The Protagonist is a _______ but _______.

This is a little more explicitly about writing than my usual posts in that it talks about writing using anime examples instead of looking at anime from a writer’s perspective. Sorry about that. I won’t make a habit of it.

But this is my Two Year Anniversary post. Yes, the first post of this blog, Ground Rules, appeared on Feb 2, 2018. So, as like last year’s anniversary post, I’m permitting myself to talk about something that interests me, maybe just me. So:


Still, I’m a writer (and trained animator) and I look at writing (and animation). That’s the thing I do.

There’s a writing trick everyone is supposed to know, and that’s to be sure the protagonist has some sort of flaw, ideally a potentially fatal flaw that threatens the possibility they will succeed. What this does is create narrative tension: Which will speak most powerfully, the hero’s strengths or their weaknesses?

I remind you that at the last minute Frodo refuses to throw the One Ring into Orodruin. His weaknesses are strongest at the Moment of Truth, and, if not for Gollum’s weakness, his greed for the Ring, Frodo would fail.

The easiest way to construct this tension between strength and weakness is to use a formula like “The Protagonist is a ____ but _____.” The first blank is a general descriptor. The second is a weakness.

Spike Spiegel is a bounty hunter but he has a sense of honor.
Fuu is a bright, attractive young woman but physically weak.
Shinji is a bright and willing young man but unloved by his father.
Space Dandy is a superb physical specimen but dumber than a rock.
Vash the Destroyer is a superb physical specimen but committed to not killing.

vash the stampede

You even see this in series that aren’t dramatic or driven in any particular direction.

Konata Izumi is a bright, charming young woman but small and boyish.
Haruhi Suzumiya is a god but unaware of her powers.

haruhi character

By sitting down and summarizing the character explicitly using the “But…” clause, the writer ensures their series will have tension by ensuring their main character has a flaw that threatens their success. That creates tension, and potentially internal conflict for the character (depending on how the rest of the story is conducted) and it’s in tension and conflict that stories are created.

Mima Kirigoe is a talented actor but insecure.
Rock Okajima is a man who chooses to be a gangster but is non-violent.
Elias Ainsworth is a powerful wizard but does not understand humanity

Elias Ainsworth

Which of their traits, the trait before the “but” or the trait after the “but,” determines what sort of story is being told. Most of the time it’s the before that wins, and so we get Rock’s “Rebirth” meta-plot and Fuu’s “The Quest” meta-plot and Mima’s “Overcoming the Monster” meta-plot.

But sometimes the “But” wins, and that’s when we get tragedy, the emotional sense of sadness that happened when someone you like fails or dies or whatever, and Tragedy, the meta-plot (Boy meets Girl, Boy gets Girl, Boy loses Girl). Spike’s sense of honor ultimately dooms him, right?

Bad protagonists are perfect. They know all, overcome all, have the power to do all. This sort of character is called “Mary Sue” for reasons I’m not interested in knowing about, but the name is intended to be contemptuous: The Mary Sue can’t lose. And since the Mary Sue can’t lose, there’s no real tension in the story.

Of course Mary Sue can be male. Then he’s Marty Stu.

So we avoid Mary/Marty Sue/Stu by including a “But.”

Superman has super powers, but is vulnerable to kryptonite.

BOOM. Want to put Superman on the spot? Whip out kryptonite. Want to put Spike on the spot? Whip out Julia. Want to put Shinji on the spot? Whip out Gendo. Want to put Rock on the spot? Whip out a gun.

The protagonist is a ________ but _______.
The protagonist is a ________ but _______.
The protagonist is a ________ but _______.

That which I tell you three times is true. It works.

I always look at comments and feedback, and I’m sure I’m not the first to see what I’ve seen, so have at it. Just keep it clean and keep it on target…no personal attacks, okay? Thanks.

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