Having Multiple Protagonists In Your Novel

Can your novel have more than one protagonist? If so, can they be enemies? Is doing that a no-no, a may-be, or a why-not?

Adam posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

I noticed that a lot of your advice seems to center on a novel having a single protagonist (such as when creating summaries and other parts of the snowflake method).In my WIP, however, I have two characters who are having disparate experiences and I view both of them as protagonists (who will eventually end up on opposite sides of a conflict).

How do I reconcile that with techniques such as the 5 sentence summary? Or am I setting myself up for failure and should just choose one to be the protagonist and slightly tip the scales in their favor in number of scenes showing their POV?

Randy sez: You can do anything you want in a novel. However, you can’t make a publisher buy your book and you can’t make readers care. Those pesky publishers will buy what they think the public will buy. And the public will only buy books they like.

Here’s the thing: Readers want to know who to root for. When you give them two people to root for, you cut the emotional impact in half.

This is a case where 1 + 1 = 1/2.

When you give your reader two people to root for, and they’re enemies, then things are even worse. Now your reader is confused. Is it good that the bomb blew up Reginald’s helicopter, or is it bad? Is it bad that Reginald wasn’t in it, or is it good?

This is a case where 1 – 1 = 0.

It’s like trying to drive with your foot jammed down hard on both the gas and the brakes.

If you’re reading a novel or watching a movie, you want to root for one character or at least one group of characters who are all on the same side. Treat your reader like you want to be treated. Choose one protagonist. Choose one antagonist. Make them duke it out. Make them keep duking until there’s a clear winner.

The alternative is to have no readers and get no publishing contracts.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

Some links that may be of interest to use:

My friend Carla Williams asked me to let my Loyal Blog Readers know about a cruise she’s organizing for Christian writers. The cruise is February 27 to March 6 and will be mostly in Mexican waters. Sounds nice and warm during the chilly winter. If you’re interested, check out Carla’s cruise here.

One of my Loyal Blog Readers, Basil Munroe Godevenos, has started a blog on which he’s writing a fantasy novel in public, using my well-known Snowflake method. He calls this blog TheSnowflakeProject and you might be interested in following him on his writing adventures.

19 Comments

  1. Adam Heine December 2, 2010 at 8:11 pm #

    I’m not so sure. One of the things I loved about the movie HEAT, for example, was that I really liked both of the main characters. I wanted both of them to win (even though one was an anti-hero), so the ending had a huge emotional impact for me.

    So I think you CAN do two protagonists, but it’s probably hard to do it right.

  2. Adam Leigh December 2, 2010 at 8:22 pm #

    Harsh! Though probably what I needed to hear. The story I’m working has two friends who get split up early in the story and inadvertently end up on opposite sides of a conflict despite never actually holding any malice towards one another.

    I’m a seat of the pants sort of writer and hadn’t originally intended the second character to play much of a role but his story started to get more interesting as I wrote it and ended up making a political drama where two strangers see opposite sides of a conflict they originally had no stake in and are forced (simply by virtue of geography) to fight to protect themselves.

    But in reading it back, I sort of realized that I was muddying the waters somewhat because their stories don’t seem to relate until the end. I think I’ve accidentally acquired some bad habits from those Star Wars novels I read in High School.

    Anyway, thanks for answering my question!

  3. kinjalkishor December 3, 2010 at 2:53 am #

    @Adam, (whichever Adam, Heine or Leigh), I t can be done. The main focus should be on “Unavoidable Circumstances”. Like in David Gemell’s Drenai, both hero and the villain could not avoid what they were doing, both were right in their own places, both were at opposites t each other, both were bound by “Situation”. “Situation” is the villain here and both are doing what a hero will do try to make things right and thus they could not agree with each other. It is important to show this quality and have good dialogue to make things interesting in this kind of story. Remember both are right(On one side according to Randy”) both fight common enemy(“Unavoidable Circumstance”), reader will care for both and can see that their interests conflict(happens all the time to people) so it will work. Be clear that given free choice if hero does good, villain does bad, then it is extremely difficult for reader to concile with opposing views and root for either character. That will be a direc case of “Cognitive Dissonance”(presented with conflicting views at once, see wikipedia) (like you are young to do this but you are old enough to do that :) ). That is the main reason why such stories fail. But the “Situational necessity: things like in movie “Heat” works. Still one of them will definitely be more right or the story cannot come to resolution. Get one hero right doing, leave the villain with sympathy(but ultimately villain is more wrong).

  4. DiscoveredJoys December 3, 2010 at 2:58 am #

    I’m convinced that this is true (yet another edit for my NaNoWriMo first draft :-)).

    Yet I can think of exceptions – by far better writers than I am. ‘The Stand’ by Stephen King is a huge novel with many characters, and several of them are ‘main’ characters. King handles this by writing whole chunks around one character before switching to another. Eventually they all end up in the good camp and the bad camp, and right to the end there are still a few characters being heroes. In the end though only the ‘opening hero’ returns. I still wonder how King managed to get it to hang together.

  5. Carrie Neuman December 3, 2010 at 4:59 am #

    I’ve got to go with Randy. I love a really complex, sympathetic villan sometimes, and I think I’d rather get that than two friends fighting.

  6. sep December 3, 2010 at 8:41 am #

    You could create two novels. In one novel you focus on character one as the protagonist and character two as the antagonist having the POV in character one’s court. In the second novel you focus on the second character as the protagonist and have character one as the antagonist — the POV with character two. This way you have two novels that are similar, yet completely different from one another — even the ending could be very different because it focuses on a different character’s view point of the same situation. At least you could do this as two first drafts and see which draft looks better, or write both to completion and see which one gets published — maybe both of them will.

  7. Bruce H. Johnson December 3, 2010 at 9:59 am #

    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.

  8. Dre December 3, 2010 at 11:56 am #

    I think it should be perfectly possible to use two enemies as your protagonists.
    Normally the bad guy is not simply evil for the sake of evilness. Most bad guys are bad because they fail to see the difference between good and bad, or because they don’t see the advantages of doing the right things.
    If one of your protagonists is such a bad guy, I think a reader should be able to identify with him, but still hope the good guy wins.
    In this kind of story, I guess the reader would feel sympathy for the good guy, and a kind of compassion for the bad guy. If reader and writer have very different values of their own, the reader might even see the intended “evil” protagonist as the good guy and vice versa.

  9. Tami Meyers December 4, 2010 at 1:08 pm #

    Think Team Edward / Team Jacob. Stephenie Meyer made it work very well in her vampire vs werewolf saga.

    You can do it, but you probably need to have the conflict from the start instead of having them as friends who become enemies. If both are good in their own way your reader will root for the one they like best, which means you better have a good resolution for both characters or you’re going to disappoint half of your readers.

    It would be helpful to know in the beginning which one is going to win or you’re going to have a hard time creating the second place “win” that’s satisfactory.

    • Noisy Flippers May 1, 2013 at 3:23 pm #

      Edward and Jacob are not protagonists, they’re supporting characters. Bella is the one and only protagonist in the Twilight novels.

  10. Aaron December 6, 2010 at 2:51 am #

    This appears the be a story to be told once you feel you have the clout to write. Randy is generally trying to help people write good stories that have a chance of being published. Once published a few times, I imagine your freedom to write outside of the Snowflake expands immeasurably both by permission and by your own skill :)

  11. Wayne December 7, 2010 at 11:50 am #

    One protagonist only please.

    There can be a secondary character (think buddy cop movie) that chooses the opposite choice or a different end of the moral spectrum to highlight the “true” choice of the protagonist.

    Also, the antagonist doesnt need to be the villian. Think ‘Officer and a Gentleman’ or ‘The Fugitive’. In both those cases the other character provided the pressure the protagonist needed to change.(and also set a timetable and way to boost the story pace)

    In terms of Edward/Jacob – Bella is the main character(she is suppose to be at least,talk about a passive protagonist!) But yes, creating a third character and pushing the two others back to create a Twilight structure may be an option.

  12. Al December 9, 2010 at 9:15 am #

    Many, many popular novels have multiple protagonists, especially in genre fiction. Randy’s argument for having a single protagonist is oversimplifying the matter, to an extreme degree.

    However, I agree that for new authors, starting with a single protagonist may make things easier and get your novel finished more quickly. It undeniably takes more skill to balance the focus and reader affection among multiple protagonists in a satisfying way.

    Randy sez: I’m not sure what you mean by that. Many, many popular novels have multiple viewpoint characters, and that’s fine. But a viewpoint character is not the same thing as a protagonist. The protagonist is the person whose story the book is. It’s a rare novel that has more than one protagonist, and the novel needs to be big enough to bear the weight of multiple protagonists. THE LORD OF THE RINGS is a big story with numerous viewpoint characters. There are at least three major “good guys” who could have been the protagonist — Gandalf, Aragorn, Frodo. But the fact is that only one of them, Frodo, actually is the protagonist. In a long novel that covers a lot of time, you can switch protagonists, as Ken Follett does in THE PILLARS OF THE EARTH — the protagonist at the beginning is Tom Builder, but decades later at the end of the novel, the protagonist is his step-son Jack.

  13. Cissy July 23, 2011 at 9:03 pm #

    Could you have two main characters who barely have anything to do with each other even though they pass each other? If different things are happening to them?

  14. Mimi July 24, 2012 at 10:09 pm #

    How about John Jakes’ North and South? I count 2 protagonists there, and it has made a world of difference (story would be less if it had taken a bias to either one of the 2 main characters)

  15. Paul November 7, 2012 at 2:38 pm #

    Ridiculous! There are so many stories with multiple prots: too many to mention. ‘The Stand’ is not the only SK novel to adopt this tactic. Some stories cannot easily be told with a single prot. Anything complex that has multiple events in different places at certain times–events that are required in detail and cannot be told in retrospect-—may well require multiple prots. This is supposed to be art for God’s sake! Why try to be so formulaic? What about Brave New World, it is arguable that the main prot changes three times during the book.

  16. Carla July 11, 2013 at 4:21 pm #

    Ahahahahah yeah, because, you know, A Song of Ice and Fire has “no readers and no publishing contracts”. Is this article a joke? I hope so.

    • Juneauz October 16, 2013 at 9:44 am #

      I was about to say the same thing…. “A Song of Ice and Fire” has tons of characters and none of them is a true protagonist.
      How does the writer of this article justify that?

  17. Nils October 21, 2014 at 2:33 am #

    An arrogant and stupid answer. Multiple perspective novels are common and many of them best sellers. Ever heard about The Lord Of The Rings? Quite popular…
    Luckily, the public isn’t as narrow minded as the person answering your very sound question.
    However, you will have to work hard to make your principal characters equally interesting. But who said it was easy?

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