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Protagonists: why two is more and less is a bore by Camilla Grebe

Writing.ie | Resources | Better Fiction Guides | Plotting and Planning
Camilla Grebe

Camilla Grebe

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When it comes to creating drama in a novel, choosing to use more than one protagonist may be better. The reason? It takes two, or more, to tango.

A few months ago, I met with two French journalists. We were discussing my crime novel The Ice Beneath Her when one of them asked why so many writers choose to write about a crime-fighting duo – as opposed to a solitary detective. I didn’t have time to answer the question, because seconds later the other journalist wanted to know how I decided that one of my characters, Jesper, should be a rich and powerful CEO – did men with power fascinate me? Oh, and yes, why did Emma have such troubled past – was I especially interested in emotional abuse?

The answers to these questions are: no and no. Very rarely do I let my personal preferences dictate my protagonist’s history or choice of career. Instead: it’s about letting the plot and the characters dictate you through the writing process.

As a writer, I make countless choices when planning, researching and writing a novel. My objectives are to make sure that these choices (1) are credible from my characters’ perspective, and that they (2) maximize the dramatic impact of the story I want to tell.

This way of thinking is probably familiar for those of you who write fiction. However, if you love books but don’t write, this may be new to you. After all, to fully enjoy – on the couch – a book full of killings, you will want to keep all disbelief suspended. In fact, you don’t want to be reminded that there was someone coming up with this crazy story. If you do, the writer probably didn’t do a very good job.

I’ll try to explain what I mean in detail by using characters from my books:

Emma, the troubled young woman in The Ice Beneath Her works as a sales clerk in a clothing store. She is quite shy and has a complicated past. One day, the company’s CEO, Jesper Orre, unexpectedly walks into the store and they start talking. Their chance encounter leads to a passionate love affair. Emma is thrilled – Jesper is all she’s ever dreamt about. But Jesper is behaving strangely. He insists their relationship be kept a secret as he is a public figure. Emma agrees. One day, however, he disappears and frightening things begin to happen to Emma. She gradually learns that Jesper is responsible for these, but she struggles to understand why he would want to hurt her. Eventually, she is forced to confront him in order to regain control of her life.

Now, Emma will go to great lengths to find out why Jesper has left her, and to punish him. For this hunt to be credible, the reader must recognize that she is emotionally unstable (hence the troubled past); that she is really, really in love with Jesper (hence their passionate love story) and also that she idolizes him (hence the CEO/celebrity background).

To summarize: the choice to portray Jesper as a successful CEO had very little, if anything, to do with a fascination for men with power. Instead, it had to do with the plot. For the plot, I saw a fitting set of character dynamics. To create those dynamics, and a whole lot of conflict, I made Jesper and Emma the way I did.

So, to get back to that first question: Why crime-fighting duos? Well, naturally, the same thing is true for them. With two protagonists you can create potent dialogue between their respective traits, which increases your ability to create dramatic conflict. This is why duos often come depicted as opposites. (For instance: the older, tired male detective and the young ambitious female investigator, or the hotshot big-city investigator and the local cop.)

In my new book, After She’s Gone, we meet Jake, a young teenage boy who lives Ormberg – a sleepy industrial town in decline. Jake harbors a secret – he is a cross-dresser. A secret that’s threatened to be revealed as he one night stumbles across a woman in the woods who seems to be lost, hurt, and confused. Once again the choice of making Jake a cross-dresser had nothing to do with a personal interest in cross-dressing. I came up with this idea because I knew that Jake had to have a BIG secret, a secret he would not be prepared to reveal, regardless of what happened to him. Also, I found it interesting to write about the subject (and that certainly helps!). Also, Jake’s father is a conservative person, as are most of the inhabitants in Ormerg, which helped to create tension.

This way of approaching the choice of characters is really nothing new, and absolutely nothing I invented. It is an ancient way of creating drama: give your characters contrasting personalities and different goals. Have them fight the world and each other to obtain what they want and need. Make the struggle hard and long.

Could I have explained all of this to the French journalists?

Not right then. And perhaps that was the better thing to not do. Some writer’s secrets are best left untold.

(c) Camilla Grebe

About After She’s Gone:

A gripping, twisty new thriller from the bestselling author of The Ice Beneath Her, perfect for fans of Will Dean’s Dark Pines.
A case as cold as the season. A profiler who can’t remember. A killer ready to strike again.
Psychological profiler Hanne Lagerlind-Schön and her partner, investigator Peter Lindgren are invited to the small, sleepy industrial town of Ormberg to investigate a cold case: ten years earlier a five-year-old girl’s remains were found in a cairn near the town.
But when a recurring memory problem resurfaces, Hanne struggles to keep track of the case. She begins keeping a diary, noting down everything she is likely to forget to keep up appearances so she doesn’t lose her job.
When the body of a woman is found at the cairn and one of Hanne’s shoes is found nearby covered in the victim’s blood, can Hanne’s diary hold the key to what happened? How does this new murder connect to their old one?
How can you put together what happened when the pieces keep fading away?
Order your copy online here.

About the author

Camilla Grebe was born in 1968 in Alvsjo, Sweden. She holds a degree from the Stockholm School of Economics and was a co-founder of the audiobook publisher Storyside. With her sister about Åsa Träff, Grebe has written five celebrated crime novels, the first two of which were nominated for Best Swedish Crime Novel of the Year. Grebe is also the co-writer of the popular Moscow Noir trilogy.

  • The Dark Room: A thrilling new novel from the number one Irish Times bestselling author of Keep Your Eyes on Me
  • www.designforwriters.com

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