Are you writing a novel with multiple protagonists? Have you been told that’s a no-no? Are you worried that it’s not going to work? Is there some rule against multiple protagonists?
Dawn posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:
You’ve mentioned that few stories have more than one protagonist. Are these types of stories not well received? My first novel has two protagonist who unbeknownst to them are each others antagonist and is written in first person from each of them.
In a nutshell it follows the same timeline of two characters who are traveling separately. The chapters switch every 3-5 chapters from one to the other so the reader doesn’t fall behind on what is happening with either. I tested it with a few people as two separate books because of the length (358 pages in 5.5×8) but those who read them felt a strong attachment with the first character they read and immediately saw the second as the antagonist which is not the intent. They said the combined book allowed them to feel for each character in a stronger emotional bond. I was also told that switching characters in shorter time intervals was easier to follow than when I had Part 1 Character 1 with a longer time frame then went to Part 2 Character 2. In that format the readers felt they had to restart the story that they were already emotionally involved in and found themselves again looking for the first character.
The first person narrative as opposed to 3rd person, which I attempted, was intended to focus on the characters internal struggle and I’ve been told feels like you found an old journal and you’re reading their deepest fears, thoughts and needs.
Its been well received so far. I’m actually on my second book that my readers are asking for and looking to publish my first in a POD, but would love some feedback.
Randy sez: My first rule of writing is that you can write your novel any way you want, as long as it works. And the novel “works” if it delivers a powerful emotional experience to your reader.
What’s a Protagonist?
I would define a protagonist as the lead character that you want your reader to emotionally bond with and root for. (Other people might define a protagonist differently, but that’s my working definition.)
By that definition, it sounds to me that you don’t have two protagonists, Dawn, you have none. (If you’re watching the Super Bowl, and you’re rooting for both teams, then you aren’t really rooting for either. Part of the fun of watching a football game is going all in for one team. I can remember a Super Bowl in which my current hometown team played my former hometown team. That was not win-win, it was lose-lose.)
If you connect with a character, you want him or her to succeed. You want to cheer for your character’s victories and moan over their defeats. If you now connect with a second character who wants the first one to lose, then you no longer have a yardstick for what’s good and bad. What’s good for the first is bad for the second, so how are you supposed to feel?
Now I’m sure that a very skilled novelist could write a novel with multiple lead characters and could somehow move the reader to keep switching allegiance from one to the other. But that seems to me to be a lot harder than writing a novel with one clear protagonist.
That seems to me to be a case of 1 + 1 = 1/2.
Are Multiple Protagonists Well Received?
I don’t know that anyone’s done any kind of study on how well received novels are that have “multiple protagonists” (which, by my definition, are novels without a protagonist.)
Invariably, when this kind of question comes up, I hear from objectors who say, “But Author X wrote a novel with multiple protagonists and sold millions!” And invariably, counter-objectors respond, “Yes, but you’re not Author X.” (In some cases, Author X actually wrote a novel with multiple viewpoint characters, not multiple protagonists. Some recent blog posts on this are: Multiple Viewpoint Characters and How Many Viewpoint Characters in Your Novel? and How Do You Decide Who Your Protagonist Is?
I don’t think that I’m good enough to write a novel with “multiple protagonists”. I suspect there aren’t many authors who are.
And that’s why writing teachers generally advise writers to stick with one protagonist.
But I’ll repeat myself: you can write your novel any way you want, as long as it works. Have fun!
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Emily Faith says
This helps me too! I’ve been having this problems for months. Thanks!
Mike Clark says
I’ve recently re-read David Brin’s novel, “The Uplift War” and it has multiple viewpoint characters, but also seems to have three protagonists — one might be the actual protagonist, I suppose, but I’m hard-pressed to say which one. I remember that there were several viewpoint characters in Tom Clancy’s “Without Remorse”, but it was always clear that John Kelly was the protagonist, the one around whom all the threads of the plot led to.
This got me thinking … Have there been books written where you have two strong lead characters and one of them has a negative character arc (or dies, I suppose …) and the second character takes over as protagonist in their place?
Carole johnson says
My editor just made it clear that I am not allowed to switch povs. Says no one can root for my first key character if I add two others. They are all interesting. To meld two very different sisters into one, as suggested would make me out the novel in a drawer and forget about getting it published. Like writing the whole book all over again.