One reason why the movie Psycho is so iconic is, aside the expert directing and artistic cinematography, the fact that the one we’re led to believe is the main character of the movie gets brutally killed in the shower quite early into the movie.
What did killing her off achieve, when it was done after the audience was lulled to think she would be our projection, our avatar into the story and the movie’s environment?
1. It jarred and shocked us
2. It made us experience fear with our guards down (in the assurance that at least in the early stages of the movie, she wouldn’t be killed off)
3. It made us take the movie (a thriller) quite a bit more seriously- the level of insecurity and threat was cranked up
4. It imposed the ‘anyone can die’ rule so vividly that it potentially could get away with protecting any character without coming across as those characters sporting ‘plot armor’
5. The drama was enhanced through and through.
All of these elements are achieved much more powerfully when a story can disguise a character as a main one, when in reality the main one is someone else. This technique is also called “false protagonist” or “fake protagonist” for those who wish to research it more.
A main character comes with a few presumptions for the audience: The most basic one is that such a guy/girl is likely to endure threats and hardships (especially life threatening ones) through at least ¾ of the movie’s runtime, otherwise the story won’t be able to continue. Audiences are aware of that, and so they feel a sense of security in letting down their guard as far as the main character is concerned, and not be too scared that he/she will get the axe, no matter how great the threat or the aggressor.
So when they are led to identify as the main one a character that isn’t, this assumption can be easily shattered without the story losing one of its inherent functioning devices, and the audience be thrown from their balance (and possibly any predictions they may have about how the story is going to advance). They’re also unlikely to forget it easily, as an experience in the story, so their concern for every character in the movie (or comic, or narrative) will be further enhanced by their (now very valid) uncertainty whether even the main character survives.
If that is achieved, the audience is more likely to remain engaged emotionally and cognitively throughout the movie, or comic, or novel.
But how to create a decoy main character?
The first method is to showcase him/her a lot: In a comic, give him/her closeups. Give him a unique character design and make him/her ‘pop’ in the comic page layout.
Another way is to give him/her a leading position. Have him/her offer advice, give guidance, lead a group or in any other way be important and central to enough situations in the story to create the impression that he/she is the protagonist.
It goes without say that you have to make him important to the rest of the characters- make them seem dependent on him for initiative or for leadership or for balance.
If you can, do all of the above. At the same time, groom your actual main character just as meticulously, but a step back in terms of the spotlight your decoy enjoys:
Make him/her the decoy’s second in command. Make him/her his antagonist in some context (perhaps a difference in approaches or problem solving methods, or ideologies). Make him/her the decoy’s contrast- use the decoy’s death to underline elements in your actual main character that for whatever reason the decoy didn’t possess, or didn’t possess enough.
Or perhaps your actual main character possesses a lot of the decoy’s virtues but for whatever reason opts to stay in the sidelines or feels too shy to take center stage until the decoy is eliminated (usually by death, sometimes by having the decoy become the main character’s antagonist).
Throw your audience for a loop, and use the decoy as a springboard for your main character’s (and the general cast’s) personality development while you’re at it!
Have you ever used a false protagonist in your comic?
Tantz_Aerine at 12:00AM, Nov. 25, 2017
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