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The Pleistocene protagonist: An evolutionary framework for the analysis of film protagonists

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Over the last 25 years, evolutionary science has reinvigorated not only the human sciences but also literary criticism and film theory. Drawing on models of human behaviour advanced by evolutionary psychologists Bernard et al., L√∂vheim and Zuckerman et al., we propose that the application of an evolutionary framework will illuminate our understanding of film protagonists and their associated audience appeal. We report the development of a new instrument to assess differences in film protagonists’ emotions, motivations and character traits across 34 scales: the Assessment of Protagonists’ Traits, Emotions and Motivations Questionnaire (APTEM-Q). The results of a preliminary study comparing protagonists in 100 popular, recent American and Chinese films indicate that the questionnaire is comprehensive and that four protagonist motivations and emotions predict whether a film is preferred at the American or Chinese box office. Using this four-factor model, we found cross-cultural consensus in the way these psychological attributes are perceived. These findings are consistent with evolutionary theories, which would suggest that screen characters’ traits, motivations and emotions are writers’ emulations of universal adaptations to evolutionary selection pressures, reshaped through aesthetic and cultural processes.
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Keywords: box office forecasting; character development; consilience; cross-cultural reception; evolutionary criticism; narrative universals

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Bangor University

Publication date: September 1, 2016

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  • The Journal of Screenwriting aims to explore the nature of writing for the moving image in the broadest sense, highlighting current academic thinking around scriptwriting whilst also reflecting on this with a truly international perspective and outlook. The journal will encourage the investigation of a broad range of possible methodologies and approaches to studying the scriptwriting form, in particular: the history of the form, contextual analysis, the process of writing for the moving image, the relationship of scriptwriting to the production process and how the form can be considered in terms of culture and society. The journal also aims to encourage research in the field of screenwriting, the linking of scriptwriting practice to academic theory, and to support and promote conferences and networking events on this subject.
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