The Nutshell Protagonist

Comedy Tragedy

Ciao, SEers. Last time, we talked about Jill Chamberlain’s Nutshell process for writing screenplays or fiction. Today, we’re going to go into detail about the first of her touchstones—the protagonist.

You probably think that’s rather obvious, but consider buddy stories like Thelma and Louise, Harold and Kumar, or Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Maybe you think you have two protagonists. To elevate your story from a situation to a story, you need to choose one. (Or you need to define these points for both protagonists then merge them into one story.) Maybe you think the character whose name is first is the protagonist. But depending on which film you look at in the franchise, the protagonist might change. Harold was the protagonist in one of the films; Kumar was in another.

So, yes, you really do need to decide who your protagonist is, and it may not be the person you initially thought it would be.

Many people would say the protagonist is the person driving the action. And ultimately, that’s true. But you might be thinking about writing from a certain point of view when you should be writing from another. Remember, we’re talking about an Aristotelian story. So, before we can determine who we want the protagonist to be, we have to look at our options and determine their strengths and flaws.

This is going to be the key to setting up a story rather than a situation.

Elements of a Flaw

  • In the interest of keeping your message clear and your story on track, stick to one flaw. Make it simple to articulate and easy to recognize.
  • Make sure it’s something the protagonist can control or eventually master.
  • Readers need to learn of this flaw early in the work, preferably in the first act.

Elements of a Strength

  • Like the flaw, there should only be one strength focused on. It should also be simple and clear.
  • The resolution of the story won’t happen until the protagonist accepts or rejects the strength, so it won’t be revealed until the last act.

Now, here’s the key to elevating your work from situation to story.

Your flaw has to be the direct opposite of your strength.

In an Aristotelian comedy, the protagonist will be the character who overcomes his or her flaw at the end by developing a new strength, one diametrically opposed to the flaw.

In an Aristotelian tragedy, the protagonist will be the character who fails to overcome his or her flaw at the end because he or she ignores a potential strength, one that’s the opposite of the flaw.

In real life, we all have many strengths and many flaws. And fiction should be realistic, in that our characters are all well-rounded, regardless of their roles in the story. But what needs to drive the plot is your protagonist’s key flaw and strength.

Here’s an important point to keep in mind:

The key flaw and strength are not necessarily the main flaw and strength. To turn our situation into a story, the flaw in question needs to be tested by the catch. And the catch is what we’ll discuss next time.

Have you ever considered flaws and strengths in your characters? Are you considering doing so now? Let’s talk about it.


Staci Troilo Bio

60 thoughts on “The Nutshell Protagonist

  1. I definitely consider my character’s strengths and flaws, but I’m not sure I’ve ever narrowed it down to one if each. I’m curious to read more about this!

    Liked by 1 person

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  6. I can’t believe I have written a Aristotelian comedy, and didn’t even know. This is helpful and interesting. I have a question for you, Staci. I see that you have a completely separate author page on Amazon for your pen name profile. I believe you are keeping this profile entirely separate from your own name and profile. I write my adult books under a different variation of my own name i.e. Roberta Eaton Cheadle. The reasons was merely to ensure a reader of my children’s books didn’t pick up a supernatural horror book my mistake. I have linked this name and these books to my Robbie Cheadle profile on Amazon. Do you think it is better to have a completely separate Amazon profile? My thinking to date has been that all my books are in one place, albeit marketed under variations of my name, and I thought that would make it easier for people to find them and for me to market them. What is your experience in this regard?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think what you did (linking the two profiles) is the perfect choice. All of your work is in one place and easy to find if a reader wants to jump across genres. (I wouldn’t recommend that for authors of kid lit and erotica, of course, but your genres can be grouped without an issue.) I didn’t really have a choice in the matter. My current publisher chose this pen name and created this profile. If I could link the works, I would. The best I could do was mention the other name in each of my bios. In Goodreads, I’ve claimed all the books under my name, though a librarian has recently suggested I create a separate profile for my pen name. (I haven’t decided if I want to do that or not.) I have a different profile for each name on BookBub. It really doesn’t take me any longer to manage two profiles instead of one, but it would have been nice to have readers easily find my other body of work.

      Long story short, I’d do it your way if I could. I definitely think you made the right decision. But if you have concerns or other questions, I’m happy to discuss them further with you.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hi Staci, thank you very much for this feedback. I am happy with my choice but another author friend suggested a create a second profile on Amazon. I have different accounts for twitter, FB and two blogs and two Goodreads profiles. This works well because different people follow my two blogs and are interested in my different work. I also read a huge variety of books so two profiles works there too. On Amazon though, I prefer to make it easier to people because of the purchase angle. Thank you very much for this feedback. I will remain as I am. I don’t think erotica is in my future [smile].

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Great post, Staci. I like how you say that the main protagonist may not be the one you thought it was going to be. That’s exactly what happened in my WIP. And what clinched his role in the book/series was that flaw/strength dichotomy and how they transformed. This is a really important post for writers to pay attention to. I stumbled into it, but next time will be much more intentional. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Lots to think about here. I’m now looking at the diametrically opposites of flaws and strengths and I can see how that works in many of the books I’ve read. It happens in mine by coincidence – the protagonist is held back by the flaw and the resolution involves overcoming it. Thanks, Staci. This seems so important now. I’m finding this series really interesting.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Happy accidents are the best kinds of accidents! But I bet you subconsciously did it that way. We know more about story structure than we think.

      I’m so glad this series is making you look deeper at your methods.


  9. I tend to jot down my characters’ flaws and strengths before I start writing. I don’t know that their flaws and strengths are every polar opposites of one another. I’ll have to pay attention to that for my next story and see if it will enhance the story. Thanks, Staci! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • You know, I think about their flaws and strengths, but I never actually write them down anywhere. I wonder if that alone would change my process at all.

      When you analyze your characters’ flaws and strengths the next time, do drop us a note and tell us what you determined. Thanks, Yvette.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Hi, Staci. This post makes me stop and think, which is a good thing. I always know my characters’ flaws. I don’t understand why, but that’s my psyche, I suppose. Their strengths seem to come as the story unfolds and situations make demands on them. Many times, they find strengths they don’t know they have, just like we do in real life. Thank you for this thought-provoking post!

    Liked by 2 people

    • I think a lot of us think about the flaws first. Nothing wrong with that. But knowing the strengths up front is probably helpful (if we can manage it). I haven’t worked this way yet, but I’m dying to try it.

      I love that your characters find strengths that surprise both you and them. That’s always a great feeling. Thanks for weighing in, Jan.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Fascinating, Staci! I’m not familiar with the Nutshell Process, but I like where you’re going. Flaws are important to make our characters “feel” real.

    As I was reading, I couldn’t help but wonder how a non-writer might view writing tips. They’d probably think all writers were insane. . . how we pick and prod and analyze. Hahaha. Love it! Can’t wait for the next part!

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Reblogged this on The Write Stuff and commented:

    Today, Staci Troilo’s excellent series on the Nutshell Process focuses on the Nutshell Protagonist. Be sure to check this one out. I think you’ll find it as interesting and informative as I did. And I hope, as always, you’ll consider passing it along so others can learn about this process, as well. Thanks, and thanks to Staci for this great series! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Flaws are a biggie for me with my characters. I’m focused on them from the start, but I admit I probably don’t consider strengths as much as I should. That’s part of the plantser in me. My character’s strength normally becomes evident as I write, but the flaw I’m aware of from the beginning. If I ever settle fully into plotting I’ll learn to embrace both from the get-go.

    Great post, Staci. It’s makes me pause and thing about how I work.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Flaws are critical. I have a tendency to think about them more than strengths, too. And I’m definitely a plotter! I know I’m starting to think about things differently now. I’m happy to know it’s making a plantser like you stop and consider, too.

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Excellent post, Staci, and introducing me to concepts I had no idea about. Yes, I admit, I’ve been blundering around in ignorance, relying only on instinct. I’ve been lucky so far, but I want to do BETTER, and to understand what that takes. Thanks for this series! Sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

      • True, but that only works if the struggle is the main point of the story. If it’s more of a side plot then it can become a major distraction or even a deus ex machine in reverse. I’ve seen many authors use opposing strengths and flaws as a reason for them to fail at the last second. It’s rather awkward. Guess like anything, one has to be careful in the delivery.

        Liked by 1 person

  15. I think all main characters should have flaws. (No one is perfect.) This is a different approach and I’m looking forward to trying it when I begin planning my next book.

    (Of course, now I’m trying to decide if Butch or Sundance was the true protagonist.) 🙂

    Great post!

    Liked by 2 people

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