writing, movies

Main Character or Protagonist

One of my movies last weekend was 10 Things I Hate About You, the modern (well, 1999) teen retelling of The Taming of the Shrew. I saw it at the theater when it first came out, but I don’t think I’ve seen it since then. In part, it served as a time capsule for things that were happening around that time. For instance, the fashion. I remember those platform flip-flops one character wore because that kind of shoe caused a minor drama in my office. Some of the women were wearing those for work (they were expensive, designer platform flip-flops), and our boss sent out a memo banning them from the office, saying they weren’t appropriate office attire and the sound they made when people walked up and down the halls in them was distracting. Except the boss was Australian, so he used the word “thongs” instead of “flip-flops,” and thong underwear was a big thing at that time, so a lot of people in the office thought he was banning a certain kind of underwear, and it was none of his business what underwear anyone wore. I thought they could have figured it out from context because if your underwear makes “slap, slap” noises as you walk down the hall, you’ve got problems, and the memo could have served as an intelligence test. I hadn’t thought about that in years, but seeing the way people dressed in the movie took me right back to the job I had at that time.

Anyway, in case you aren’t familiar with the movie … The new kid in school falls for a pretty, popular girl, but she’s not allowed to date until her older sister, a notorious shrew, does, so he and his friend cook up a scheme to con a rich guy who’s also into the popular girl into paying the school bad boy to woo the shrew.

It’s a fun teen rom-com that’s very cleverly written. You don’t have to know Shakespeare to follow the story, but there are a ton of Easter eggs related to Shakespeare. The characters are pretty well-rounded, and the cast is a good collection of people who went on to bigger things as they grew up. It’s laugh-out-loud funny at times but also made me cry a bit.

But the thing that struck me on this viewing was a structural thing and the way the character roles were handled. Normally, we use the terms “main character,” “protagonist,” and “hero/heroine” interchangeably because they’re usually the same characters, though there are differences in what each of these terms means. A main character is the character who has the most focus, gets the most screen/page/stage time, and is generally the one we sympathize with. A protagonist is the character with the goal, and their pursuit of this goal is what drives the plot. The term “hero” depends on the context. It can mean the good guy, as opposed to the villain. Or it can be the one who’s on the hero’s journey, the one who is growing and changing and undergoes a transformation. In a romance, the hero and heroine are the main romantic couple (and are often both protagonists).

But this movie is the rare story in which these aren’t the same person. The main character is Kat, our “shrew,” played by Julia Stiles. She gets most of the screen time and is the person most of the other characters are focusing on. In hero’s journey terms, she’s the hero because she’s the one who has the transformation arc and goes on a journey. Her life is upended when Patrick starts pursuing her and she has to learn to let herself be vulnerable instead of pushing everyone away. Her sister grows a bit and has a realization and their father also learns something, but none of the others really change or grow.

But Kat isn’t the protagonist. She’s acted upon by the story, but she doesn’t drive the story. The protagonist is Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). He’s the one with the goal — date Bianca — who drives the story with each of his schemes to be able to reach his goal, and it’s a really good example of the structure with the intermediate goal that doesn’t work, requiring a new approach, with each one escalating. His first tactic when he learns Bianca is looking for a French tutor is to cram his way through the French textbook and quickly learn enough to tutor her and get close to her so he can ask her out to a French restaurant so they can practice, but then he learns that she’s not allowed to date unless her sister does (since their father knows Kat’s unlikely to date). His next plan is to find someone to ask Kat out, but none of the guys are brave enough. The next plan is to get Patrick, who seems unafraid of anything, to try, but he doesn’t even dignify that with a response. Then the friend comes up with the idea of conning the rich jerk into paying Patrick. Then they have to help Patrick deal with Kat when she’s unimpressed. And so forth.

As far as I can tell, Joseph Gordon-Levitt was the big name among the younger cast at that time. He was something of a tween/teen heartthrob on the Third Rock from the Sun TV series, while Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles were relative unknowns (he’d been on a short-lived TV series but had mostly worked in Australia and she’d had bit parts on TV while mostly working on the stage), so he may have been meant as the main character, but he’s mostly a catalyst character. His actions change other people, but he doesn’t really change. His love interest, Bianca, was played by Larisa Oleynik, who at the time was on a popular TV series targeted at tween viewers, but they aren’t the main couple. The main romance is between Kat and Patrick. The Cameron and Bianca relationship is resolved at the midpoint. Their only conflict from that point is helping get Kat and Patrick to go to the prom together so Bianca can go to the prom with Cameron. The romantic conflict is between Kat and Patrick, with her main issue being that she’s afraid to trust and that making the fact that he was hired to ask her out a ticking time bomb (even though he’s come to actually like her and he’s mostly just scamming the jerk for the money).

It all works, though, and I applaud the filmmakers and the actors involved for going with what the story needed. From what I’ve heard about Gordon-Levitt, he’s a nice guy and must not have had a major ego attack about wanting more screentime or focus in spite of being the biggest star. It would have been a less interesting story if it had focused on his character instead of the hot mess that Kat was, and if they’d made him flawed enough that he needed to grow, then his scheming would have looked creepy. It only worked because we could tell that he was a good guy and we wanted Bianca to choose him over the jerk.

Another interesting thing about this odd bit of structure is that I don’t think Kat would be a viewpoint character if you wrote a novel based on this movie. I think there was one scene in which we saw her alone. Otherwise, she’s always with someone else or being watched by someone else, even if she might think she’s alone. It seems like you’d have to write it with her being perceived by other people rather than ever getting into her head — probably because she would be entirely different from the inside than she seems from the outside and the point of the story is that it takes time for that to come out and it takes Patrick, who’s also got a reputation and is different than people think, to see that.

Anyway, it’s a movie that holds up really well, aside from the belly shirts and platform flip-flops, and a lot of fun.

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