It’s easy to think we understand the role the protagonist plays in a story.
We’ve seen movies and read books. We know the protagonist when we see her. However, as I mentor and edit authors, I’ve had more and more writers ask me the big question: “Can you have multiple main characters in a story?”
Yes, you can. But should you?
Definition of Protagonist
Before going deep into ways (and when) to use multiple protagonists, it’s important to understand what determines a protagonist from a secondary character.
In a traditional story, the protagonist has several very specific requirements, and if your protagonist doesn’t meet those requirements, your story will break down.
The protagonist can also be called the hero or main character, but these terms are imprecise, and for some stories, plainly false. The protagonist of Macbeth, for example, is clearly not a hero. Nick Carraway is the narrator of The Great Gatsby, but he is not the protagonist.
My favorite definition of the protagonist is from Stephen Koch’s Writer’s Workshop:
The protagonist is the character whose fate matters most to the story.
The protagonist centers the story. They define the plot and move it forward. Their fate determines whether the story is a tragedy or comedy.
You may not know who your protagonist is until you are halfway through writing your novel. You may think your protagonist is one character, only to find out your villain is actually your protagonist.
To become a better writer, you do not need to know who your protagonist is before you begin writing—but as you look at your work in progress, it’s important to ask:
Whose future is most important to this story, to the other characters in this story? Whose future is most important to me?
If you can answer these questions, you’ve found your protagonist.
You’ve also found the character(s) readers will (likely) root for in the overall story.
Have You Ever Read a Book With Multiple Protagonists?
One year when I was teaching creative writing, my students and I read Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere. If you haven’t read this book before (or seen the TV series on Hulu), here’s a brief look at the story’s back cover (as seen on Amazon):
In Shaker Heights, a placid, progressive suburb of Cleveland, everything is planned—from the layout of the winding roads, to the colors of the houses, to the successful lives its residents will go on to lead. And no one embodies this spirit more than Elena Richardson, whose guiding principle is playing by the rules.
Enter Mia Warren—an enigmatic artist and single mother—who arrives in this idyllic bubble with her teenaged daughter, Pearl, and rents a house from the Richardsons. Soon Mia and Pearl become more than tenants: all four Richardson children are drawn to the mother-daughter pair. But Mia carries with her a mysterious past and a disregard for the status quo that threatens to upend this carefully ordered community.
When old family friends of the Richardsons attempt to adopt a Chinese-American baby, a custody battle erupts that dramatically divides the town—and puts Mia and Elena on opposing sides. Suspicious of Mia and her motives, Elena is determined to uncover the secrets in Mia’s past. But her obsession will come at unexpected and devastating costs.
Sounds like a big canvas kind of story, doesn’t it? It is.
And while my students and I tackled some big (and brilliant) ideas unraveled in the various storylines, my class as a whole remained divided on who they saw as the story’s main character.
Was it Elena or Mia?
Some even thought it was Pearl.
Not coincidentally (which extra keen readers of this post might have already noticed), those three picks are also the different characters mentioned by name in the book’s excerpt.
There’s a reason for this.
Elena, Mia, and Pearl (especially Elena and Mia) each experience vital character arcs that significantly impact the main plot (or A Story).
And while I personally wouldn’t propose Pearl as a main character (despite she and the Richardson children playing wildly important roles in the literary suspense), I do think both Elena and Mia play central roles within the ensemble cast.
Does that mean this book is an example of when you can have more than one protagonist?
I think so. And other stories have multiple protagonists, too.
Primarily for three reasons I’ll cover in this post.
3 Reasons to Use Multiple Protagonists in a Story
Whether you’re writing a short story like Hemingway’s White Elephants, epic sci-fi like Star Wars, recounting a real-life memoir like The Glass Castle, or polishing a complex historical fiction novel like Ragtime, you need to confidently appoint a protagonist—or two—for your main plot.
But how can you tell the difference between important characters that work as protagonists and secondary characters that support (but don’t drive) your main story?
This is tricky, and there are exceptions to all three points we’ll look at below. But these three points will be your general guidelines to help you determine whether your story needs more than one protagonist.
1. Your Story Has Multiple Point of View Characters
How do you tell the difference between a supporting character that changes (like Hans Solo) or main characters that work as multiple protagonists?
Take a look at your points of view.
Every story with multiple protagonists includes multiple points of view. But beware, not every story with multiple points of view has more than one protagonist!
Many POVs, One Protagonist: Hamilton
Case in point: Hamilton.
Alexander Hamilton is the single protagonist in this Broadway phenomenon, but because this is a drama, we, as the audience, are privy to multiple storylines and POVs, which are all tied to Hamilton’s character arc and fate.
Hamilton’s main antagonist is Aaron Burr, and we become far more sympathetic to Burr because we get to see his side of the story.
For much of the first act, the audience relates most to Hamilton and his impression of Burr: Burr constantly waits for things to happen, and then feels increasingly more disappointed when he doesn’t “rise up” on the social ladder.
Why won’t Burr take action?
For much of the beginning of the story, Hamilton (and the audience) share this frustration, but then the audience is given the inside scoop on Burr’s reason for waiting in “Wait For It.” This is something Hamilton himself never learns, and therefore why he never fully understands Burr and his indecisiveness.
I am the one thing in life I can control
I am inimitable
I am an original
I’m not falling behind or running late
I’m not standing still
I am lying in wait
What does knowing Burr’s side of the story do for the audience?
It makes his character sympathetic, for one.
It also weaves tension into the plot because we witness Burr’s growing bitterness for his friend, the protagonist.
The same kind of tension builds when we see Jefferson, Madison, Angelica, Eliza, and Washington’s points of view. The story’s complexity naturally picks up, but everything is tied back to Hamilton, the single protagonist.
So Hamilton‘s POV doesn’t impact the role of the protagonist, unlike Shakespeare’s classic love story, Romeo and Juliet.
Two POVs, Two Protagonists: Romeo and Juliet
In this play, it’s equally important that, as an audience, we see both Romeo’s and Juliet’s side of the story. Why?
Because their different experiences are both tied to a shared fate, which unfortunately ends with their deaths.
Knowing what Romeo and Juliet don’t know in the story’s climax is what stabs our hearts long before Juliet plunges the dagger into her own.
And while multiple POVs give light to what’s going on in the story, two protagonists face the ultimate consequence based on their decisions in the end.
Selecting different POVs for your character doesn’t automatically resolve plot holes in your first draft. However, considering whether or not your story would be better told by different characters could change the way a reader absorbs and understand the plot.
Whether your story is written in third person limited (the most popular choice), first person, or third person omniscient, how the POV is used to tell the story will also determine if there are one or more protagonists.
Point of View in Your Story
Before writing a story with multiple protagonists, figure out if it makes sense to use multiple points of view. Does the reader need to know information from more than one character? Does each POV character have their own character arc?
Then, decide if those separate stories have a hierarchy of importance. Is there a main main character? Does what happens to one character in the end matter more to the reader than the other characters’ fates? Or is the fate of multiple main characters equally important?
If one character’s fate is the most important in the story, write a story with a single protagonist—even if you have multiple point of view characters. If two characters’ fates are equally important, and they are both point of view characters, you’re writing a story with multiple protagonists.
2. Multiple Protagonists Contribute to One Plot OR Have Two Separate Plots
Just because a story has multiple POVs doesn’t necessarily mean there are multiple protagonists.
However, you cannot have multiple protagonists without having multiple POVs because, as readers, we need to experience every storyline and character arc for a main character.
Sometimes this is used to foil multiple protagonists, like in Kristin Hannah’s The Nightingale.
In this story, two sisters, Vianne and Isabelle, are drastically changed by their circumstances. The story is told in first person with two points of view, and the reader is taken on extremely different journeys that show drastically opposite character choices and actions.
Though their stories are separate, both sisters experience their own character arc in response to their World War II setting—and both sisters’ separate storylines impact their internal story arcs when they are reunited in the end.
This is the second key to having multiple protagonists.
When a story has multiple protagonists, readers also need to see how those two character arcs are woven together by the main plot(s).
If the two (or more) main characters and their individual character arcs do not experience oneness in the finale of the story, the reader will question why the different characters don’t have separate books.
And while secondary subplots thicken the plot, like Isabelle’s love interest, the reader would be robbed of experiencing catharsis if the sisters didn’t have their own climatic moment with one another.
The same can be said for the dual protagonists in Jennifer Weiner’s Mrs. Everything or Sara Pennypacker’s Pax.
Plot in Your Story
Does your story have two plotlines—and do they fuse together in the climax of your story? If so, your story has multiple protagonists.
Remember, it’s crucial that a story with multiple protagonists shows how different internal arcs bring these characters together in a long-awaited final moment. If the two plotlines stay separated from beginning to end, consider writing two books with one protagonist each.
3. The Genre Requires Multiple Protagonists
In romantic comedies and “buddy stories” (a screenwriting category Blake Snyder uses in Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need), there are two protagonists. (And these protagonists sometimes work as main or secondary antagonists of one another!)
For example, look at Romeo and Juliet again. It’s the fate of both characters, not just one of them, that matters to the story.
Same with Lethal Weapon and The Odd Couple.
I love stories with multiple viewpoint characters, stories like The Yacoubian Building or The Joy Luck Club or 44 Scottland Street. These stories have multiple characters who could be protagonists, but while the stories begin with several possible protagonists, by the end, the author has led you to just one or two.
Other genres that often have multiple protagonists are smart book club fiction (think The Husband’s Secret or Lone Wolf), or any storylines that require an ensemble cast.
Keep in mind that both of these options need a central character—or one character in the ensemble cast who works as an offshoot of the other main and supporting characters. Or viewpoint characters.
And another important point: The genre that you’ll see dual protagonists used the most are romance novels that have multiple POVs, one for each love interest.
Genre in Your Story
Not every genre benefits from the use of multiple protagonists, but some do. Romantic comedies, buddy stories, and smart book club fiction are all genres where you’ll often find multiple protagonists used to great effect.
Use multiple main characters in your stories when the genre conventions provide an opportunity for it. Otherwise, it’s best to stick with just one.
When NOT to Use Multiple Protagonists
While it might be tempting to use multiple protagonists, applying this successfully is hard—and definitely not recommended for the beginning writer.
Of course, when writing your story, it’s your story, and I’m not writing this blog to tell you that you can’t do something. Just know that more complex plotlines like one with dual protagonists come with massive hurdles.
And if done poorly, it could confuse the reader or detach them from your main characters.
If you can write your plot with one storyline driven by one main character’s big decisions, I’d recommend opting for this option. If it’s your first book (or maybe even second), a single protagonist is probably the better way to go.
The Most Important Requirement for the Protagonist
This is the single most important element of your protagonist, and thus one of the most important of your novel as a whole. If your protagonist fails to do this, your story will fail. Seriously.
Your protagonist must choose.
Protagonists must make decisions. A character who does not choose their own fate, and thus suffer the consequences of their choice, is not a protagonist. They are, at best, a background character.
Your protagonist may reject the choice at first. They may debate back and forth between which option to choose. They may spend a hundred pages waffling. This can actually be a good thing. Choice is hard!
However, whether you have one protagonist or multiple protagonists, they must make choices until the very end.
Readers will bear protagonists who aren’t very likable. They will endure selfishness, pride, and even cowardice in a character. But readers will not endure a protagonist who does not decide.
It’s choice that makes all the difference.
You Can Have Multiple Protagonists. Should You?
Most stories, I’d wager about eighty-five percent, will work better with one protagonist.
But if you feel strongly that your plot needs multiple protagonists, make sure they check off all these boxes:
- Your story is told from multiple points of view.
- Each of the protagonists changes over the course of the story.
- Including multiple protagonists fits with your story’s genre.
On the other hand, don’t use multiple protagonists:
- For most stories. (An easy answer, but hey—writing multiple protagonists is tough!)
- When any of the elements listed above don’t apply to your story.
Remember, you can tell a great, complex, and satisfying story with just one protagonist. And if you’re just starting out, this is the way to go.
But if you’re up for a writing challenge and it fits the story you’re telling, give multiple protagonists a try!
How many protagonists do you have in your story? Why did you choose multiple main characters or a single protagonist? Let us know in the comments.
Try writing the back cover for your book. Ask yourself: is it important to name multiple main characters, or is your plot better pitched when only naming one point of view?
Use back cover like Little Fires Everywhere, The Nightingale, and The Way of Kings for examples when multiple characters are named. Study stories like The Five People You Meet in Heaven and Life of Pi for single protagonist stories. You can read all of these quickly on Amazon, or take a happy visit to your local library.
Then, for fifteen minutes, write your story’s back cover with multiple or a single protagonist. See what works best.
When your time is finished, post your practice in the comments section. And if you post, please be sure to give feedback to a few other writers.