Thursday, August 18

Why I like Jane Browne

Last year in September, I started writing my first novel, without knowing so. I thought it would be another novella, something around 20,000 to 30,000 words. Instead, I reached 60,000, making it a true novel. And the start of a series, too.

I have no problem with writing a male main character, just as I have no problem with reading a novel centred around a male lead or with a computer game giving me control over a male character. I’ve written a lot of novellas about Loki before September last year and all of them are centred around a male lead, of course. But then I met Jane.

The initial idea to the story which would become “Secret Keeper” was born of a little frustration. I had watched “Kingsman - The Secret Service” (which is a good movie, no doubt) on DVD and again seen a story centred on a male spy. Even though a woman was there, the real hero work needed to be done by a man - again. Okay, the villain had a female right hand who did all the actual killing and stuff, but still… So I decided I could write a little parody on the genre, creating a female spy who would be just as badass as Mr. Bond and his colleagues. For about half an hour, she even was Jane Bond, but then I decided on another name and she ended up being Jane Browne. I liked giving her an everyday first name and kept that up with her handler and mentor Steven Quinn as well. From that, the whole idea of how Jane’s division would handle finding new agents developed.

Jane developed, too, and very quickly. The moment she and Steven teamed up, things started to happen. Knowing the characters as well as I do today, I’m no longer surprised. Those two are a force of nature together.
First of all, she needed an official life. Since she had to leave on missions from one moment to the next, she couldn’t work in a regular job. Nobody would find it suspicious if a young woman with a wealthy background travelled whenever she felt like it, though, so she became a rich heiress (not really, but officially) and a member of high society. That, of course, had influence on whom she usually dealt with. She has three close friends: hyper Cynthia, flirty Stacy, and relaxed Myra (the only one with a steady boyfriend at the beginning of the story). Cynthia would turn into her closest friend. I also gave Jane a boyfriend to drop at the beginning of the story: Richard. Jane was going to treat men as many agents treat their women: someone for bed and, perhaps, a party every now and then. She judged her possible boyfriends on their talents in bed. She had tired of Richard and hooked him up with Cynthia - problem solved.
Jane also needed to have some talents, some abilities she would use for the Agency. I gave her two which were centred around being cold-blooded and patient: breaking and entering and assassination. It would allow me to write heists, which I like doing, and give her a certain standing within her department (her ‘branch’ to stay with the Agency’s lingo).
That led to Steven, in a way. In the first scene I wrote, they were talking over the phone right after Jane had gotten up. They were discussing her day, from breakfast over training and a manicure to an heist in the evening. Steven was going to be her mentor and handler, a person she could rely on. But she needed him to be more than that. In my mind, she had been an orphan from the beginning and my common sense told me that was a good idea. Branch Two, infiltration, needed agents who could completely disappear at any given moment, who could take up a new official persona at a moment’s notice, if necessary. An orphan has no ties which can’t be severed. Friends are not family. That meant Jane had no family to rely on. She needed a parental figure at least. Cue Steven. He would be the one to bring her into the Agency (the scene is in the first novel as a flashback), he would become her mentor, help her tame the little superpower I’d given her. He would be the closest thing she had to a father. And this would have an impact on the story.
Jane was dangerous, but she also needed guidance. A woman with specialities like hers can’t have that much of a conscience. How could she kill otherwise? She needed to be grounded in her job, she needed to absorb the principles of the Knight Agency and be absolutely true to them. That meant the Knight Agency had to shape up, too. The foggy ‘Agency’ I had put in the novel at the beginning needed to be a place where a person like Jane could do good. Where she would be needed to serve mankind, not just fill a bank account, not just fulfil a contract. So I fleshed out the past of the Knight Agency, made it an old organisation with a long history.
What about a villain? At first, the Morrigan (adapted from a villain I had created for a story I never finished) seemed to be a negative caricature of a feminist. She wanted to rule the world and oppress men for a change. She gathered other women around her as her closest allies. But there was more to her as well. There was a story behind her attack on Jane - not on the Agency, but on Jane in person. There were two women who were not prepared to be ‘normal’ women, but they were as different as they could be. Two highly dangerous women who had a different approach to life and to society.
For me, the Morrigan was an extremist. An intelligent woman, highly capable, but guided by extreme ideas of the way society should  be. A woman who felt hate against Jane, not because of a personal confrontation, but because of her own past. I’m not going to spoil the reasons, Jane has to wait a long time to learn about them, too.
Jane is highly versatile, which is what her superior (the head of the Agency) likes about her. It’s what I like about her, too. I don’t have to rehash my first story again and again, because there’s so many different things Jane can be facing. She has friends (among them Edith, a very tall and strong soldier agent) and allies and her ability to think on her feet. She has the very varied training of an agent of her branch (which is usually started around ten) and an expanding circle of acquaintances.

In the second novel, “Key Pieces,” things are a lot more personal, as her best friend from her official life faces dangers and Jane has to uncover the intrigue against Cynthia before the enemy can succeed and her best friend ends up dead somewhere. I introduced another strong woman with Edith Grand in this novel and deepened Jane’s relationships (safe for that with Steven, which is deep from the beginning). And since Cynthia learned about Jane’s true identity, she became an accomplice later on. I also turned the slightly featherheaded girl into a businesswoman in training, having her grow.

“Crime Pays Sometimes” allowed me to have a closer look at Jane’s dark side. While playing the right hand of a criminal mastermind, she could get a taste of what she might have become without the guidance of the Knight Agency. At the same time, Myra was getting married and Jane got pulled into a little one-sided war which Myra’s future mother-in-law, dubbed ‘monster-in-law’ by Cynthia, waged on Myra. Playing high society against the underworld was fun and gave me a new facet of Jane to look at.

In “A Plague of Rogues,” Jane was really going undercover for a bit, playing the meek niece of a very conservative man (played by Steven). It allowed me to play with Jane’s acting abilities, pretending to be shy and a little afraid in the company of others (with Steven’s intimidating air, it wasn’t a far stretch to think she would be afraid of him) and completely his equal away from them. There were some really funny scenes coming from that. I also had her meet a man to be with long-term (and not just because I grew tired of inventing new boyfriends for every novel). I decided she and Cedric would have the opposite of your regular hero-lover relationship. Jane would be the one going out and being heroic (or deadly at any rate), Cedric would be the one taking care of her afterwards, making her feel better and helping her relax.

Afterwards, I took a short break from the Knight Agency and followed some things which Jane and Steven had said in “Crime Pays Sometimes” about a criminal mastermind meeting a runaway foster child in an alley and almost killing her, then taking her home. The Black Knight Agency was born, a series set in an alternate reality. “Criminal Ventures” saw Jane’s development into a much darker version of herself, not unlike the persona of Jane Doe she had taken on in “Crime Pays Sometimes.” After many adventurous and criminal things, the Black Knight Agency emerged and the future looked interesting for her and her friends - and for her boss Steven, of course.

I returned to the regular program and the Jane I’d originally created with “From Past to Future.” I wanted to shine a light on the past and on traditions. I wanted to clear them up and give the female colleagues Jane has (one of them had already been seen in the two prior novels of the series) more different work in the future. I had already pointed out Jane was the first woman in Branch Two doing full work, not just investigations. But every Branch Two agent has two specialities, so why didn’t the other female agents use their second one? In “A Plague of Rogues,” Tanya had wanted more different missions and in “From Past to Future” she got them - and herself in trouble. But that didn’t lead to her giving up - it led to her telling all her female colleagues how much more they could do for the Agency, using Jane as her Exhibit A. I also shed a light on the past of Steven and Jane’s direct superior Sir Frederic and created an enemy for novels to come.

I have had a lot of fun with Jane so far and I already plan things for the future. A sixth Knight Agency novel will come and the Black Knight Agency will take up work again as well. Jane is a ruthless and cold-blooded agent who can, I’m pretty sure, kick James Bond’s ass, if she wants to. Not to mention she has more personality than he has. She is a woman who does her own saving and has saved male colleagues on occasion. I certainly don’t want her any other way, that much is for sure.

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