Tips for a Strong Protagonist – Part IV: Lessons from “Gladiator”

Tips for a Strong Protagonist – Part IV: Lessons from “Gladiator”

“There should be something about her in the first scene that gradually transforms (with the biggest point of transformation at the climax) so that she is a different person in the end than she is in the beginning.”

That’s a quote from my awesome editor, Ellen Brock, who helped me revise my debut novel, Moonbow: The Colors of Iris. What she’s referring to here is character arc, defined by Wikipedia as “what happens to the inside of a character over the course of the story.” Defining the character arc helps us as writers focus our protagonist’s personality and feelings, and should also help direct the novel, as the plot points should facilitate this change.

If you’ve read my last two posts, then you probably know that Gladiator is one of my favorite movies. Its classic Hollywood style and impeccable plot structure make it not only a marvelous cinematic experience, but a valuable teaching tool as well. Following Ellen’s advice (I’m sure the screenwriters consulted her before they got to work writing), the movie’s first and final images, though they appear identical to each other, actually symbolize Maximus’s transformation from reluctant hero to honorable warrior. Sure, he was an honorable warrior as a Roman general, but leading an army was his duty, his day job, and not a calling – two very different things.

Here’s a detailed look at Maximus’s trajectory from apathetic to heroic, beginning with the inciting incident, which is when Marcus Aurelius asks Maximus, not his flesh and blood, to become the next Caesar (I’ve put the high points in bold):

  • Maximus declines Marcus Aurelius’s invitation to rule Rome in favor of returning home.
  • Maximus refuses to pledge his loyalty to the new emperor, Commodus.
  • At his execution, Maximus kills off the Praetorian guards in order to break free and rescue his family.
  • When he’s too late, Maximus is captured and sold to slave dealer Proximo.
  • Maximus is made a gladiator, but, being heavily grieved and depressed, he refuses to fight.
  • Maximus is inspired by a speech given by Proximo and decides to fight.
  • Maximus kicks butt, gaining hundreds of fans who shout “Spaniard! Spaniard! Spaniard!” every time he steps into the arena.
  • Maximus learns that Proximo earned his freedom and stood before the emperor. He decides that he, too, wants to stand before the emperor. His purpose in doing so, however, is not to gain freedom, but vengeance.
  • Prior to a fierce battle in the Coliseum, Maximus rallies his fellow gladiators and tells them to fight together as a unit, leading them to victory and winning the crowd, as Proximo advised him.
  • Maximus’s impressive display in the battle reenactment turns heads, including Commodus’s. The emperor wishes to meet the “Spaniard,” and Maximus turns his back on him, then reveals his true identity (Commodus has thought Maximus dead the entire time).
  • Commodus’s sister Lucilla attempts to arrange a meeting for Maximus and the senators, but he doesn’t believe he can make a difference, as he is nothing more than a slave that can die at any moment.
  • Maximus defies the odds by defeating both Rome’s best gladiator, Tigris of Gaul, and ferocious tigers. He refuses to kill Tigris, to which the people cry out, “Maximus the merciful!” This, of course, only intensifies Commodus’s hatred of him.
  • On his way out of the arena, Maximus spots his former servant, Cicero. Maximus instructs him to tell his men that he is alive. Conscious of his mortality, Maximus knows he can use his troops for political purposes to buy his freedom and take down Commodus. His apathy is officially gone!
  • Maximus has Cicero tell Lucilla that he agrees to meet with the senator who also wants to overthrow Commodus.
  • Maximus requests that the senator buy his freedom so he can assemble his men to overtake Commodus.
  • Maximus asks Proximo for his freedom, insisting he will be paid, but Proximo won’t take the risk. Maximus reminds Proximo that Commodus killed the man (Marcus Aurelius) who set him free.
  • Maximus kisses Lucilla during their meeting in which she tells him she’s bought his freedom. This is a major moment for him because up to this point, he’s been suspicious of her and of everyone, in general.
  • Maximus assembles the gladiators. They agree to fight the guards to allow his escape.
  • Maximus escapes and finds his sword and shield. This is his “point of no return.”
  • Maximus finds Cicero on horseback. When he sees Maximus, he screams a warning. The horse bolts, and Cicero is hanged by the rope around his neck. Maximus attempts to save him, but archers shoot arrows into Cicero’s chest. Maximus is surrounded by Praetorian guards. There is no escape.
  • Maximus is chained below the Coliseum floor.
  • Commodus embraces Maximus and stabs him in the back. He instructs Quintus to strap on Maximus’ armor and conceal the wound.
  • Maximus and Commodus rise through the arena floor for battle.
  • Maximus and Commodus fight in the Coliseum before thousands of spectators.
  • Maximus drops his sword and drifts into the afterlife. Commodus pulls a dagger and attacks Maximus. At the last possible second, Maximus comes back and fights. (Go, Maximus!!!)
  • Using Commodus’ own hand, Maximus stabs Commodus in the neck with the dagger. Commodus falls to the ground, dead.
  • Maximus drifts into the afterlife again, walking toward his family’s home.
  • Quintus, Commodus’s right-hand man, speaks to Maximus, bringing him out of the afterlife. Maximus uses all his remaining energy to speak. He orders Quintus to free the imprisoned gladiators who helped him and reinstate Senator Gracchus, with whom he’d planned to overthrow Commodus.
  • Maximus dies. In the afterlife, he is back in the wheat field where we saw him in the opening image. His fingers glide across the wheat, and he is welcomed by his wife and son.


Diana Anderson-Tyler uses 'Gladiator" as a teaching tool for building strong main characters

Voila! We see that Maximus, who started out as a soldier bent on returning home to an easy, quiet farmer’s life, meets a valiant end as a gladiator determined to restore justice to Rome and peace to his soul as he fights to avenge and reunite with his family.

A wonderful exercise for getting a better grasp of character arcs is to create a timeline like the one above for yourself, using a film or book you adore as your source. Thinking consciously about how characters change and shift throughout their stories will help you as you shape your novel, with the transformation of your own M.C. in mind.

I hope today’s post has been helpful! As always, please leave a comment below with your own tips for creating strong main characters, and/or tweet/snapchat me@dandersontyler! (Find my snapcode in the sidebar!)

Diana Anderson-Tyler writing blog


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