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:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I'd certainly argue that "Zootopia" has two protagonists, and quite successfully at that.