Some of the most popular stories are those with ensemble casts and multiple narrators. Dune by Herbert, East of Eden by Steinbeck, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, and books in Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series are just a few examples. At Writer’s Relief, we know a short story or novel with multiple protagonists can be truly compelling if it’s written properly. But if you’re not careful, you could end up simply confusing—and losing—your readers. Here’s how to successfully write a short story or novel with multiple protagonists.
6 Tips For Writing A Short Story Or Novel With Multiple Main Characters
- Ask yourself why. Before you start writing a story with multiple protagonists, consider why you think that’s the best way to go. Writing multiple main characters is hard work, so you should be clear on what this mechanism is adding to your story. Maybe you need to have characters in different places, seeing different things. Perhaps your characters have extremely interesting relationships—whether they’re close family or friends, partners, or even mortal enemies—and having all of them as protagonists lets you delve into the depths and nuances of their dynamic.
- Give each character their own arc. The story arcs of your protagonists are likely to overlap quite a bit, but they should still be separate, three-dimensional characters. This means that they should each have their own airtight plot arc, fully developed and separate from the other characters. Make sure each character’s arc is complete and includes what they want, unique obstacles and rising tension, and a satisfying resolution.
- Make your characters’ voices unique. A great way to help readers keep track of multiple protagonists: Make sure each one “sounds” different from the others. When a character is speaking, even if you don’t use dialogue tags, your reader should know exactly who it is by the distinctness of their voice—from the length of their sentences, to their vocabulary, to how much emotion they speak with, to any dialectical quirks, and more! This is especially important if you’re writing multiple first-person narrators (multiple points of view, or POVs).
- Maintain a balance. Make sure your protagonists all have equal time on the page so that one character’s plotline isn’t more central than any of the others’. This ensures they’re all on equal footing within your story, and readers can become equally invested in each one. If you find you keep skipping over one particular protagonist while writing, that may be a sign to bump the character down to “supporting character” status!
- Make all your characters equally sympathetic. With multiple protagonists, you’ll need to make sure your readers can connect and sympathize with each one equally—even the insufferable ones. While your readers may not root for the less loveable characters, they should understand why these protagonists act the way they do and be invested in their storylines.
- Don’t repeat yourself and don’t be redundant. (See what we did there?) With multiple protagonists, writers are often tempted to retell scenes from different characters’ perspectives. Sometimes, having your characters reacting differently to the same event can provide interesting twists on the story. But retelling the scene might also bore readers and cause your story to sag. When multiple protagonists are present for the same scene, be very intentional about choosing the best character to narrate that scene for readers.
Having multiple protagonists can add interesting layers to your story and keep your readers turning the pages. But if writing a story with a single protagonist is tricky, writing a story or novel with more than one main character can be even more complicated. Follow these tips to ensure all of your protagonists are fully fleshed out and essential to your story’s success.
Question: What’s your favorite novel or story with multiple protagonists?