Monday, April 25, 2016

Protagonist: Double Plus?

Finally exploring the recesses of my inbox, and I keep unearthing these glimmering reader questions.  Sharing is more fun, so let's jump in!

    1. Can you have more than one protagonist?
    2. If so, how would you handle it? (How would it affect the narrative+story, how would you introduce them, etc.)

You can have more than one protagonist.   I've heard writing gurus discourage the idea, but fortunately there's this thing called 'ignoring.'

Admittedly, sometimes they are right.  It depends on what the story is about.

One helpful template for understanding story structure uses the lens of a protagonist and their inner conflict.  Under this framework, external events are relevant because they force the protagonist to confront inner obstacles, to change, and the story explores the ramifications of those changes, delivering the reader a single compelling lead and a window of thematic meaning.

Not a bad template.  One of the best, in fact.  But every story is a unique beast, and they like nothing better than to messily maul our preconceptions whilst making rude noises.  

So, never elevate any doctrine above the individual needs and realities of the story you're working with, and the intellectual labor that uncovering those realities entails.

Is there a lone protagonist in Game of Thrones?  Some stories- hell, entire genres- rely on multiple protagonists.  Buddy-cop movies, romantic dramas.   Not just two prominent characters, but two protagonists.   What's the difference?

We could quibble about definitions all day long- so let's get started!

A character is anyone whose thoughts, choices, and actions can impact the story.   A protagonist is a character whose thoughts, choices, and actions ARE the story.

In Breaking Bad, what if Walt never had a son in the series?   How would that influence the events and characters?    Now, what if Walt had never been in the series?  

That's the difference between a regular character and one who is the protagonist.  And you absolutely can have more than one protagonist.  However, bear  in mind- it's a little bit like juggling.  The more balls you add, the harder it is to work with them.  And there is an effect on the reader, too.

Give a student a gold star for excellence, and they'll cherish that single token of achievement.  Plaster gold stars on every scrap of paper that moves across their desk, and suddenly those stars aren't so special any more.  Commonality diminishes value.  

Your reader only has 100% of their focus- spend it wisely.   Prominence given to one character will come at the expense of another.

So why would anyone ever use multiple protagonists?  Isn't it simpler and better to maintain a single strong lead?

Life is complex- and sometimes that's exactly what a story needs to capture.  The messiness, unpredictability, and dynamism of two or more powerful, sympathetic characters at odds with one another.

That's one guideline for multiple protagonists- ensure there's conflict between them.  If they share the same opinions, react the same way, and come to the same conclusions, then one of them is redundant.

But developing two or more characters with a soul-deep empathetic connection to the audience- who are then forced into irreconcilable conflict?

That's a goldmine of drama that a single-protagonist story cannot tap.

As to how I would handle a multiple protagonist story?  I'd give the characters a strong emotional bond, then put them in a situation where their duties and obligations directly threaten that bond- with well-intentioned deceptions and landmine secrets buried along the way.

Introductions are tricky.  As Jim Butcher writes, first impressions matter.  Go for characteristic entry action on the part of your protagonists.  Regarding the fine tuning and details, those will be contingent upon the particulars of your story situation.  

I hope this helps shed some light on whether multiple protagonists are possible in story-  for more writing resources, check out our site:

Sunday, April 17, 2016

CUT IT OUT: Trimming the fat from your story.

A reader asked a great question last month.

"What's the best way to trim the 'fat' in a story to make it more concise?"

Often authors are urged to cut.   Cut scenes, cut action, cut dialogue, cut characters; this is the fire-sale school of revision.  Everything must go.

The general rule of thumb there is to assess everything within the first draft.  If you can remove something and the reader can still cobble together a dim approximation of the story, then bam!   That thing is unnecessary and must be gutted mercilessly.

“In writing, you must kill your darlings.” --William Faulkner

Orthodox Cutters will apply this Faulkner quote as a universal imperative.  They have faith that their ensuing masochistic literary sacrifices will, somehow, purify and elevate their work, on sheer principle.

Is this approach right?

If something can be distilled into a chant, it's rarely flexible enough to be a versatile tool.

Often an emasculated, skeletal narrative just isn't fun to read.  It might possess the minimalist bones, yet lack the crucial alchemy that brings a story to life.  Vindictive cutting is not a guaranteed road to improvement.

However, the opposite extreme is a legitimate risk.

Cram anything you want into a story, indulge every whim, and the result will be a bloated, meandering mess.    Readers will struggle to wrap their arms around it, flipping page after page trying to figure out what the point of all this content is- only to realize there isn't a point.   Just loose ends, flapping off into oblivion.

So we're back to the original question.   If the overzealous 'CUT EVERYTHING' crowd is misguided, how can we trim the fat from a narrative to keep it lean, functional, compelling- but still full of fun?

There's a simple trick to it.  (Difficult, but simple.)

An author most know two things with total clarity.   They are:

*What their story is about- the point.
*What the appeal is to readers- what the story does for its audience.

A deep understanding of these elements will clarify when something contributes to your story, and when it's detracting clutter.

This example will serve better than vague discussion:

On twitter in the #ComicTalk hashtag a few months back, the topic of erotic content cropped up, and how it could be a needless distraction from plot.   Authors jumped to pontificate on why characterization and plot must always supersede tawdry sexual content in every story, and it was agreed that sexiness without a concrete plot purpose was verboten.

Then lo and behold, a reader spoke.

He mentioned that one genre he enjoys is- shocker- erotica.  And the advice being agreed upon by all the authors was detrimental.  Injecting an erotic comic with brooding backstory, irrelevant plot, and non-sequitur characterization didn't make for a double-plus better erotic comic:  All it did was kill the heat.

That's why it's critical to understand what your story is about, and what readers are getting out of it.  Because if you don't know, you might be cutting the appeal right out of your manuscript.

When you know dead-to-rights what your story is about, you'll have crystal clarity about whether something is relevant or not.

Deep understanding- simple, but not easy.   I'll close by tossing out two more tools for seeking and cutting story fat, in the hopes that one or both of them come in handy.

*Motive.   Most stories are driven by character- and characters are driven by motive.  If your character does something random that is never explained, and never relevant in any way- then what are they doing?  Anything that breaks character, and has no driving motive behind it, probably needs to be cut.

*Redundancy.  Your readers are smart- don't repeat yourself pointlessly.  If a character has established an important trait, then sure, keep that character consistent- but don't add more scenes that serve no other purpose than to establish that same trait again.  You already conveyed that information to your readers.   They get it.   Because you already conveyed that information to your readers.  And if they get it, there's no entertainment value when you convey that information to your readers again.  

I hope this quick guide was helpful!  For more writing tips, check out our resources page at

Tuesday, April 5, 2016


The Wayward Astronomer has struck yet another Stretch Goal down!

The campaign is launching into the final 24 hours- buckle your seatbelts.

New Tier options have just been announced to the backers- including the option for original pencil art.  Already buttons and bookmarks have been secured, as well as a brand new art print in the works.

Check out the official update for a rundown of the campaign, and if you know anyone who needs a kick in the pants to take a look, deliver it now!

This campaign has blown my expectations away, and I think a truly beautiful book will emerge as the result.