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.
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.