elements? Well, now you’re talking story. But unless the writer adds a clearly established Main Character Throughline all that work will be for nothing.
A Way In
By providing an intimate look at a problem and the personal struggle to overcome it, a writer grants the audience an emotional portal into the story’s events. The Main Character Throughline fuses story with audience. Leave it out and the audience will become simple observers. Weave it in as to be an essential component and the audience will jump in feet first, empathizing with the plight of the Main Character and consequently developing an emotional attachment to the story’s final outcome.
Blockbusters, by definition, demand repeat viewings. A strong Main Character Throughline invites audiences everywhere to become a part of the experience again and again.
Doing it Right
Star Wars excites with its laser battles and zero-gravity dogfights, yet it is Luke staring out at the twin sunset that ultimately draws us in. Inception compels attention with its intricate dreams within dreams concept, yet it is the guilt Dom feels for the participation in his wife’s suicide that makes us care about those dreams. Finding Nemo transcends the animated film genre with an epic undersea adventure like no other, yet it is Marlin’s father-knows-best attitude that forces us to empathize deeply with a computer-generated image.
The list doesn’t stop there: Toy Story 3, The Dark Knight, E.T., Spider-Man, Shrek 2 and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2—all blockbuster films with one thing in common: a clear, easily definable Main Character throughline separate from the larger overall struggle within the story.
The biggest film of all time, Avatar, strangely enough suffers from a broken Main Character Throughline. It may hiccup dramatically in some places, but at least the effort was made to bring the audience in on the adventure.
Doing It Wrong
Contrast this with Taken or 9 or the critically-acclaimed Of Gods and Men. None of these films offers an emotional path into the story’s events. Sure, we care about the abduction of Liam Nesson’s daughter, but do we become emotionally invested? Not at all. Same with 9. Why should we care about post-apocalyptic puppets if we’re not granted a personal struggle to latch onto? Who the heck is 9 and what are the issues most personal to him? Of Gods and Men? The acclaim rests solely in the subject matter there, not in the execution.
These films, and countless others like them that rely on spectacle and sleight-of-hand to lull the senses. They suffer at the box office because they fail to latch on to the audience’s sense of empathy. Audiences simply don’t care enough about these films to see them again (Some aren’t even seen at all—often there is a sense from the trailer whether or not a film has a potentially strong Main Character Throughline).
A Catalyst for Error
Identifying the Main Character Throughline of a story is simple, right? One simply has to look to the Catalyst—or Inciting Incident—and find the life-changing event for the Protagonist.
In fact, this line of thinking blatantly points out the reason why the Main Character Throughline must be clearly delineated from the Overall Story Throughline.
Taken provides a Catalyst that upsets the balance of things for Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson), yet the rest of the film becomes one mindless action scene after the next. No emotional development, no growth of character, no personal issues anywhere. Thinking only of creating a life-changing event does not guarantee audience engagement because the Inciting Incident/Catalyst is tied to the Overall Story Throughline NOT the Main Character Throughline. It upsets the balance of things for Bryan as Protagonist, not for Bryan as Main Character.
The Function of a Protagonist
The Protagonist operates within the context of the Overall Story Throughline. The Main Character operates within the context of their own personal problems. Sometimes (more often than not in Western film) these two functions can be found in the same player. Luke, Dom, Marlin, Elliot, Bruce Wayne, Harry Potter—all these films feature Protagonists who are also the Main Character.
But what about Rick in Casablanca, Red in The Shawshank Redemption or Sarah Connor in the first Terminator? These films feature very strong Main Characters with very personal issues we become privy to—yet are not the ones driving the Overall Story towards its Goal.
Identifying the difference between the Main Character Throughline and the Overall Story Throughline separates those who understand how stories work from those who work stories to death. How can one possibly fix the problems within a story if they don’t know where to look? (“They’re digging in the wrong place!”—Raiders)
A Problem Personal to the Main Character
Seeing the two as one is a common blunder that often results in soulless empty stories. Taken is a perfect example of this. If one doesn’t care about engaging an audience on an emotional level, then by all means, craft a Catalyst and move on. But if one is interested in elevating their storytelling, bringing it to a point where the events on-screen actually matter…well, then identify the problem most personal to that character.
The abduction of Bryan’s daughter isn’t a personal problem—everyone is concerned with it. The police, the daughter herself, the bad guys who took her, and yes, of course, the Protagonist Mr. Mills. The abduction creates sympathy not empathy—which is correct. Audiences should, and will sympathize with a Protagonist.
The Main Character Throughline, however, are those issues the Main Character would take with them into any story, not simply the one at hand. Their throughline, their struggle defines their character. This is why their connection to the Inciting Incident is not a prerequisite.
There are times, however, when the two coincide. The Sixth Sense is one example of this: the violent act that created Malcom’s unique “situation” also happens to be the Catalyst that forced his function as a Protagonist in the larger story of understanding what is really going on with Cole. He has that objective goal as Cole’s case worker, yet his personal issues—that big problem he’s dealing with all on his own—those issues define him as a character and are a part of his Main Character Throughline. It’s that intimate look at problem-solving, what would I do in the same situation?, that compels the audience’s interest.
Defined by Their Personal Issue
Hiccup in How to Train Your Dragon was a 98-lb. weakling viking long before he destroyed his hometown of Berk—the Inciting Incident of that story. In Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, George’s “paunchy” appearance and lack of adequate pectorals had no connection with the decision to have some guests over for dinner. Black Swan’s Nina suffered at the hands of her mother’s maternal prison long before poor Beth was given the boot.
Asked to describe Hiccup or George or Nina and these throughlines would be the subject of what would be discussed.
The Character-Driven Story
Personal throughlines like this are perhaps easier to identify within smaller more character-driven pieces like Black Swan or Virginia Woolf because the emphasis is always placed on what is this character struggling with? or how can I give the lead actor something really meaty to chew on?
In Win Win, Mike Flaherty (Paul Giamatti) shoulders the burden of his families’ financial misfortune all on his own. Keeping his actions a secret from his wife and from those who know him fuses the audience with him. Who hasn’t kept a secret that would certainly destroy their reputation? Mike may be doing something wrong, but we can’t help but feel for him (a natural reaction towards someone we empathize with). We root for Protagonists, we feel for Main Characters.
This personal throughline exists as well within the disconnected yet-always-on-a-connecting-flight Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) from Up In The Air. Layoffs and corporate restructuring may affect everyone in the story, but it is that carefree “I don’t need anybody” attitude that only Ryan and we as the audience are privy to.
A Story Is A Story, No Matter How Small
The drive to create a blockbuster does not negate the need for an effective Main Character Throughline. Whether it be a quiet character-driven piece like Blue Valentine or a monster-sized epic like The Lord of the Rings, the way a story works remains consistent. Key broadstrokes of structure—like the different perspectives of the Main Character and Overall Story Throughline—determine the ultimate success of any film.
Audiences know inherently when they receive a broken story. The box office reflects their disappointment. If filmmakers desire blockbuster status, they’ll only achieve it through a strong Main Character Throughline.
By taking the time to clearly identify those issues personal to the Main Character, a story becomes something more than simply a Protagonist trying to reach a Goal. It becomes something more than simply a shell who endures some life-changing event. Stories with that emotional punch to the gut—stories that touch the heart—become a compedium of experiences that grant meaning and incite thoughtfulness.
Why strive for anything less?