A character assassination
I’m frequently disappointed with how little thought seems to go into how to describe the protagonist in a logline. This is the MAIN character! The emotional conduit for the audience; the being whose shoulders bear the weight of the entire plot; the relatable linchpin without whom, you have no story. Yet, more often than not, I see them described as “young man” or “young woman” and I then find myself banging my head, repeatedly, on my desk.
It’s long since been established that using names is completely redundant in a logline as it does nothing but take up valuable real estate. The name “Luke Skywalker” meant nothing before Star Wars was released. So, what should you use? Most protagonists in a logline are described in two parts (the fewer words the better) – the Characteristic and the Character. The Character tells the reader who they are externally, the Characteristic suggests who they are internally. If you’re really clever, you can use the Character to do both! Whichever words you choose are up to you, but the most important thing is whatever words you use must be relevant to the story you’re trying to tell. You’re reducing your character to the fewest number of words required for the reader to understand who they are. Imagine trying to define who you are in 2 or 3 words… you’d probably think for a while about it, so people understood as much about you as possible, right? Don’t do your protagonist an injustice by not sparing them the same care and consideration – they’re your baby after all.
I’ll just deal with Character for now, Characteristics will be covered in a separate post. Whilst they are just as important, it’s essential to understand how the language used to introduce your Character can suggest so many different things without relying on a characteristic for help.
Using gender is probably the broadest stroke you can use before you’re basically providing no information about a character other than a species. You are reducing the character down to a gender. If that’s all that’s needed to understand them and the story they’re in, so be it, but I very much doubt that there isn’t a more informative way to tell a reader who this story is about. The most important thing, (and this will be repeated time and time again), is it must be relevant to the story you’re trying to tell.
There are times when using gender has thematic relevance for the story i.e., when gender is something you wish to highlight. If it’s a story about sexism, gender inequality, societal roles etc. where the simple fact that she’s a woman, he’s a man, he’s a man in a woman’s body, or even something non-binary, plays a big part in the narrative, then using gender to describe your character could help convey the potential message.
Even the language used can help create the tone or demonstrate genre in the story. Simply by saying “guy” and “girl” immediately suggests Rom-Com to me.
Similar to gender, using race is a pretty broad stroke to describe a character. You’re reducing them down to the colour of their skin. Stories that focus on issues of race are some of the few that can benefit from this character introduction. If the fact that a character is black, Asian, white, Indian, etc. is relevant to the story you’re trying to tell, then go for it.
If you are just using gender or race to introduce a character in your logline, spend more time considering their characteristic(s). The more information a reader has about a character, the more real they will appear in the reader’s mind. In order to fully understand the story, the reader must fully understand the characters.
Not all stories involve humans so it’s important, if a human isn’t the main character, to let the reader know. Mostly because, if it’s not explicitly stated, there’s a very big chance the reader will assume (never let a reader assume anything!) they’re human. Of course you would! In this scenario though, the characteristic will be doing the heavy lifting, or you may have to accept that another word or two is needed. Not always – Finding Nemo, for example, needs nothing more than “an over-protective clownfish”. Combine this with it being in the “Family” genre and you don’t need much else to understand what the story is about.
In any Fantasy or Sci-Fi story, you have to accept that a certain amount of world building is probably necessary in a logline to understand what’s going on. This is why these loglines are pretty much always the longest. If all your characters are elves however, and it’s clear your story is set in a fantasy world, seriously consider how important it actually is for this character to be an elf in a fantasy world. If you transpose the entire story to a real-world setting with humans, does it make any difference? I’ll tackle how to set up your world in a logline in a separate article, but in my opinion, there must be a reason why this story can only be told in this land of make believe.
Most Fantasy stories have a variety of species. The world has its own societal structure which is separate to our own and MUST be fundamental within the story. Take Lord of the Rings; it is absolutely essential to the story for the hero, Frodo, to be a hobbit, a halfling, because Sauron doesn’t see this diminutive species as a threat. There’s a reason why this story can only be told like this.
I’m aware that Elves, Hobbits, Dwarves, etc. are all described as different “races” within Middle Earth, however, it gets very confusing to be discussing issues of race in both fantasy and real-world stories. For simplicity, I’ve thrown them into the “species” category. That being said, there are HUGE similarities between any story focusing on different species and those focusing on different races and genders. Even in Family films – the rivalry between cats and dogs has long been drawn upon for animated fun! Don’t all films focusing on the big differences between us usually have a similar message: We’re not all that different.
Using a character’s age is a good way to tell the reader a lot about a character. It can give us clues to their emotional maturity, life experience, social pressures, family life, etc. This, ultimately, positions the character within their world and is a very easy way to get a lot of information across in very few words.
Usually, the younger a character is the greater the probability that you will use an age for them. There are a few reasons for this, the main one being the younger you are the less chance there is that you can be easily defined by something else such as occupation, marital status, etc. Secondly, we’ve all been there. We understand what it’s like to be 7 or 14 and if a character was introduced this way we’d all remember what it was like to be that age. Empathising with a character is much easier the more you have in common with them. Thirdly, the younger the character is, the more pronounced the difference is between ages. A 4-year-old and an 8-year-old are two very different characters, and a reader would glean a lot more from an age compared to simply calling them “a child”. Even saying “teenager” isn’t as informative as saying 13- or 19-year-old.
Specific types of story in particular lend themselves to using an age, the obvious one being a coming of age story. Saying “15 year old” is fewer words than saying “boy on the brink of manhood” but the suggestion would be there. Certain ages have meanings attached to them and, whilst there are cultural differences, there will always be some universal understanding.
The most important thing is the age must be relevant to the story. For example, a logline for Jaws wouldn’t gain anything from knowing how old Chief Brody is with the exception of perhaps assuming (never let a reader assume anything!) he’s a father and has some life experience but this could be inferred by his occupation. He’s a chief… not a rookie! Using ages is one of the broader strokes you can use, but if using an age goes a long way in the reader’s understanding of the story and the character’s role within it then use it.
Introducing a character through their occupation is one of the best ways to introduce a character as long as it has some relevance to the story. If the story revolves around the character’s profession, crime thrillers for example, then introduce the character as a detective or a mob boss. It makes sense! The logline wouldn’t actually make sense if you didn’t introduce the characters this way.
It gets more complicated when the story doesn’t directly focus on the professions of the characters. However, the jobs you give these characters can say an awful lot about who they are. This is where you can be really clever, not just in your logline, but in your story, to make everything coalesce. One of my favourite examples of this is in The Matrix. Take Neo… he’s a computer programmer and a hacker. Neither is directly relevant to the rest of the plot, but they say a lot about who he is: Slave to the machines with his day job but fighting against the establishment by night. It’s amazing how much information we can infer from a profession.
Certain traits are generalised by certain professions and this can help provide the reader with an understanding as to who the character is emotionally and what their values are. A “soldier” might be patriotic, rigid, and unwavering, “actor” might be proud, loud and exudes confidence whereas a “writer” could be shy yet imaginative.
Using their occupation in the logline is best when it is directly relevant to the plot. However, if a profession suggests a load of characteristics that would far exceed the ideal word limit and there isn’t a better way which is more tied into the story then this is certainly an option. If you do go down this avenue, spend a little more time considering their Characteristics. If you said “a confident actor” you could simply be wasting a word unnecessarily. The flip side of that is if the character actually goes against type, then you absolutely must include it. If your story is about an unpatriotic soldier or even a traitorous one… this speaks volumes about this character and the story you’re telling – and with only TWO WORDS!!!
It may be an obvious thing to say, but the this isn’t just about considering how you describe your protagonist in the logline. It’s about considering who your main character is within your story in general. How can you make them the most perfect candidate for this particular story? Why is this story their story? What about them makes them the only person this story works for? This is what you should be considering when coming up with your hero. The beauty of a logline is it forces you to carefully think about what the most important things are the reader needs to know in order to understand the character and the story you’re trying to tell. Then be as specific as possible within that. Simple… right?