Monthly Archives: November 2010

The Case For – Okay, Against – Dual Protagonists

This one comes up a lot, in the form of a question seeking to validate its own intention.  Far more frequently, in fact, than the number of times I’ve ever seen it done in a published piece of work.

Dual protagonists… not a good idea.  In the category of jumping out of an airplane… butt naked.  Parachute highly recommended. 

Then again, maybe you’ll land in a pool someone has filled with foam rubber for their kid’s birthday. 

Doesn’t mean it can’t happen.  Buddy movies, for example, are everywhere, but they don’t count because, a) it’s a movie, usually silly, and b) your story isn’t starring Butch and Sundance.   The guy who wrote that one – William Goldman – doesn’t play by the same rules as you and me.

As for buddy novels… hardly ever happens.   If you think you’ve read one with two protagonists, look closely and you’ll see that one hero eventually trumps the other when the chips are on the line.  Which, by definition, puts the thing back into traditional one-hero territory.

That’s the ticket, you see – knowing the difference between a protagonist, or two, and your hero.  Of which there should only be one.

I’m sure – because the same people that ask this question sometimes don’t buy the answer — that dual-protagonist/hero stories are written and submitted to agents and publishers all the time.

It’s just that they almost never – to an extent you can almost delete “almost” – end up on a retail bookshelf.  Even for five minutes.  Which should be answer enough right there, especially for unpublished writers looking to get into print.

And if the exception you have in mind comes from an A-list author, ask yourself about the odds that a publisher will allow you to go there alongside John Grisham or Nora Roberts.  Or William Goldman, for that matter.

All of whom could novelize their local phone directories and get it into print.  Which is precisely what I mean when I say: different rules than you and me.

Or, if your example is on television.  Just remember, Cagney and Lacey got cancelled.  And in Turner and Hooch one of the heroes  had four legs.

Trying to break into the business with a dual-protagonist/hero story is like trying to argue a case before the Supreme Court in your first week out of law school.

It isn’t that it’s impossible to win.  Just that it’s almost impossible to happen.

Write what you want.  Live with the consequences.

Once upon a time there as a boy who wanted to fly airplanes.  And so he read and read and read, and studied and studied and studied, until one fine day he took and passed his final exam after completing ground school. 

And then he took the requisite number of flying lessons with an instructor in the right seat, until the day arrived for his first solo.

But instead of climbing into a small Cessna like everyone else – the aircraft he had been trained to fly – he fired up the first neglected Gulfstream jet he could find and hit the gas.

And then he crashed and burned – and died – at the end of the runway.

Once upon a time there was a girl who wanted to be a doctor.  She wanted to save lives and live in a neighborhood that had big iron gates and lots of German cars.

And so she studied and studied and studied, until she was admitted to a fine medical school.  And then, upon passing her final exam, her training continued as a resident under the watchful eye of an experienced surgeon.

Until the day arrived when it was her turn to do her first unattended surgery.  But instead of taking out a feisty appendix – which is what she had been trained to do – she opted for a heart transplant when nobody was looking. 

The patient died.

Allow me to put the point in bold print for you:

Dual protagonist stories are really, really hard to pull off.

There is no training manual for this narrative strategy.  There are no models out for it out there.

Would you really throw your kid into the deep end of the pool to teach them to swim?  There are no lifeguards in publishing.  When, against all advice, you decide to step outside of expectations and common sense, you have to live with the odds.

Yeah, but it’s art, right?  Anything goes.

Your kid’s fingerpainting is art.  That doodling on the back of a church program is art.  The grotesque spray-painted images and creepy symbols on the walls of a freeway ramp are art, too.

But nobody’s sending those guys a two book contract.

Recognize close calls in this regard when you see them. 

Often a story focuses as much on the bad guy as the hero.  Which might lead the green-behind-the-inciting-incident writer to believe there are two protagonists in play.

Nope.  It’s just your everyday hero fighting off a bad guy who is getting extra face time with the reader.  Nelson Demille did this brilliantly in The Lion’s Game, and for a while it seemed like a two-hero game.  Not so.  One hero.  One villain.

Or, maybe it’s a first person narrator writing about someone else, who just happens to be the hero of the story.  Nowhere does it say that the narrator has to be the hero, so you actually do see this one once in a while.  Becuase it can work. 

But don’t be fooled.  When you do, it’s not two protagonists fighting for top billing, nor is it two heroes.  It is what it is – a narrator telling us someone else’s story.

Also, a secondary character, even a primary one, can be heroic.  In that case you may have two heroes, but – key word here: secondary – only one protagonist.  Think Batman and Robin.  If you want two heroes in your story, I recommend you demote one to wingman.

So, in the look-deeply-in-the-mirror-and-ask-yourself-if-you-still-want-to-do-this proposition, the first step is to understand what this really means in context to what it seems like it means.

And then, if you really are trying to write a story with two protagonist/heroes (let’s face it, you’re going to try it anyway) – then this is what you need to know:

You get no special treatment. 

There are no unique, liberating rules for this.  The same basic laws and principles of dramatic literary physics still apply.  The plot points and pinch points and the mid-point don’t budge in two-hero stories.

Your heroes – both of them – need a backstory.  They need a goal, a quest, and there must be opposition to that quest.  If they get in each other’s way… well, you asked for this problem.

If the opposition is each other, then look again, chances are you have an antagonist in hero’s clothing.  Or a wannabe hero heading for a stumble while the other one gets the job done.

An antagonist, no matter how prominent, is not the protagonist unless you are asking your reader to root for them.  In which case, you have an antagonist-her0, which makes that character – singular – your protagonist. 

Both of your protagonists need to demonstrate character arc through the conquering of their respective inner demons, which can and should be different shadows cast from different experiences.   Or at least different responses to similar backstories.

Twins from psychopathic parents… one becomes a sympathetic drug dealer and the other runs for Congress.  Go figure.  And who are we rooting for?  Sounds like two antagonists to me.

And most of all, your heroes need to become the primary catalyst for the story’s resolution – both of them – and they need to exhibit courage in doing so.

If they do it the same way, with the same outcome… how come you need two heroes again?  Run that past us one more time.

Again… go figure.  As in, figure it out.

But hey, someone has to break the ice, so if your double-dose of hero still works for you after this cold shower of odds, give it a shot.

Maybe the plane won’t crash.  Maybe the patient won’t die afterall.

There’s always a first time for everything.

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Give Thanks… You Are A Writer

My wife is an artist.  She’s also a really good writer, but even in her most self-aware moments she won’t cop to it.  But the thing is, the same is true for her art. 

Writing gives her no pleasure.  It’s work for her.  She thinks what I do is… cool and inaccessible. 

In contrast, her art is sweet morphine flowing through her gypsy soul.  It comes naturally, it is who she is.  And she is many things, many women, an enchantress of whimsy and a portal to the subtext of the world which finds expression through the images she creates.

She sees God in flowers and in the intricate mysteries of drying leaves.  She immortalizes moments and merges the whimsical with vivid truths.

Writers do that, too.

I believe it is nearly impossible to be an artist – or a writer, for that matter – and claim to believe in nothing.  My wife believes in a Creator and in life, and her art is her worship.

People look at her stuff and marvel.  And yet, when we talk about art and artists, she feels separate and unworthy.  Even though our walls attest to her gift, and her days are filled with the creation of beauty, expression and wonder.

She views life through the lens of an artist.  Because she is one.  Simply because she is immersed in the pursuit of its expression.

And she should be thankful.

Writers are similarly blessed.

I know many writers – they flock to workshops and conferences – who won’t cop to the nametag.  As if there is some milestone, some mysterious criteria – like being published or having sat in front of agent pitching your humble stories – that puts space between those who tinker with writing and those who are unquestionably lost to it.

Screenwriter Larry Ferguson (The Hunt for Red October, Aliens, and other notable films) said it well, though I paraphrase here: A writer is someone who writes.  Period.  And if you are going to write, do it with passion and courage.  It is a noble thing, and in any case, at any level, it’s always better than carrying a gun.

So give thanks today.  Because you are a writer.

I’ve often said that writers are different. 

Not better, certainly, as history and a good look around the writing conference room will attest.  The ghost of Sylvia Plath still lingers at the bar.

But writers experience the world and themselves in a unique way.  We look for meaning.  We see it even when we are not paying attention, which is seldom because, as writers, paying attention is what we do.  We are scribes to the ticking of the days, and we have a job to do.  We are not at peace unless we are doing it.

We recognize irony, we look the abyss in the eye, and we pause to honor beauty, while others are fighting to change lanes or raising a glass to… nothing at all.

We go on amazing adventures.  We encounter great heroes and disturbing villains.  We fall in love, over and over, and our broken hearts heal in our next story. 

We remember with a vividness that challenges the laws of time itself.

Along the way, we encounter and embrace our truth.

We have a free pass into darkness, and when we return, we celebrate the sunshine.

This is a wonder available to all, but known by few.  If you are reading this, then you are a writer, simply by paying attention.  You are already nodding.

Our burden – which in our weaker moments (of which we have many) is how we view it – this burning need to explore life in words is misunderstood and elusive, even to us.  And yet, who among us does not look upon someone who writes in a journal every night and not see someone special there, someone who is, at least in one aspect, alive like we are.

Writers get to embrace the double negative and skip the question mark when the inquiry is rhetorical.

Writers are blessed.  Not cursed as some would believe. 

And with great blessings come great responsibility (there’s a beer commercial out there that leverages this same thought, an example we writers are always humbled by banal reality), and ours is to write it down, make sense of the noise, to reach out and provoke and probe, to ask questions and venture answers.

To embrace life, wrestle it to the mat, submit to it and conquer it.  To love it to death.  To stretch limits, consider the unthinkable and the impossible.  Allow fear and love and hope to ooze from our pores.

To hug the world.

All this, simply by applying butt to chair and allowing your mind to spill onto a blank screen or page, often with a drop of blood or two.  When writing calls our name, we must answer before we find peace.

So give thanks today.  You are a writer. 

The bearer of a quiet mantle that cannot be taken from you, even in the face of life’s most challenging chapters.  Which, no matter how it slams you, will end up on your page, battled and bruised and broken down into sensibility, because you are a worthy foe.

And in doing so, you will have conquered it. 

You will spin it and apply meaning to it and then, no matter what happens to your work, bestow it upon the world.

You will throw it out there.  At the end of the day this is all any writer can do.

Even a story that resides in a drawer has been given life, and thus has been released from the prison of the writer’s soul.

Writing is a great big shiny key that sets you free.

Writing is a worthy purpose.  What you write is a gift you are giving back to the universe.  If you don’t feel that to be the case, keep working on it until you do.

God, or whatever word you use in that context, loves nothing more than to see his children seek to understand.

And that, dear writer friends, is the essence of being alive, and on a level that few attain. 

At least, until they pick up a pen.

Image credit: a painting by Laura Brooks.  Used without the artist’s permission, because she’s downstairs preparing a beautiful Thanksgiving dinner and feels unworthy of the nametag of “artist.”  As you can see, she is avoiding the obvious.

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