What If You Have Multiple Protagonists
by Linda Rodriguez
This blog post arises from work I’ve done lately with developmental editing clients and questions I’ve been asked by students of my writing classes. Sometimes when a writer is in the heart of the story, she may find herself with several leading characters and not know which one is her protagonist. She may ask if she can have multiple protagonists because they’re all equally important characters.
This doesn’t happen often with writers of cozy, traditional, police-procedural, or private-eye mysteries because the amateur or professional detective is always the protagonist, but when you move into thriller and suspense territory or, especially, further afield into literary novels, women’s fiction, historical novels, family sagas, and science fiction and fantasy novels, you may find yourself looking at several major characters who could all be your protagonists. (Some police procedurals may also wind up in this territory, if they are ensemble books, though usually even those will focus more on one character of the team.)
I don’t tell writers that they can never have multiple protagonists, in part because I’m not a fan of telling people there’s only one way to write. I do, however, point out that, unless they are writing a multi-volume historical, family saga, or fantasy series, they probably need to zero in on which character’s story provides the narrative line for their book. In multi-volume historical, family saga, and fantasy series, the full story of the series often spans generations, and the protagonist may change as time passes, and a new generation comes to the fore. These books are a special case, however, and often change protagonist from book to book.
I do tell writers that, most often, they need one major protagonist, but they can have several other very important characters who may have character arcs that become major subplots. Think of a Dickens novel, sprawling across hundreds and hundreds of pages, with its teeming multitudes of characters where extensive time may be spent with first this character and his machinations, then this character and her problems, before coming back to this character from the beginning. Dickens, however important some of his secondary characters were in his books—and many were quite important—never forgot who his protagonist was. We learn the stories of many characters in Great Expectations, but the protagonist of that book is always Pip. In Bleak House, we have a long, suspenseful story around Lady Dedlock, but eventually it ties into Esther Summerson’s story, and Dickens never allows us to lose sight of the fact that, among the many other stories within this novel, this book is Esther’s story.
I usually ask clients or students a few questions to help them decide among as many as four major characters. Whose story is this book? Which character changes the most by the end of the book? Which character has to struggle the most against the toughest obstacles and sacrifice the most to reach the ending? Which character will grow the most internally by the end of the book? Whose story would damage the book the most if it wasn’t told?
Usually, these questions help the writer to narrow his focus down to the character who is the true protagonist of the book. The protagonist provides the narrative spine of the book. Many important stories may radiate out from it like an animal’s skeleton, but without that spine, the animal can’t move. It’s the same with a novel. Without that narrative spine, it’s dead in the water, flailing around aimlessly. Of course, in nature, as in writing, there are always exceptions. The jellyfish gets along perfectly well without a traditional spine. There will be books that can shine with multiple protagonists, books that are not multi-volume sagas that span generations, but they are the unusual outliers. If you want to make writing your novel easier and more assured of success, you’ll be wise to settle on one major protagonist, no matter how many very important secondary characters you also have.
Have you ever had problems figuring out who’s the protagonist of a book you were writing or reading?