How do you split out the air-time between characters in your novel when you have multiple viewpoint characters? Does your protagonist need to get more than 50%?
Steve posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
Thank-you for the serious time and effort you’ve devoted to helping aspiring writers! Your site is a treasure trove and your snowflake method gave me a significant boost.
I’ve been searching & reading through your older blog posts related to writing multiple POVs and this one hit home:
Based on the cranky responses from other readers, I’m guessing it highlights a common trap… Specifically, I was drifting into multiple protagonists and hit the exact obstacle you called out: Emotional impact turns into 1 + 1 = 1/2. (I ended up with a protagonist even I didn’t care about.)
The proto-protagonists were conceived to independently uncover and feed puzzle pieces to my hero. I was hoping you’d provide some thoughts on a good balance.
For example, if two POV characters each get 50% of your novel, the emotional diffusion is obvious. Would you always try and give your hero 70%+ of the novel and let the others fight it out for the rest?
Randy sez: I’ll first answer Steve’s question, then talk a little about the question of “multiple protagonists,” since this seems to have confused some people over the years.
It’s not easy to decide who should be the point-of-view character in each scene. I discussed this in my latest book, How to Write a Dynamite Scene Using the Snowflake Method. One of the core questions I ask for each scene is: who has the most to lose in this scene? Often, that person will make a good viewpoint character. But there are other questions, and it’s sometimes just a judgment call when picking the viewpoint character.
So I don’t decide in advance what percentage of scenes my protagonist gets to be the viewpoint character. He or she gets as many scenes as they deserve to make the story work. Normally, I work with 3, 4, or 5 viewpoint characters, and each gets somewhere between 10% and 40% of the total air-time. I don’t think I’ve ever had any viewpoint character who had more than 50% of the scenes.
As Steve mentioned, I wrote a blog post back in 2010 that has gotten a fair number of responses over the years. I suppose my original post could have been longer. At the time, I didn’t think it required a long response. Part of the problem was a confusion in terminology. Not everyone was clear on the difference between a “protagonist” and a “viewpoint character.”
So let’s talk about that.
The word “protagonist” comes from a Greek word meaning “player of the first part.”
So the protagonist is effectively the #1 character in terms of emotional interest—the so-called “good guy”—the character the reader is rooting for.
You might think that there can be only one character in a novel who is #1. Because that’s what it means to be #1—it means that you’re the one at the top of the heap.
In most cases, you’d be right, but it’s possible to think of exceptions. Here are a few:
- The story might start out with one character who is #1, but then he or she dies and another character becomes #1. In this case, there are two protagonists in the novel, but they are protagonists at different times. At any given time, there is really only one. (I’m thinking of Ken Follett’s book The Pillars of the Earth here, and also The Godfather, by Mario Puzo.)
- The story might not really focus on any single character as #1. In this case, it’s not sensible to talk about the novel having a protagonist at all. (Who is the protagonist of Downton Abbey, for example? Or Lost? Or Friends?)
- The leading character in the story might actually be the villain, and it’s possible that there is no single “good guy” character who could be called the protagonist. The reader is not rooting for the villain; the reader is rooting against the villain. In this case, again there is no protagonist.
Can these work? Yes, of course they can work if the author is good enough. The goal of a novel is to give the reader a powerful emotional experience. You can do that with two or more protagonists. You can do it without having any protagonist. It’s just harder than if you have one protagonist. But a really skilled writer can do it. Beginning writers generally can’t.
But that raises another issue.
About Viewpoint Characters
We need to be clear that a “protagonist” is not the same thing as a “viewpoint character.”
As I said above, the protagonist, if he exists, is the #1 character in the story, the one the reader is rooting for.
A viewpoint character is the person through whose eyes we’re living a particular scene. (So the viewpoint character can change from scene to scene.)
You can have a protagonist who is not a viewpoint character, and vice versa. (Example: Sherlock Holmes is the protagonist in the Holmes stories, but Watson is almost always the viewpoint character.)
You can let the villain of your story be the viewpoint character in some scenes. Any character in your story can be a viewpoint character. Even walk-on characters who only have one scene.
Most novels have multiple viewpoint characters, and that’s a good thing. I’ve never discouraged anyone from writing a story with multiple viewpoint characters. Beginning novelists can easily write a multi-viewpoint novel. All of my own novels have used several viewpoint characters.
As an example, The Lord of the Rings has numerous viewpoint characters. But it only has one protagonist, and that’s Frodo. (Gandalf and Aragorn might have worked well as protagonists, but they weren’t chosen. Tolkien chose Frodo to be the protagonist.)
Most Novels Have One Protagonist
The reason most novels have one protagonist, and only one protagonist, is that it’s easier that way. It’s easier on the author. It’s easier on the reader.
Authors who have the skills to write a novel with multiple protagonists (or none) should feel free to do so. But they’ll have to work harder to make it work.
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