Are you writing a story that has more than one protagonist? Do you need some advice on how to include and write these characters? We explain how to write a novel with multiple protagonists in this article.
1. Use only the important characters
A novel that has multiple protagonists can be either a joy or a chore to read, and that will definitely depend on which character’s points of view we’re reading about. Nothing detracts from the reading experience more than reading from the perspective of characters who are not important to the story at all.
For example, you might be writing a fantasy novel full of amazing characters with different superpowers or that are different species. You might be tempted to write from the perspective of each one of them. However, if they are ultimately, not fully important to what makes the story move forward, then that protagonist should perhaps be cut from the lineup, because at the end of the day, they are not a protagonist.
As such, with the overarching story and plot in mind, choose which of those amazing characters you have conjured will have the biggest roles in each part of the story, and write the story only from the perspective of those characters. If a character seems like a sidekick to one of the protagonists, since they only occasionally help with the problem at hand, and are mostly there to help another character achieve a goal, then that person’s perspective is not needed in the story.
Each of the protagonists you will choose for your story needs to have equal agency in the plot at hand, and be equally involved. Like we mentioned above, if a character is a sidekick, they shouldn’t have their point of view as a protagonist.
2. Consider having multiple plot lines
While there should be an overarching plot that connects all the protagonists in the end, their individual stories can – and should – have differing plot lines that, more often than not, would take these characters away from each other in the course of the story.
Adding distance between the characters will also help you to develop the world more, add more locations and expand on the environment. When writing through the perspective of a single protagonist, you can only write about the places of the world where they have either been to or are going to. Multiple protagonists allow you to expand upon the world and allow the readers to get a glimpse of other places within the world. This can be extremely helpful if you’re writing a fantasy novel.
For example, we have the dark fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin, one of the most famous series in the world that has multiple protagonists. Almost all of the protagonists are in different parts of the vast, expansive world the author has created, with some protagonists, like Samwell Tarly and Brienne of Tarth, not becoming protagonists in their own right until book four of the series, A Feast for Crows. It makes sense, however, for those two characters to become protagonists later on in the series because that is when they are given a mission to complete (with Brienne of Tarth being tasked by Jaime Lannister to find the Stark girls, and Samwell Tarly is tasked by Jon Snow to go become a maester in Oldtown).
Even if you’re not writing a series, when you are writing a novel with multiple protagonists, you should give each of them an individual problem to solve within the course of solving the main problem. These would be bigger than subplots. These would be parallel plotlines that happen simultaneously during the course of the novel.
3. Give them a character’s arc
Each of the protagonists you have in your story needs to have their own plot (or a problem to solve). Each of them needs to have a character’s arc within the course of solving the problem. They need to react emotionally to what is happening, and they need to have their own beliefs and principles challenged, and even shattered, during the course of the story.
What makes each protagonist important is not only their involvement in the main plot at hand, but also the fact that what is happening is affecting them, is changing them, and at the end of the story, they will have become different people as a result.
This character’s arc usually comes in three forms: positive, negative, and flat.
A positive character’s arc is when the protagonist has their beliefs and principles challenged and shattered, but they end up in a happier place at the end. They have changed, but for the better.
A negative character’s arc is the opposite – at the end of the story, as a result of the events that happened, and of the fact that the character’s beliefs and principles were challenged and shattered, they change in a negative manner. Maybe they have become more cynical in nature, less happy, or even miserable.
A flat arc is when a character, despite having their beliefs, ideals, principles, and the like challenged, they never get completely shattered, and the character ends the story, emotionally speaking, with the same contentment they had in the beginning of the story. Maybe they learned something, but their principles and beliefs remain pretty much intact, instead of shattered. This type of arc is rare, and a bit difficult to pull off because the protagonist should still learn something. Maybe they were not changed by what they learned, but they have learned something in the end.
4. Differentiate them as much as possible
There are two ways that you can go about when it comes to differentiating between multiple protagonists. The first way is through characterization, and the second way is through the writing style and the narration.
When it comes to characterization, try to make each character be as unique as possible, and not just in terms of their appearance. Their names, for example, really should not be similar to each other. Having two protagonists named Jon and Jim would make any reader get confused between them. Also, give them principles and beliefs that differ and are even in opposition. Of course, this does not mean that all of the protagonists need to have opposing opinions, but opinions that differ just enough.
When it comes to the writing style, choose carefully which type of narration you will use. You can use first person for all of them, but since first person narration relies heavily on the use of “I” and generally, convey the story as if they are directly talking to the readers, it would be very difficult for you to pull of so many different voices.
It’s much better to use third person narration instead of first person. There are two types of third person narration: omnipresent and limited.
Third person omnipresent narration means writing from an all-knowing perspective. This means that in every scene, you could convey what all characters are thinking, feeling, and what happens. It would not be a good idea to use third person omnipresent when writing a story with multiple protagonists, especially in moments where they have shared scenes, as this would confuse the reader as to which character they are following at a certain moment.
It is much better to use third person limited narration. This will give you the opportunity to differentiate the characters, as ideally, each chapter would follow a different protagonist. And, in that chapter, you would only convey what that protagonist is thinking, feeling, and experiencing.
5. Write their shared scenes carefully
It is inevitable that in the course of the story, the protagonists will share some scenes together. How many they will share will depend on whether they knew each other at the beginning of the story, how their paths will intercept, and how the story goes.
It is important to know that when writing their shared scenes, you need to be careful when choosing which protagonist will be the point of view character for the scene. The best way to determine this is by understanding which protagonist is the driving force behind the two (or more) protagonists interacting with each other, which protagonist is going to be the one actively wanting or needing to meet the other protagonist, or protagonists, and how the protagonists would emotionally react to the meeting.
For example, if it is a chance encounter between the protagonists, then the one who will be emotionally impacted the most by the meeting should be the protagonist of that scene, especially if the two protagonists that are meeting or interacting are romantically involved.
On the other hand, if protagonist A needs to speak and gain information from protagonist B (i.e. A being in “active” mode, while B being in reactive mode), then it is better to tell that chapter or scene from the perspective of Protagonist A.
6. Beware of ending chapters on cliffhangers
Considering that you will be telling a story from the perspective of multiple protagonists, ending the chapters – or at least, some of the chapters – on some kind of emotional or plot-related cliffhangers will entice the reader to keep reading in order to find out what happened.
However, be careful not to overuse this, because ending absolutely each and every chapter on a cliffhanger will definitely annoy the readers, as they will feel manipulated to keep reading.
Additionally, since you will be switching between points of view and alternating between them in the chapters, when you end a chapter on a cliffhanger, you end the action. The next chapter will not continue the story (as it will if you’re writing a novel with a single protagonist). Instead, you will go away from that action to another protagonist. By the time you go back to that protagonist in the course of the story (some chapters later on), the reader is viable to not only have forgotten what has happened, but they would simply not care so much anymore.
7. Do not use too many protagonists
There is not a single, golden number of protagonists that you should use when telling a story with multiple protagonists. As previously mentioned, you should use as protagonists only the characters who are driving the plot (or have their parallel plots), and those who are emotionally affected by what happens and have a character’s arc within the story.
But, if you’re planning on writing a series, for example, you might be tempted to use many protagonists. Some of them might even be there for one book in the series, but not be present for the next. When one protagonist dies, another one might take their place.
However, be careful not to have too many protagonists – even if you’re writing a series and not a single, standalone novel. Having too many protagonists will prevent the readers from getting connected to either protagonist, because you will not be able to spend so much time on a single protagonist. You will get less page-time to develop them, and as such, the readers will connect with them less.
And, even if you are writing a series, if you have too many protagonists, with too many diverging stories, a vast world that seems ever expansive, then you might end up with a story that will lose cohesion, and become difficult to complete, or complete in a manner that will be satisfactory to the readers.