Friday, May 25, 2007

Thoughts on multiple protagonists.

A couple of days ago Anne Mini made an post called The plague of passivity, and the ensuing discussion in her comments section turned partly to the issue of multiple protagonists. Having multiple protagonists is something that I have not generally loved in books that I've read, yet it's something that I decided to do in ALDEN RIDGE. (Incidentally, I've never been the biggest fan of first person narratives, yet that's what THE GUARDIAN is written in--aside from a few brief interludes following other characters in third person limited, and one key dramatic scene written in third omniscient.) With any device, it's all about how it's used, however.

What exactly do I mean by "multiple protagonists?" In ALDEN RIDGE, it's not that I just have multiple POV characters, but I actually have three protagonists who each drive parts of the plot in their own ways. If you've read the excerpt, you've already seen how I handle this with two of them--Darrell and Elaine. Darrell is the most-central protagonist, and the story follows him more than anyone else, but there are also a lot of scenes where Darrell is present and yet the narrative follows Elaine's POV. You already see some of that in the excerpt. Lela, Darrell's four year-old daughter who you meet in the first chapter, is the third protagonist. I don't follow her much until farther in, but her perspective is also of central concern to the story. These three characters are distinguished from more minor characters whose POV I might follow for a brief time, but who aren't the central characters of the story (even if a few of them are the primary antagonists).

Essentially I’m weaving Darrell, Elaine, and Lela's (already very interrelated) stories together, writing in third limited for whoever I’m following at the moment, and always following whichever of them is the most interesting and has the most conflict in a given scene--or whoever's perspective is most revealing in those cases when the protagonists are in conflict with one another. For instance, the reason that I use Elaine's POV in the scene when she and Darrell meet in chapter 2 should hopefully be quite evident--she's the one in the more interesting, more unusual situation. She's also the one with the most internal conflict at that point. None of that would come across if I was still following Darrell in third person limited at that point, and your conception of Elaine would be entirely different.

The use of multiple protagonists has never been something that enamors me of a book (except in a few rare cases), but that's often been because I just didn't like the way the author juggled the protagonists. Anne Mini mentions that "Multiple protagonists are fairly common in aspiring writers’ manuscripts — although, because it’s hard to pull off well, they are less common on bookstore shelves."

One thing that has bugged me about a lot of published books with multiple protagonists is how the protagonists are introduced. In Michael Crichton’s STATE OF FEAR he starts off with a flurry of small chapters (some only a page or three), each with a group of entirely unrelated characters that are in different parts of the world and doing different things. I normally really enjoy his work, and count Jurassic Park and Prey as two of my top-50 favorite books, but I never have gotten into STATE OF FEAR because of how the characters were handled. It was just too impossible for me to care about the characters because there were so many of them.

Then there are those books that start with several longer chapters with one protagonist, and then suddenly switch to spending several chapters with another protagonist in another location. This works better than what Crichton did in STATE, I believe, since it does get the reader more vested in the first protagonist before moving on. In the end, however, the changeover is still jarring if the second protagonist hasn't been introduced prior to becoming the new focus of the story. I felt that way about Ding Chavez in Tom Clancy's CLEAR AND PRESENT DANGER, but now Ding is one of my favorite characters in Clancy's books (right behind Jack Ryan and John Clark). Tom Clancy has multiple protagonists in basically all of his books (in most he treats the villain as one of the major POV characters to the point that they become a protagonist), but in general it works for his style.

There have been other writers (several lesser-known fantasy writers in particular) for whom I don’t feel this technique has worked very gracefully. I suppose it works for Clancy partly because he writes thrillers with a heavy emphasis on technology and nonfiction-style information dispersal. If he were writing truly character-focused stories, the reader would get a lot more frustrated--and since I tend to write character-focused stories, this is the risk for me. I don't think it would work if I were to use Clancy's technique.

Even before starting ALDEN RIDGE, my technique for introducing new characters has always been a cautious one. Except in certain circumstances (once or possibly twice per book at most), I always introduce new characters in the company of existing characters. This makes for a smoother transition, as it lets the reader meet these new characters without being taken away from the existing characters that they already like and are comfortable with. I believe it makes it easier for the reader to then enjoy any future scenes that happen follow the new characters alone. Those future scenes then become deeper glimpses into a character the reader already has some familiarity with, rather than yet another POV character the reader doesn't know anything about.

There are certainly many ways in which to handle all of these issues, and the style that you choose will largely boil down to personal preference and taste. Just make sure that whatever technique you choose is consistent with the rest of your storytelling techniques in a given work. If it's a character-focused story, try to respect (and grow) the bond between your reader and your protagonist(s). If it's more of an idea-focused work, you might have less to worry about. Many novels--ALDEN RIDGE included--are actually hybrids that are simultaneously character-focused and idea-focused, and so there is even more flexibility with what aspects you choose to emphasize at any given point. Nothing like having an endless array of choices, right?


Rachel V. Olivier said...

George R.R. Martin has multiple protagonists as well and I really enjoy it, because even the antagonists have a story to tell and I like reading them. I think part of the problem with my own stuck novel is I want to make all the characters protagonists and that's not an easy thing to well.

Christopher M. Park said...

You know, I still have yet to read George R.R. Martin, but he's definitely on my TBR list. I do really like seeing the antagonists' point of view, too. I definitely like reading multiple protagonists when it is done skillfully, but as you say it's not easy. Best of luck with getting your novel un-stuck!

Cloistervoices said...

I was very glad to find this blog about a subject I'm currently wrestling to the floor. Thanks for your thoughtful post!

Christopher M. Park said...

Sure thing! The topic of this blog has been all over the place of late (it went through a phase of pretty much just 3D art, and now it's mostly about game design and programming), but writing is still a very important topic to me.