On The Table Read, “The Best Book Reader Magazine in the UK“, author JJ Barnes describes what a Protagonist Partnership is, what they do for your story, and how to write one successfully.
Written by JJ Barnes
Whilst most stories focus on one protagonist, a protagonist partnership can work really well for others. I’ll explore what a protagonist partnership is, what it does for your story, and how to write one.
What Is A Protagonist Partnership?
The protagonist of your story is the main character. Your story follows them from the Inciting Incident to the climax as they try to accomplish their story goal. Your protagonist has an antagonist who’s story goal is to stop your protagonist from getting what they want. They cause the obstacles and challenges that make your story entertaining.
A multiple protagonist story sees several protagonists with different story goals. Their stories will interconnect but they follow their own unique plot. In turn, each protagonist will have their own antagonist.
However, a protagonist partnership is different from both of these things. A protagonist partnership sees two separate protagonists, but they have the same story goal, and the same antagonist. They both become motivated at the Inciting Incident, and their story is mutually resolved at the climax.
Why Write A Protagonist Partnership?
1. A protagonist partnership allows you to have an expert in the main role.
I have written before about why your protagonist shouldn’t be an expert. If you start your story with a protagonist who already knows everything they need, your audience will feel disconnected from them. You need your protagonist to learn about the science or magic or world they’re in alongside your audience. That way they aren’t talking about things that your audience doesn’t have access to.
However, with a protagonist partnership you can solve that problem. Because it’s a partnership your characters need to be on equal footing, equally strong, equally smart, but they can be different. As long as one of your characters isn’t an expert in a field, the other one can be. For instance, in Bones, Temperance Brennan is an expert in forensic anthropology. Booth is not. This means that whenever Brennan talks about something scientific, she has a reason to explain it to the audience because Booth needs it.
2. A protagonist partnership allows plans to be discussed.
When your protagonist is making plans or dealing with internal conflict, they need someone to talk to. While you can communicate it all to your audience through internal monologue, dialogue is more entertaining. By creating a partnership in the lead roles, that conversation is always available. Plans need to be made, ideas discussed. It’s not info dumping to the audience because each character needs to work out what they’re doing.
3. Constant Conflict
Conflict is essential to keep your story moving forwards and entertaining. Conflict doesn’t mean fighting, it means not having what you want. If your characters have what they want then they’re satisfied and have no motivation to change their lives. When your characters are satisifed their story is over. Conflict keeps your story going for as long as it needs.
When you have a protagonist partnership the opportunities for conflict are endless. Being equally motivated towards the same goal does not mean they have to agree on how to go about it. They both have their own areas of expertise, their own passions and opinions. Your characters need to be different enough that it’s worth having two of them so make them as different as possible.
They have reasons to disagree, experiences they’re drawing on, ideas they want to pursue. There can be differences in politics or religion. There can be unresolved sexual tension that they don’t act on due to their working relationship that keeps the energy high.
The conflict between two characters who are equal in every way but different can really bring strength to your story.
Who Are They?
When designing your protagonist partnership there are things you need to consider. Firstly, why is it worth it? You can always have the conflict and conversation in a story with one protagonist by writing a friendship network. In my book What Ivy Wants, Ivy is a singular protagonist but has conflict, conversation and unresolved sexual tension with the surrounding characters.
Pick professions or expertise or interests that are very different, but work well when used together. It’s Booth’s expertise in policing and human interaction mixed with Brennan’s science that makes their working relationship so strong. They can teach one another, guide one another, and contribute equally to any scenario.
What Is their Relationship?
Work out their relationships to one another. Are they buddy cops, are they enemies who will become friends, are they friends who will become lovers? There has to be a dynamic between these two characters that makes them interesting and exciting.
Then work out why they are working for the same goal. If it’s a professional setting then the reason is clear, it’s their job. It could be an antagonist who is set against the individually and forcing them to team up. It could be personal if something is happening in both their lives that pushes them both down the same path. There is something connecting them together and putting them into the roles of protagonist partners.
A Sparky Dynamic
Ultimately, a protagonist partnership will mostly benefit your story because of the sparky dynamic between these two people. It’s their chemistry and their conflict that draws you in.
Your audience will care about them, root for them, and enjoy spending time with them. So develop characters who will create that emotional response and give them a good story to follow.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose
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