I recently got to see the L.A. production of THE BOOK OF MORMON musical. I felt I basically knew the story from listening to the songs on the original Broadway cast recording. But not knowing the spoken dialogue or visuals, I was interested to see how the narrative played out – and especially which of the two leads would feel more like the “main character”.
If you know anything about me (or worked with me as a script consultant), you know I’m a pretty big stickler about good stories usually having a single main character, through whom the audience is meant to experience the story emotionally.
Of course, some movies are true “ensemble” pieces. But these are really multiple stories in one container. (Like Crash, The Big Chill or Love Actually.) Each story has its own “main character”, intertwined with other stories that have different “main characters”. So we get to experience what it feels like to be each of these people, as they deal with a story problem that builds to a climax, and ultimately resolves.
As the Dramatica theory of story says, there is generally one person in any story through whose point-of-view we look through. And we look at all the other characters. If there’s more than one “audience perspective” character, that usually means more than one “story” within one movie.
Because “mission companions” Elder Price and Elder Cunningham in The Book of Mormon musical seem to get a roughly equal number of songs, I was interested to see if the show would play more from one of their perspectives — looking “through” them, and “at” the other.
Most of the time, when there are two central characters given roughly equal time and focus, we really feel the story more through one of their perspectives (for instance, Pretty Woman gives us what it feels like to be a hooker with a billionaire boyfriend, much more than what it feels like to be a billionaire with a hooker girlfriend).
As it turned out, both “Elders” really had their own story here. And interestingly, I think they both fit nicely into what Save the Cat calls the “Fool Triumphant” genre.
In such stories, an overmatched innocent of some kind has to penetrate a worldly “establishment”. Other examples of the “Fool Triumphant” might include Legally Blonde, Elf and Enchanted. (Which all fit the “Fool Out of Water” subgenre, as does this story, I think.)
SPOILER ALERT from this point on!
Both Elders seem really in over their head when they are assigned as missionaries to a village in Uganda where most people have AIDS – and a terrifying warlord rules over the region. Elder Price was hoping to go somewhere like Orlando. His dreams of changing the world seem impossible in a place like this. Elder Cunningham is more the “loser” character, who finds himself pressured to somehow rise to the occasion, and become even a competent missionary.
Both are naïve innocents, and both have story problems that build according to classic structure.
For Price, the “Catalyst” (to reference the Save the Cat “beat sheet”) is being partnered with Cunningham on a mission to Africa, with the “Break into Two” being their arrival there. At the “Midpoint”, he doesn’t feel he can do this anymore, and the stakes rise as he abandons Cunningham. As a result, “Bad Guys Close In” in the form of a “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream,” and then a confrontation with the local warlord, which does not turn out well at all.
For Cunningham, the “Catalyst” and “Break into Two” are the same (although we experience them differently through his perspective) – as is the “Midpoint”, where he realizes he’ll have to “Man Up” after Price leaves him.
His “Bad Guys Close In” involves him being forced to improvise his own theology to the villagers, which then causes the whole Ugandan mission to be shut down.
But in the end, both Elders come together and manage to rescue the situation in a stirring “Finale”.
So, can “two main characters” work in a story? The answer is yes, if you can make sure each “main character” has a complete story. We need to be subjectively in their perspective for their scenes, and they must have a compelling overall problem that leads to a challenging “mission”. It should rise to a crisis and climax of its own, and should ideally fit within one of the Save the Cat genres.
It almost has to feel like it could stand on its own, without the other story — in terms of its emotional core, and how it plays out.
Are you working on something with two central characters, where this is a potential issue? Is it really one story, where one of them is really “main,” or two?
Feel free to comment or e-mail me (using the contact form on the right) if this post raises questions about how all this might apply to your work…
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