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  Which should be answer enough right there, especially for unpublished writers looking to get into print.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.

22 Comments

Filed under Write better (tips and techniques)

22 Responses to The Case For – Okay, Against – Dual Protagonists

  1. Someone has to play first violin (the concertmaster or orchestra leader). There can be only one.

    That’s not to say the lady sitting next to the concertmaster sharing the music stand isn’t great and talented and doesn’t contribute. She’s simply not the boss.

    Someone has to make the final decision on just about anything. In a family, there is the Decision Maker who may not be the one in all the action but is the one who finally says yay or nay and makes it stick.

    In fiction writing, there can be only one. Other characters may get equal face time, but The One takes the responsibility for the big decisions.

    Yes, The One might make an incorrect decision; he doesn’t always have all the information. To be a sucessful leader, The One has to make decisions and be correct almost all the time.

    You don’t get progress with rule by committee — you get the US Congress.

    In my novel series, I ended up with 4 main characters. However, there is only one who is the real leader.

    I’ve kept a spreadsheet with all the characters so I don’t get lost. Each gets a character level. The One gets 1.0. The next ally gets 1.1. The other two get 1.2 or 1.3. This way, I can sort by character level (ascending) and keep them sorted out. The first one is The One.

    Yes, The One can delegate a lot of responsibility — and should. But, in the end, he is the one to make the decisions on the big issues and those decisions must be correct enough most of the time (80%?).

    No rule by committee and no protagonist by committee, either. There can be only one.

  2. Hey, Larry —
    Thanks for the advance copy of Story Engineering. Loved it! I sent you an email about it.

  3. M Clough

    While I understand somewhat what you’re getting at here, there seems to be one major exception to the rule.

    What about romance novels? Yes, some of them dwell more on one half of the pairing or the other and make them the clear “hero”, but the majority of the romances I’ve read seem to give both characters protagonist and “hero” weight, and indeed, those are the romances that seem to work best (i.e. two equally important, equally active characters falling in love, vs. one as the “hero” and the other one just a love interest/secondary character). I’m wondering how this works out and why it seems to be an exception to the dual protagonist rule. Is it because both protagonists tend to share a goal (i.e. getting together) and thus makes it more manageable?

  4. CD

    M Clough:

    The antagonist is the love interest.

  5. Hi Larry,

    I feel like you’re talking right to me! I’m currently writing a “buddy road trip”-type novel (though that only begins to describe it…). I’m still working out the story, etc., but I’m fast appreciating the fact that there can only be one protagonist. It gets too unwieldy trying to develop solid, dual storylines — you almost have to write two endings, which I can’t imagine would be easy to do.

    That being said, there is still room for character development beyond the protagonist. In other words, you can have a two-character story with both developing throughout the book. There are also secondary plots that can feature the second character more. But ultimately I believe you are right: only one protagonist is allowed in most cases.

    I’m interested to know where you fall on The Great Gatsby. Is the protagonist Nick or Gatsby? Or is it one of those rare dual-protagonist stories?

    Thanks!

    ~Graham

  6. James Stamper

    I believe it has been done at least once. I think that in Stieg Larsson’s first novel, “The With the Dragon Tattoo”, Lisbeth and Mikael are dual protagonists.

  7. James Stamper

    Of course I meant “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”

  8. Excellent! I was struggling with this as I am in the stages of fleshing out a story outline that has two characters, a twin brother and sister, at its center. I was worried that the brother kept taking center stage, and unsure if I needed to beef up his sister’s spotlight, but this affirms that the story is more compelling and focused when seen through a primary set of eyes. Thank you!

  9. Larry, I instantly thought about one of my favorite movies, Weird Science. Could this story qualify in your eyes? I believe it just might.

  10. SheilaH

    Larry, I really appreciate your story structure information, but I’m having the same problem as another reader with regards to the heroine/hero in a romance vs dual protagonists.

    In response to M Clough’s question about the dual protagonists in a romance, CD said, “The antagonist is the love interest.”

    According to what Larry just wrote above:
    >>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. <<

    Except in many romances, the writer IS asking the reader to root for both the hero and the heroine. In most romances, we have to establish a separate goal, motivation, and conflict for each character–outside of the romantic conflict–set up a character arc for both characters, and have each character act to resolve their own personal conflict as well as both characters act–separately–to resolve the romantic conflict between them. POV time is often shared almost 50-50 between the two characters. I don't understand what the difference is between that and dual protagonists.

  11. Steve Smith

    Cagney and Lacey was cancelled, but it ran seven seasons!

    Series TV is a special case, I think. For some episodes, Cagney was the protagonist, and for others it was Lacey. If there were any episodes with dual protagonists, I don’t remember them.

  12. Steve Smith

    @Bruce H. Johnson

    “Someone has to play first violin (the concertmaster or orchestra leader). There can be only one.”

    Not to detract from your main point, but in a symphony orchestra, there’s a whole section of first violins, all of whom play the same part, typically the melody. There’s another section of second violins that all play a different part. The rest of the strings: viola, cello, and bass.

    For example, here’s a roster of the Philadelphia Orchestra:

    http://www.philorch.org/musicians.html

    I count 18 first violins and 14 second violins.

  13. As someone who reads and writes romance as well as several other genres, I have to agree that in some romances the hero and heroine are pretty darn close to being joint protagonists because they are working toward the same goal– a happily-ever-after.

    However, once you toss in another genre into the romance mix and create a subgenre like romantic suspense, it’s about impossible to keep that 50/50 split because the the goals in the novel are both emotional and plot-oriented.

  14. Megan Sayer

    Interesting thoughts here. My initial reaction was “What about The Time Traveller’s Wife?” but, after reading everyone’s comments about romance (which seems to fall into the same category) I’m answering my own question: the girl is the protagonist – her character arc is the strongest. She’s the one in whose skin we really read the book. Such a subtle delineation though. Thanks Larry for this one.

  15. I’m glad I don’t write romances (as should everybody – minse would suck).

    Mysteries, thrillers, mystery thrillers, all lead themselves quite nicely to a single protagonist/antagonist relationship. There are on many occasions people who help the protagonist, but they are only doing the helping because the protagonist is driving their actions.

    If I ever get to a stage where I’m contemplating dual/equal protagonists in a mystery thriller, I hope to hell I’m sane enough to put it down and start something different.

  16. flibgibbet

    I consider Leaving Las Vegas and Ordinary People dual-protagonist stories, and the former is one of my all time favorite movies. Both were successful at the box office and critically acclaimed, but only the latter achieved success as both a novel and a movie.

    But these are exceptions, not the rule. And it seems to me that if you’re talented enough to pull off dual-protagonist stories of this calibre, you’re talented enough to break into the marketplace with something more mainstream. Break the “rules” AFTER you’ve arrived, is solid advice. (Thank you Larry).

    In the meantime, Larry, I’d love to hear if you agree or disagree that my examples are indeed dual-protag stories. (Or from anyone else familiar with either or both examples).

  17. Well, there’s always the Hardy Boys…

  18. fair comment, but an example that comes to mind is first blood by david morrell. does that count as dual protagonists?

  19. @noel — also a fair comment on your part. In the film Rambo is clearly, undisputably, the hero. A writing decision. In the book, this is probably one of those exceptions (don’t try this at home) stories, in which both Rambo and Teasle get equal airtime and sympathy. Haven’t read it (just the reviews), so I can’t say for sure. It’ s either a dual protagonist story, or one with a sympathitic antagonist with both characters operating in a gray area.

    The trouble with exceptions is that they are easily preceived as license to violate a principle or a rule of common sense. The odds go down for the writer significantly when two hero/protags are in place.

  20. ant

    Larry,

    The Aubrey/Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian are an excellent example of novels with dual protagonists. It is routinely debated “whose” story is it. However, as you point out, authors like O’Brian are exceptions that prove the rule.

    Thank you for the cold hard dash of reality. My own flirting with the thought of having two protagonists has come down to my not having the guts to pick one over the other. You have convinced me to get off the fence and pick one. At least I’ll have the benefit of a well-developed secondary character.

  21. C.L.

    I have to agree that genre has to play a role in this rule. Fantasy and Romance are both genres where a dual protagonist can and have worked in the past. While it is a difficult thing to pull off, those two are more flexible with regard to this particular issue.

  22. Michael

    “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo… Nope, sorry, to disagree, but Mikael is the main character — the story starts with him, he gets the lion’s share of the print, it’s his character arc, and he’s vindicated in the end. It’s his journey. Lisbeth can be seen as a supporting character — either the bringer of the supernatural aid or the oracle if you subscribe to “The Hero’s Journey,” or can be seen in the sidekick or guardian role, depending on which paradigm you prefer. She’s a strong character, but not the main character.