On The Table Read, “The Best Book Reader Magazine in the UK“, author JJ Barnes writes about how to construct a story with multiple protagonists and references example from popular fiction.
Written by JJ Barnes
The Protagonist of your story is the main character who you follow on their journey. They start the story wanting something, through the course of the story they go after it, and at the end of the story it’s resolved by either getting it or not.
To be a Protagonist, they must have an Antagonist, the person or thing that is preventing them from getting what they want. Your story follows the conflict between these two characters.
When you’re writing multiple protagonists, you’re writing multiple people in pursuit of their goals, each with an Antagonist trying to stop them. These stories will intermingle and connect but are all their own complete conflict.
The Difference Between Ensemble and Multiple Protagonist
An ensemble cast doesn’t necessarily mean you have multiple protagonists. You may have a large cast revolving around a single Protagonist, and whilst each of the characters in the ensemble is significant and motivated, they don’t count as a protagonist. They’re only a protagonist if you’re directly following their story.
You can find examples of multiple protagonism in stories such as The West Wing, Pulp Fiction, Lost, and the first two Avengers movies, but not Avengers: Infinity War, because Thanos is the protagonist of that picture.
Where to Use Multiple Protagonists
A TV series is a good space for writing multiple protagonists because then your audience is able to spend more time getting to know the different characters and what they are motivated by. Over more time you can track the different characters and different stories more easily.
Films and books are harder to write a good multiple protagonist story in, simply because you have less time. You need to make sure your audience understands who all your Protagonists are and what they all want in order to tell all their stories successfully. With a more limited page count, that will be a challenge.
Be Careful with Your Structure
When you’re writing a multiple protagonist story, you have to be careful to control the structure. You can end up with a bitty storyline, bobbing about so much you never fully get to grips with any of the characters’ stories. Or, if you cram all the stories in, you have to race through different characters too fast so you lose some of the details they deserve.
Whilst Lost is a genuinely excellent example of this style, some of the Protagonists’ backstories end up cut short and rushed through. Spending too long exploring one story means you end up missing out on everybody back on the island, so something has to be sacrificed. All the characters need to have their stories moved forward in an equally interesting and developed way.
The West Wing nails multiple protagonists in a really impressive way. Aaron Sorkin, the series’ genius creator, manages to make each Protagonist equally important and significant each episode. Each protagonist has an individual story arc which is ticked along, even if it just a small amount, each episode.
You might find that in different episodes, or different chapters, you choose to focus on one character predominantly. This allows you to develop that protagonist without too distraction, as happens in Lost and The West Wing for instance, but all the other characters still matter. The other storylines might not be directly involved with the focus plotline but could be thematically linked and still need to be moved forwards.
Introducing Multiple Protagonists
When you’re getting to know characters in a multiple protagonist story, you have a lot of characters to introduce with equal value quickly. You need your audience to be able to recognise who each person is, or it’ll just be confusing.
If you look at how Lost introduces the cast, it’s very clever and very effective. At first, you get to know each protagonist based on one single thing about them, something your audience can latch on to and recognise those characters by. The “Fat Guy”—Hurly. The “Stuck Up Princess”—Shannon. The “Hero”—Jack. The “Cowboy”—Sawyer. You then slowly get to know them better, and understand what it is they want better, after you’ve been able to identify who each of them is.
To write this yourself, you need to give each Protagonist something really clear about them, something simple that isolates which character it is and can then be built from.
In Lost, each character is deeper and more interesting than the stereotype you’re trained to recognise them by, but by having these single factors you’ve got a base from which to grow. Once you know who they are, you can develop them, bring in their back stories and motivations.
A way to do this well is to write your story first, then when you know your characters really well, go back and edit your first chapter. Give each Protagonist something clear that is an easy way to identify them when the audience reads their name. It’s easier to do this once you’ve reached the end of your story and you have a full image of who the character is to extract one tiny seed from.
Emerald Wren and the Coven of Seven
For instance, in Emerald Wren and the Coven of Seven, I have an ensemble cast of seven. It’s not a multiple protagonist story, as Emerald is the single protagonist, but the other six are still extremely important and motivated so I used this technique.
I went back in and made sure that early on each character had something the audience could latch onto about who they are. For instance, Celeste is a Christian, and her faith is a key part of her personality and story. So, from when you first meet her, I wrote that when she’s anxious she plays with her crucifix. Celeste is much more than just a Christian, but that action tells the audience something significant about her immediately that they can recall when they next read her name.
Every protagonist must have an antagonist. It could be themselves if they have internal conflict, another person in their life who wants the complete opposite to what they want, or even the world at large, nature, or society.
But to be a protagonist they must have an antagonist who is blocking them from getting what they want. For each of your protagonists, you follow the conflict with the antagonist until the climax when the conflict is resolved.
Why Write Multiple Protagonists?
The benefits of writing multiple protagonists are that the energy of your story will be up. Every scene will have more conflict because the characters are equally important and equally motivated, and the more conflict there is in a scene, the more entertaining it is.
It isn’t necessarily an easy thing to do, and won’t suit every story, but if you do it well it can be very effective and entertaining.
More From JJ Barnes:
I am an author, filmmaker, artist and youtuber, and I am the creator and editor of The Table Read.
You can find links to all my work and social media on my website: www.jjbarnes.co.uk
Buy my books: www.sirenstories.co.uk/books
Follow me on Twitter: @JudieannRose
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