The protagonist can be seen as the main point of interest in a story. However, the audience will connect with the story if the protagonist – and in lato sensu the other characters – all have a psychological background relatable to the viewers. This applies even if the protagonist is a super-hero.
Take for example two successful TV shows from decades apart:
“Smallville” – the 2001 TV series depicting young Clark Kent prior to his public life as Superman and,
“The Incredible Hulk” – the 1978 TV series depicting David Banner searching for the cure for his “gamma radiation” experience that made him “The Hulk”.
Both TV series had the same psychological way to connect with the audience. Both were able to explore very well the protagonist’s vulnerability in face of situational factors. The best episodes for either series were the ones where the audience saw how human the heroes were.
In “Smallville”, a young Clark was raised as an honest and up-right person prone to help the ones in need. In the first season, episode two (Metamorphosis) Clark sees a car in flames with someone inside. The person trapped in the car happens to be Lana’s boyfriend – the girl Clark wants to date. He does not think twice, he rushes to take the person out of the car seconds before the explosion. Later at his farm his father tells him: “your mother was proud of you son”. The audience right there sees someone that is not selfish and is willing to save everyone.
In “Smallville” Clark faces challenges as he learns how to cope with his “new abilities”, like running fast than cars, lifting trucks, stopping bullets to name a few. However, despite all his super abilities, in the episode “Stray” Clark learned that he could not save a friend. A young boy called Ryan dying of brain tumour. Clark feels powerless grieving the death of a friend. The episode was enriched by the background music “It’s Not Easy” composed by John Ondrasik (Five for Fighting). It gave a sense that even super-heroes can go to the same hardship as anyone else.
“Smallville” manages to run ten seasons without ever showing Clark wearing his Superman suit. This was the main focus of the show. A young Clark Kent saving people prior to his public life as a Superman. It was only on the last episode of season ten that the public saw the iconic Superman suit.
Now we go almost forty years earlier talking about another TV series that became an instant hit worldwide in the late seventies and early eighties, “The Incredible Hulk”. The episodes did not have the same special effects like the ones in “Smallville”. However, many of them explored societal issues involving good people in need of help – similar to Smallville – this was the psychological background connecting the show with the audience.
In the episode “Ricky”, David helps a mentally challenged man from being killed twice during a derby racing competition. In the episode “Brain Child”, David helps a gifted teenager to reunite with her estranged mother. In the episode “A Child in Need”, David protects a boy that is being physically abused by his father. In the episode “The Harder they Fall”, David finds himself in a wheelchair after being hit by a car. The episode ended with “The Hulk” saving David’s best friend that was also on a wheelchair and was denied a bank loan due to his physical condition.
In the episode “Two Godmothers”, David helps three female fugitives. One of them was nine months pregnant. David and the fugitives ended up in a remote cabin. In the last scene after delivered the babies – they were twins – David was shown leaving the premises and arrested by the police. They were about to storm the cabin with tear gas and dogs when “The Hulk” intervenes.
Most of the time, people that were saved by David never had the chance to thank him. Either for the lack of knowledge that David was “The Hulk” or for the lack of a chance. This approach was very common at the end of each episode.
David was often seeing walking alone on a road waiting for someone to give him a ride to an unknown place. John Harnell wrote “The Lonely Man” theme, which became the background piano music played at the end of each episode. This composition was a signature for the series.
The protagonist may be the soul of the story, but how to connect the audience with the story is the soul of screenwriting.