The OTHER Protagonist

Do I think there should be more than one protagonist in a story? Not as such. I just think that in many of my favorite works of literature the location is a principal character in the story and is often as important as the protagonist in moving the action along.

Some of these locations are obvious. Manderley in Daphne du Maurier’s mysterious novel ‘Rebecca’ is more than the setting. It IS a character as much as any of the people in the story—both living and dead. The house, haunted by the memory of its first mistress, is the star of the opening line of the book: “Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.” The sentence is heavy with sadness and fraught with other less obvious emotions, although it appears to be a mere throwaway introduction. It is only at the end of the story that that first line resonates with the reader.

Miss Havisham’s frozen-in-time home, Satis House, in ‘Great Expectations’ by Charles Dickens, is another classic location. Like its inhabitant, the house has stopped growing and changing at a moment of horrid disappointment and rejection. Miss Havisham is jilted on her wedding day and lives in that disappointment for the rest of her life.

I have not reread the classic children’s book ‘The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler’ by E. L. Konigsburg, since I was a child, but I carry images of the characters’ experiences in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, each time I walk around one of my happiest places in the world.

In the mystery genre, place often plays an outsized role. Donna Leon’s Venice is home to Inspector Brunetti and it is also a character, with twisting narrow streets, convenient cafes for refueling between witnesses, and squares for observing the habits of locals. Caroline Graham’s Midsomer is the police beat of Chief Inspector Barnaby (most famous for the TV show). The towns and villages that make up Midsomer each have distinct histories, communities, and murderous characters. Michael Dibdin set his Aurelio Zen mysteries all over Italy and they are like a trip without a plane ticket. In each one the PLACE shouts or whispers into the detective’s ears.

What do you think of PLACE as a protagonist?

La Boca is recognized by any visitor to Buenos Aires as a specific location.


  1. HAH! In science fiction, place is almost always one of the main protagonists. Cyteen – the world of C.J.Cherryh, and not incidentally, the name of her Hugo award winning novel. Dune, by Frank Herbert. Discovering the secrets of Arrakis, bit by bit, was one of the great pleasures of Dune. Gethen [also known as Winter] is the scene of Ursula K LeGuin’s classic, Left Hand of Darkness.

    One definition of a science fiction novel is that it could not take place without the tech, the time, the world or all three. Place has always been a huge attraction for me as both a reader and a writer.

    • Candy Korman

      Those places linger in your imagination. Dune and Gethen, in particular, echo in mine. It’s hard to imagine good science fiction without the place as a protagonist! Now, that I’ve said that, I have to ponder it and see if I can come up with an example. LOL!