When you think of a novel, you might imagine only one main character leading the way. While this may be the typical way to tell a story, it doesn’t mean it’s the only way to do it.
Maybe you have a brilliant idea for a multiple-major-character story you’re just dying to tell, but you’re not sure if it’s the right thing to do. Or maybe you’re just curious about whether it’s possible to have more than one lead.
So can you write a story with more than one main character? The short answer is: yes. You can write your novel any way you like, so long as it works in practice.
Many writers, especially those writing in genres such as fantasy and sci-fi, have multiple main characters in their novels. Think George R. R. Martin, C. S. Lewis and Terry Pratchett for inspiration.
Multiple leads and points of view can add new richness and vibrancy to a story. They give your reader several people to empathise with, and a big, layered story with multiple plotlines and twists to follow.
However, that doesn’t mean writing multiple lead characters will be all sunshine and rainbows. It’s an intricate process that can be challenging to get right, even for the most experienced writer.
If you’re thinking about writing a novel with multiple main characters, you need to consider whether this approach is necessary for your story before you get started.
Let’s look at whether a multi-main-character story is the way to go for you, how it might work, and how you can do it successfully.
Is it important to your story?
The first thing you need to ask yourself is: is it necessary for your story to have multiple major characters?
If there’s a way to tell your story with just one principal character, it might be worth considering.
This is definitely the easier option – writing a novel is complicated enough, and you don’t want to add an extra layer of difficulty if you don’t need to.
Think carefully and objectively about the story you are trying to tell and how you can tell it.
There are very few novels out there that have multiple lead characters within a single story. Typically, when there is more than one main character, there is more than one story going on too.
Do you really have multiple stories to tell in your novel, or is it just one complicated story? Either way, you need to make sure the plot threads will weave together in a way that makes sense to your reader.
Is it possible you are trying to fit too much into one novel? Could your grand story with multiple major characters really be an idea for a series of novels or adventures?
It’s always a good idea to ask yourself if you can tell your story in a simpler way. If you can, do it. Some of the most effective stories are those told in the simplest forms.
Choose your characters carefully
Readers experience the story through the main character. This means they need to feel empathetic to that character’s journey.
If you have multiple main characters, the reader needs to feel equally empathetic to each of their journeys.
It’s tricky to make readers feel equally invested in multiple characters, so think carefully before committing to giving the crown of ‘main’ to any of your characters.
Ask yourself: could this be a minor or side character instead? A friend or family member of your main character?
Just because you like a character, that doesn’t mean they need to be a major character in your story. Always ask yourself if their perspective is vital to the telling of the story.
It’s also important to note that when you have multiple main characters, all of their journeys will need to intertwine or impact each other in some way.
There needs to be a thread that links them all together – perhaps a common goal they are all working toward.
Move the story forward
You’ve probably heard this before, but every chapter (every sentence, even!) of your novel needs to move the story forward.
When there is more than one main character and point of view, writers sometimes fall into the trap of repeating information from each character’s perspective.
It can be tempting to retell parts of the story to show how each character processes them differently, but in the end, it doesn’t move the story forward.
When your characters’ journeys overlap, you need to think carefully about which character needs to tell which part of the story. Choose the best character for the job and then move the story along.
With every scene you write, ask yourself: am I providing fresh information to the reader?
When you have multiple main characters, you also need to ensure that your story is moving forward fast enough.
If you’re covering every single moment of ALL of your characters’ journeys, you may get bogged down in unnecessary details, which can leave your reader feeling a little fatigued.
Always move the story forward at a steady pace to keep your reader interested and engaged.
Use clear breaks to switch between characters
When you are working in this multi-character layered way of storytelling, you will have multiple points of view within your story.
To do this well, each point-of-view character should have a distinct voice that is easily recognisable to the reader.
It’s also a good idea to have clear visual distinctions between POVs, so it’s obvious to the reader when the perspective has changed.
There are multiple ways to do this, depending on your story and how often the perspective changes. Authors sometimes include the character name at the beginning of the section to make the POV clear.
Others change mid-chapter, including clear scene breaks to signal the change and using dialogue or location tags to show whose perspective the story is currently being told from.
A good tip when working with multiple POV characters is to give each character a unique narrative voice or way of speaking.
This should make it immediately clear to the reader whose perspective is now in focus, without them needing to be explicitly told.
Writing a story with multiple main characters or protagonists is possible, but it will not be easy. Carefully think through your story idea and whether you might tell it in a simpler format.
There’s a reason there are so many books with only one protagonist. This is definitely the easier option, but it’s not the only one.
If you decide to go ahead with your story containing multiple lead characters, there are things you can do to make it successful.
Give all your main characters a common goal. Ensure your reader empathises equally with all of them. Constantly move the story ahead, and make it clear to your reader which character is telling the story at which point.
Remember: there is no right way to tell a story. If it works, you can tell it any way you want – including with multiple main characters.