Long time followers of my blog know that I am a proponent of singular protagonists. In one of my earliest blog posts, Common Writing Styles That Cause Problems, I talked about several issues involved in having too many protagonists. I still believe everything I said back then, but the fact is, some stories do call for several main characters, and not telling my readers how to correctly write them isn’t serving anyone. Should you choose to take your story in this direction, here are some tips for keeping things clear and elegant--
Write As Few Protagonists As Possible
Just because your story necessitates several plotlines doesn’t mean you should just run free with it. Having ten protagonists instead of five is not just twice as confusing. Believe me.
Pick Your Tense Carefully
Beware of using different tenses for different characters. Only too often, writers go into projects thinking, “Well, Ralph is the main character, so he can be first person as long as the others are in third”, only to discover that other protagonists become more important as the story progresses, or that the readers are confused by the sudden changes in tense from chapter to chapter. Be careful. Multiple characters can be confusing enough!
Differentiate Between Your Characters
I understand that making every character a complex individual is a lot harder in multiple viewpoint novels, so I’ve come up with a very simple piece of advice for flat or copycat characters: if it’s too hard to give a character a unique sense of self, remove that character. There. That simplifies things.
Make Sure They Have STRONG Connections With Each Other
Back when I was still doing reader reviews, I ripped Cloud Atlas a new one. The writing wasn’t the problem, but rather, the incredibly weak connection between the characters. It seemed to me as if they existed, not only in different time periods, but in different worlds. Luisa Rey is in a campy, 1950s-style detective story, where commedia dell'arte character archetypes are fully acceptable, but Robert Frobisher is in a fully realistic story that takes place in the early thirties. These two people, apart from the fact that they are members of the human race, quite literally have nothing in common.
Read Good Fiction With Multiple Points of View
It is always helpful to read stories that are told in a similar way to what you want to write. If you want to write about multiple characters in a first person perspective (God forbid), read As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner. If not, possibly consider Dune by Frank Herbert. Don’t stop there either! Get a grasp on what you’re looking for before you begin.
Thoroughly Plan Scenes Where Characters Meet
If Gregory and Ruth are both main characters, whose perspective will you write from when they meet in the park under the glow of fireflies? Gregory’s? Ruth’s? Third limited on one character? Perhaps a neutral or omniscient third? If you are going to have characters meet throughout the course of your story, make sure to put in your work.
Carry Over Emotions
Nobody will ever advise you not to end a chapter on a cliffhanger, but it can be rather annoying to a reader when chapter 13 ends with John on his back in an alley with a knife wound in his abdomen, and chapter 14 begins with Sussie wondering if Matt, the cute boy sitting next to her in English class, is going to ask her to prom. It’s fine if this happens every once in awhile - building up a sense of urgency can be good… but, in general, try to stoke the emotional flames of the previous chapter in any way you can. You don’t want to have to start each chapter from emotional ground zero.
All this said, don’t tell a story from multiple perspectives unless that’s the way the story is screaming to be told (Game of Thrones comes to mind). Despite a few exceptions, the less characters there are in a piece, the greater the focus is on the characters that remain.