Wednesday, September 24, 2008

How many protagonists?

I recently read a blog post that made me think about the optimum number of main characters in a fantasy. My friend GunnerJ wrote that he had originally planned to write the stories of four main characters, to illustrate different sides of a conflict.

"Each chapter would be from a different viewpoint and their plots would weave in and around each other to form a hopefully cohesive whole."

Although this didn’t work for him, it gave me something to think about. Multiple main characters work well in an epic fantasy series – A Song of Ice and Fire being the definitive example. The points of view show off the worldbuilding to its best advantage, and contribute to the epic scope of the story. It’s also wrenching for the readers to care about characters on both sides of the conflict, characters who are unlikely to all end up happy (or even alive).

In a standalone fantasy novel, though – especially when the writer will be under more pressure to follow length restrictions – it’s more difficult to give equal time to multiple main characters, especially if plotlines have to be wrapped up at the end of the book. Part of the fun of this kind of plot is watching the different strands of the storyline coming together (there’s a hint of this in the Tyrion sample chapter on George R. R. Martin’s website), but there may not be enough space in a single novel to do this realistically.

It also makes writing a query letter that much more tricky. Multiple characters can make the two paragraphs of plot description in a query seem cramped, and yet it may not be easy to decide which ones to eliminate.

I must admit that when I bought A Game of Thrones, started reading and realized how Martin had structured the story, I flipped through and read all the Daenerys chapters one after another. Now I’m interested enough in other characters to read the books straight through, but at that time, I just wanted to follow a single protagonist who didn’t seem likely to die soon (i.e. ruling Bran out). I don’t know if anyone else is likely to do this with a novel that has multiple main characters, but it’s an argument in favor of making them all as interesting and active as possible.

I’ve also read tried to read a novel with five main characters who were going through the same test of their magic, which meant that the same storyline was repeated from each perspective. The only way I could get through something like this would be if the various characters had wildly different personalities and voices (a la Stony’s The Grand Tour), and perhaps there was a Rashomon-type question underlying it all.

My own rule of thumb when planning a novel, so far, has been to set up a storyline around a protagonist and another character of a different gender (to build sexual tension*) who’s initially not on the protagonist’s side. There are scenes from the points of view of several other characters, but the book begins and ends with the protagonist’s point of view, and hopefully the last scene shows how far he or she has come since the first one.

*It worked in every manuscript except Dracolytes. Morava and Julon maintained a mutual disapproval that never resulted in Slap Slap Kiss. More like Slap Slap Cease Fire Temporarily Someone Else Is Trying To Kill Us.


JH said...

Another dimension may be one of skill. I just don't really feel like I'm practiced enough at writing to pull off 4 characters with wildly different goals, especially when only 1 or 2 hold my interest. Consider too that Martin has been writing for more than 40 years, ~30 by AGoT's publication, and that he's written many different stories in a number of genres. (I remember reading a SF/horror story by him about a man who buys insect colonies capable of learning and growing to sentience, and the horrible mistakes he makes in his care for his pets... a very good read and very unlike anything in ASoIaF in style, theme, or plot structure.)

Marian Perera said...

That would have been "Sandkings". Brilliant story. I believe there was an Outer Limits episode based on it as well.

Anonymous said...

I'm seeing more and more multiple protagnoists in fantasy that I've read, and I actually enjoy it. It gives me a break from one chracter (because sometimes I get annoyed by the MC and need a break), and allows me a full circle view of the world and plot. Of course, I'm a sucker for subplots, too, but you're right in that they all need to be wrapped up by the end. And preferably relavent - no Tom Bombadil, if you please!

Kirsten Campbell said...

You've really highlighted the main pros and cons of using multiple protagonists.

In my own novel-in-progress, I've got five main PoV characters, whose stories thread through the overall plot. I like it this way, as it gives the reader a good look at the big picture from both sides of the divide, and it's a good way to flesh out some of the antagonists by giving them their own voice. It also gives the reader more choice, and more chance to find a protagonist r they identify with. They might hate one of them, but love another.

Though all the interweaving plot threads are hard to condense into a synopsis!

(And I read all the Dany chapters first, too.)

JH said...

I read somewhere that the Dany chapters were a stand-alone novella from before AGoT was published.

Marian Perera said...

I should have made more of a distinction between main characters and characters who get a point of view.

In any of my novels, the antagonists and the secondary characters get scenes from their perspectives, but I don't consider them main characters. There's just not as much space given to them as to the protagonist and they're less likely to have a character arc.

But as you pointed out, kirsten, giving them their own POVs is a great way to flesh them out and allow them as much "equal time" as possible. I've often ended up liking secondary characters (or at least being fascinated by them) more than the leads - both in my own work and other novels.