How to Structure Stories With Multiple Main Characters?

One of the most common questions I’m asked is how to structure stories with multiple main characters. If you have two (or more) characters who are equally important to the story and receive equal POV time, how should you balance them when structuring your novel?

At its core, story structure is a simple equation: one primary actor—the protagonist—moves forward toward a goal through a series of obstacles that ultimately demand personal transformation of some kind.

Any discussion of structure reveals that plot is necessarily intertwined with character arc. Indeed, many basic explanations of plot points are in fact less about external forces working upon the characters and more about how the character is changing from the inside out. Usually, these discussions emphasize the protagonist as a singular entity within the story, and usually this is precisely because the protagonist’s character arc is so closely linked to the story’s external plot structure. The single protagonist in alignment with the plot structure produces elegantly powerful stories. If we consider the storyform as a map of psychological transformation, then it makes sense that it is often at its most thematically powerful when it is most streamlined and simple.

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And yet many stories choose to follow multiple main characters, for many different reasons. For one thing, this complexity more closely mirrors our real-life experiences. But, too, some stories are more about the panorama than the personal transformation, and they require more than one character’s perspective in order to give readers all the necessary information.

So how can you structure stories with multiple main characters? If you have more than one person acting and changing over the course of the story, how can you tie them both into one solid structural form, so that everything feels cohesive and appropriately causal?

Let’s take a look.

The Two Different Types of Stories With Multiple Main Characters

Structuring Your Novel IPPY Award 165

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Generally speaking, we find two different types of stories with multiple main characters. Either we see different characters walking side by side in the same structural plotline, or we see them each as the primary actors in separate plotlines which will eventually meet toward the end of the story.

In the first, the main characters will influence one another’s structural progression and personal transformations. In the second, they will probably have little to no impact upon one another’s storylines until their individual journeys finally bring them to a mutual meeting place.

How you structure a story with multiple main characters will depend on which type of plot you’re working with. (For simplicity, the rest of the article will assume we’re discussing stories that feature two main characters, but of course you can have many more than that. Aside from added complexity challenges, the same basic principles apply no matter how many main characters you’re juggling.)

Multiple Main Characters in the Same Plotline

This is the most streamlined approach to multiple main characters. Even though you have multiple characters, you do not have multiple plotlines.

  • The characters either share a plot goal or are following individual goals that directly interact one with the other (e.g., one person wants to stop the other).
  • Both are impacted by the same set of plot obstacles, which means they are equally affected by the turning points at the structural beats.
  • They are in each other’s presence for much of the story, allowing for relational progression (whether positive or negative).

This is a common choice for relational stories such as romances. Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus comes to mind. We also sometimes see it in mysteries in which partner detectives are featured equally.

We also see it in stories in which the character who would generally be considered the antagonist is elevated to equal importance with the protagonist. This might be done for many reasons, but is most notable in stories in which there isn’t a great deal of moral separation between the characters—i.e., both characters are equally sympathetic and/or equally amoral.

Structuring these stories isn’t much different from structuring a single-protagonist story, in that both characters will be equally affected by the same structural beats. This means that as per usual, you only need to plot a single storyline with a single set of plot points. The trick is making sure both characters are equally affected by each beat. If one character consistently is not an actor in the structural beats and/or is not impacted by the beats, then you may discover you’re really dealing with only a single main character after all.

Important Variation: Protagonist and Main Character as Separate People

Sometimes we see this approach with stories in which the two characters are not structural equals but still receive equal emphasis within the story. The term “protagonist” refers to the character who is the primary actor in the plot—the character who makes things happen and moves the plot forward. The term “main character” refers to the person who is most central to the story.

Usually, the “protagonist” and the “main character” will be the same person. But occasionally, these roles may be split, with the main character acting as an important observer to the protagonist’s actions. We see this with pairings such as Sherlock Holmes/John Watson and Atticus Finch/Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. In most of these instances, the main character will act as the primary narrator who observes, comments upon, and is probably impacted by the protagonist’s actions—for better or worse.

Want to know how to write child characters? Study Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird.

Multiple Main Characters in Multiple Plotlines

The more complex approach to stories with multiple characters is that of creating what effectively amounts to multiple plots, each with its own main character following his own structural progression—until the plotlines converge late in the story.

  • At the beginning of the story, each plotline will be separate from the others.
  • Each protagonist will have a unique goal and meet unique conflict obstacles, which in turn creates relatively unique structural turning points and throughlines.
  • The plotlines will be linked in some way that will eventually bring the characters together in either a mutual or mutually exclusive goal at the end of the story.

We see this technique used in stories that require a grand scale. Although these stories can certainly focus on relational conflict as well, they tend to thematically highlight a “bigger picture,” showing one particular crisis through the eyes of different people. Epic fantasies, such as Game of Thrones, often employ this technique.

We can also see it in such stories as Cold Mountain, in which one plotline follows a Confederate deserter trekking home through the mountains, while the other plotline focuses on his sweetheart’s struggles to eke a living out of her farm back home. Other than the obvious relationship between the characters, the two plotlines have no effect upon each other. The primary purpose is that of widening the story’s thematic theater to show the wider suffering of wartime.

The structure in stories such as this is more complicated. Although certain “global” events may be significant enough to occasionally create mutual plot points, most of the time each plotline will create its own structure. This means the events in one plotline will not likely (or at least not immediately) impact the events in the other plotline. This remains true until the plotlines finally converge toward the end of the story.

The trick here is making sure readers understand why they are being asked to follow two separate plotlines. This should be clear either from a thematic standpoint and/or because it’s obvious the characters’ individual goals will inevitably bring them together at some point in the story.

Important Variation: Dual Timelines

Sometimes we see this approach in stories that feature not only multiple plotlines but also multiple timelines, in which one of the plotlines takes place in an entirely different time than the other. In fact, it is possible for the same person to be the main character in both plotlines. In one she will be older and in the other she will be younger. This approach is usually chosen when using one timeline to comment upon the other offers either greater thematic depth or heightened suspense.

Timelines will (usually) not converge the way plotlines will, but at a certain point the events of the earlier timeline should provide an important catalyst for the latter timeline, driving it forward into the Climax. Usually, the earlier timeline will be subordinate to the later one, and the story’s structure will bear this out by placing more emphasis and drama on the later timeline’s structural beats.

4 Tips for Managing Stories With Multiple Main Characters

If you’ve decided your story works best with multiple characters, you can use the following four tips to help you manage this complex approach to storytelling.

1. Identify Your Structural Throughline (Look at the Climax)

The most important key for managing multiple main characters is to make sure they are contributing to rather than taking away from your story’s structural integrity. You will want to carefully assess your story’s structural beats to make sure you’re maintaining cohesion and resonance across plotlines and POVs. Look particularly to the Climactic Moment, since this is the scene that “proves” what your story’s structure is ultimately about. Then check all major structural moments leading up to the Climactic Moment, to make sure they are all arrows pointing toward the same endpoint.

2. Balance the POVs

Usually, when you are writing a story with multiple main characters, this means you have decided both characters are equally important to the story. The clearest way to signal this to readers is by balancing their POVs throughout. This doesn’t mean you must strictly alternate between POVs every other chapter, but you will want to try to main regular intervals for both.

You also don’t have to be hyper-meticulous in ensuring each POV receives the same word count, but you will want to give them essentially equal weight—otherwise one character will implicitly take center stage as the “real” main character.

It should also go without saying that POVs should be equally interesting to readers. If all the good stuff and all the best supporting characters are lumped into one POV, then you should assess whether the weaker POV is really as necessary as you originally thought.

3. Consider Thematic Resonance

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Even if your story uses multiple main characters and plotlines, it should still feature one cohesive theme. This is best achieved by harmonizing all character arcs within the story. Characters can believe in vastly different Lies at the beginning of the story, but all of these Lies should be challenged by the same thematic Truth by the end. If you discover your main characters’ individual character arcs are about vastly different Truths, then you may find that they pull too hard in opposite thematic directions and end up fracturing your story’s cohesion and resonance.

In adding an extra main character, you have made your story’s structure that much more complicated. This means it is all the more important that every piece contribute thematically. Consider the context these two characters, POVs, and (perhaps) plotlines are creating for one another. What are they saying about each other that neither one would say in isolation? Consider, too, the subtext. Because readers can see the larger picture through the eyes of more than one character, the subtext in each individual POV will grow.

Finally, examine all of your story’s structural beats (and, by extension, each character’s arc) to see how thematically harmonious they are. Cold Mountain is a great example of a story in which the two main characters endure vastly different experiences—and yet both experiences are ultimately about the same thing.

cold mountain inman reunites with ada

4. Pay Attention to Key Supporting Characters Throughout

Supporting characters are always important, but they can make or break a story that features multiple main characters. Especially in stories with multiple plotlines, you will want to make sure all the key supporting roles are sufficiently filled in both POVs. Ideally, each main character will be surrounded by a full complement of supporting characters: antagonist, contagonist, mentor, sidekick and/or love interest. These archetypal characters not only add color, they fill key functional roles within the storyform itself.

***

One of the most powerful guidelines for any author is to “honor simplicity.” This doesn’t mean you can’t write stories of deep complexity, but it does mean you should never confuse complex with complicated. This rule of thumb is particularly valuable when writing stories with multiple main characters. The more main characters you add, the more opportunity you have for a certain kind of complexity—but the more risk you run of complications as well.

Choose your main characters with an eye on how those choices will affect your entire story—plot, character arcs, and theme—and use these tips to keep everything balanced and resonant.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever thought about writing stories with multiple characters? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. I was waiting for this exact post! Thank you so much, it is informative as always. I was wondering, perhaps, there is a discord/reddit where readers of your blog could have a discussion about everything we learn from your lessons? I, for one, would love to have a place to exchange critique on WIPs with others who also are avid readers of this blog 🙂

  2. Oh God, I wish I had this post 15 years ago when I wrote my first book. The result of that is that I thought I would be better off keeping with one main character after that.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I’ve written about half my books with multiple characters. Both ways are fun and have lots to offer, but I’ve gotten to where I really like more streamlined books with just one protagonist/narrator.

  3. Interesting piece Katy… but surely most, if not all, stories with character conflict (as opposed to ‘one man against the mountain’ sagas), will have at least two main characters of equal importance, whether they be goodie and baddie, hunter and hunted, competitors, or indeed lovers.

    Often… at least for the ‘pantsers’ among us… we can’t plan their plot lines until they’ve given us a clue where the story’s headed and it’s those characters’ own importance and strength which will determine that.

    I agree that multiple characters and threads can make life difficult, as I was always concerned about it in my first novel.
    A change of publishers gave me the opportunity to re-visit the book, and rewrite it, removing one of the multiple threads which made the book too complex, and potentially confusing to the reader (the character in that thread… a ‘baddie’… still remained, but in a lesser role).

    After discussion with my new publisher, it was decided, as the book already had a sequel, to write a middle book to fit between them creating a trilogy. The excised thread became a parallel secondary thread in the new book and the first book’s original final ending became the middle book’s final ending. The first book ended with the ‘good guys’ catching their man anyway, but without it’s extra surprise ending (which transferred to the end of the new book two). Instead, we twist the end with the investigating officers having concerns… The man’s guilty, but is he the real villain? (Book two also has its crime investigation tied up neatly) The demoted character from the first book now becomes a major character in book two.

    The former sequel, with minor changes and a new prelude taken from the middle book’s ending, becomes the concluding part of the trilogy. Its major character was always a formerly very minor character we first met in book one.

    Parts one and two are already out, published with a suitable interval between them, with part three undergoing final proofreading/editing ready to follow them shortly. All three books work as individual novels, though each subsequent volume does inevitably give away the previous book’s ending, so it’s best to read them in the correct order.

    All my other books (fortunately all completely separate stories, but sharing core characters) will follow them, being re-published in chronological order. As they were originally edited by my new publisher in a former life (unlike the first two books) he has no concerns about them so the files will carry over (the old publisher closed the publishing side of his business, returning all rights etc., including any cover designs he’d commissioned, to the authors to either self publish or take elsewhere). A further book, number nine in the series, is well on its way to completion too.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      In this context, I’m talking about the structural main character–the character(s) whose plot throughline creates the plot and theme. As noted in the post, some stories *will* elevate the antagonist to a co-equal character, who essentially becomes a co-main character in his own right. But just because an antagonist is prominent will not necessarily mean he is a “main character/protagonist,” especially in a structural sense.

  4. Eric Troyer says

    Great post! I kept thinking that it would be an interesting challenge to write a story with two main characters in the same plot line, but one follows a positive character arc while another follows a negative character arc. Each reacts to plot points in different ways. That would be challenging thematically, but it could be useful in saying something about human nature. I imagine it’s been done before, but I can’t think of any stories like that off the top of my head.

    • As I said below, I only ever write multiple POVs and I haven’t a clue how to write a story with only one protagonist. So when I say you may be overthinking this, take it with a grain of salt 🙂

      I understand the negative / positve / flat arcs to be in relation to a thematic truth. The one who is rejecting it is on the negative arc, the one who learns and embraces it is on the positive arc, and the one who already possessed it and is steadfastly wielding it is on the flat arc.

      Let’s say you have a magical MacGuffin, let’s call it “the Ring.” The truth of the story is that the Ring will corrupt the one who possesses it and wields it. You have two characters. One, Faramir, understands you can’t use the Ring no matter what, for you will be corrupted. The second, Boromir, believes you can use the Ring, and saying otherwise is just crazy talk. The brothers are joined together in a goal of saving their land, Gondor. But they differ in the approach they will take to achieve this goal.

      Because Boromir refuses to accept the truth, he is naturally corrupted, and pays the ultimate price for his failure to accept the truth. Faramir accepts the truth, saves their land, and weds the valiant Eowyn.

      Granted, the Gondor brothers aren’t the central characters, but I think the example works. Another example (using multiple timelines) can be “Star Wars,” where Luke accepts the thematic truth regarding the Dark Side, and his father doesn’t.

      Writing the opposing arcs doesn’t have to be more complicated than this, all that’s required is that each person has a rational basis for their relationship with the story’s Truth.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      What Jamie said. 🙂

    • That sounds an interesting idea.

  5. Daniela Meduna says

    How did you know I needed this exact question answered? You’re the best! Thanks so much!

  6. I only ever write stories with multiple protagonists. The first three show up within the first three chapters. From the start I tend to treat them as a “triumfeminate” (a rule of three women, as opposed to a triumvirate), with each of them having equal importance, though not necessarily equal word count. They frequently share a plot goal, so they’re impacted by the same events, though in different ways.

    As the story progresses, a fourth character emerges much later, who is a key to moving the plot forward or solving a mystery, etc. I actually have no idea how I’d go about writing a story with just the one protagonist. No story has ever come into my head that way. With the Sith there’s always two, in any story I imagine there’s always three 🙂

    • The books in my ‘Lena’s Friends’ crime series always have multiple protagonists due to the format.

      The eponymous Lena character isn’t the actual crime solver or amateur detective who beats the police at their own game, as seen in so many crime series. Instead, she’s a catalyst, acting as a go-between to connect her varied friends both inside the police, and outside, including some very shady characters.

      In her profession as a high end escort/prostitute, she has useful connections in high places as well as those in the sex industry and in the seedier side of Bristol and the West Country’s life. Some of these are the ‘Lena’s Friends’ of the series title.

      Lena’s friends include her biker partner Tony: the Rev’d Motson, a gay, atheist, Anglican clergyman who plays electric bagpipes in a Celtic rock band, and whose parish is right in the middle of Bristol’s red light district: various serving police officers: and biker Terry Peters, a farm worker, and his, now clean, former heroin addict wife Louise.
      Between them, they make sure that, some way or other, justice is served, and good wins over evil in the end, even if the niceties of legality sometime get a little strained in the process.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I like the three character approach myself, especially since, when you add in the antagonist as a fourth, you get a nice little square that lends itself to both Robert McKee’s thematic square and John Truby’s four corners of opposition.

  7. Peter Moore says

    I love your differentiation between a protagonist and MC. That fits the two major characters in my story almost exactly.

    I’m using your second method of parallel plots, although there are points where the two characters interact. The way I handle the it structurally is for their character arcs and individual plot beats to echo each other, though not in an obvious way. This helps me keep the story true to the theme.

  8. Victoria Leo says

    Yup, you’re mind-reading again! LOL. I do 1st person, multiple narrators and keep one theme for the story. One protagonist but two main characters usually. 7 novels in a long story arc. So keeping it all working is a challenge. Lots of index cards.
    I’ve spent my time learning so much about structure and characters but always felt that my kind of story didn’t entirely fit the 1 protagonist, one stand-along story examples, so using your basic principles and then doing what ‘feels’ right. Was worried about my penultimate novel where a supporting character had a powerful impact on the 2ndary plot of the protagonist’s marriage… but those two doofuses were never going to figure it out without her, so – there you go!

    THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR THIS POST!!!!

  9. BL Albina says

    In my current project. I do have two main characters. Who are a girl and a boy.
    Have you written any books?

  10. BL Albina says

    I am doing two people who are a girl and a boy in my current project. There is no marriage stuff.

    Are you still writting? Have you read the Poldark series?

  11. Thank you for this. Trial and error have brought me to many of the same conclusions–PLUS you’ve added a bit more for me to chew on.

    Since childhood I’ve gravitated towards complex novels! So I just naturally began to write multiple POVs, maybe four. Of COURSE there is thematic resononance. And generally the MCs have related goals (one over-arching goal) and do come together or become aware of each other by the end. Often at different times, so there’s a funneling effect.

    Because I write spec fic this approach is a great vehicle for showing how a society works (or doesn’t) from a variety of angles.

    I said it was natural for me–not easy!

    So thanks again. I hope this will encourage other writers to go this route so I have more such stories to read!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      “I said it was natural for me–not easy!”

      I think this is a spot-on observation. Just because something is a natural fit doesn’t mean it will be easy, and just because something is easy doesn’t mean it’s your natural fit! 😀

      • Parepidemos says

        Touché. I must think on this.
        Especially because I’m about to take a year off from “normal life” to focus on writing fiction (instead of nonfiction).
        I appreciate all the insights you share here and in your podcast; the psychic ones really strike home. 😉

  12. Lila Diller says

    Could you define more clearly what you mean about the difference between complex & complicated?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Think of “complex” as “many streams all leading to the sea.” Meanwhile, “complicated” is “many streams leading to many different seas.”

      A few examples of “complicated” would be:

      * A plot in which the structural beats are all about different things (e.g., the First Plot Point is about the conflict with the antagonist, the Midpoint is about the protagonist’s main relationship, and the Third Plot Point is about a supporting character’s subplot).

      * A story in which different characters are representing different themes that don’t support each other (e.g., the protagonist’s story is about seeking justice, the antagonist’s story is about dealing with a mid-life crisis, and the love interest’s story is about getting out of debt)

      * A setting that is too scattered or unfocused; this could also be true of a magic system in a fantasy (e.g., the main metaphor for the magic system is “weather,” but there are also elements where characters draw power from runes or ghosts or some such).

      Of course, there are many other ways a story can complicate itself, but hopefully that gives you the gist. The main difference between a story that is “complicated” and one that is “complex” is simply that the complicated story doesn’t work and the complex one does because it is able to bring all its piece together into a seamless finale that makes sense.

  13. Thank you so much for this post. I was just thinking about this issue last night, and was going to ask you. It’s like you read my mind! I am working on the third book in a trilogy. All of them are strongly thematic. This last one is definitely Big Picture. The theme of this book is to expose the false narratives of corporate media, so of necessity, I need to include the stories of multiple characters. After working with the overall theme of the trilogy for many years, and observing the real world context of the story for most of my life, I know my characters Very well. So it kind of comes naturally to write their stories. However, your tips are timely and valuable. thanks again.

  14. Grace Dvorachek says

    This is the post I didn’t even know I’d been waiting for. I’ve experimented with single MCs, and both types of multiple MCs. In a recently-finished novel, I have two MCs whose plotlines are independent, though their choices and actions within those plotlines affect the other MC’s plot. It was a very interesting experience because I was also juggling tons of supporting characters on top of the two main plots. However, when I finally stepped back and looked at the entire story, it was very satisfying to see one, continuous Theme running throughout all of the arcs and plotlines towards the same purpose.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, it’s an awesome feeling when you’re juggling a bazillion balls and you realize they’re really all staying in the air! 😀

  15. Three main characters; three different stories that eventually come together.

    Alternative to the round-robin method. Will it work?

    I wrote and published a novel called The Emissary. It tells the story of how one woman, aided by an ancient alien explorer, saves 120,000 humans by putting them into stasis on six arks that are sent to six distant worlds to restart humanity. I am working on a sequel, but some of my fans (I think I have, like, a dozen) have expressed a desire for more about the disintegration of social, political, and economic order as the end of the world approaches. I touch on this in The Emissary but not in any depth because I didn’t want an 800 page novel.

    To address my fans’ request, I am writing a novella (~40K words) to show the world’s last days through the eyes of three people with radically different backgrounds and living situations. In the end, they all end up on the last ark leaving Earth, though none of them know that when the story begins. Each has their own Big Problem that will be more-or-less solved by the end of the story. So, how to handle these three threads?

    Rather than the usual round-robin approach to following the characters, I am trying a character study approach. In Part 1, we meet Zack, who lives in a lawless, post-apocalyptic world outside Cairo, waiting for the end to come. In Part 2, we meet Almara, the teenage mistress of a wealthy and powerful man in Buenos Aires. In Part 3, we meet Carrie, a thirteen-year-old girl from a relatively affluent family in San Francisco. In Part 4, the three of them meet on the bridge of the last ark a hundred years later and face a crisis: Almara has sabotaged the ark, and it is killing the sleepers. I don’t know yet what Part 4’s POV is; maybe the artificial intelligence fighting with the virus Almara unleashed.

    I don’t recall ever reading a book that handled multiple MCs this way, though I would love to read one to see what the author does with it.

    What do you think? Is this way of handling three main characters going to work?

    Thanks.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I don’t see any reason why this shouldn’t work. I have read books structured this way, although their titles aren’t coming to me right now. The effect, basically, is that of an anthology of linked short stories, in which each character’s journey is separate, with a final installment in which they all come together.

  16. Great post. Question: if a story has three main characters, and the POV is from 2 of these characters’ perspectives, is it okay to take the 3rd character and begin his perspective half way through the book? If I separate this 3rd character’s perspective with new chapter, as I do the others, do you think that could work smoothly for second half of the book. Your thoughts?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There are no rules against this, but I must admit it’s not generally a technique I’m particularly fond of. Partly, this is because it can be jarring to readers who aren’t expecting the new POV that late in the game. And partly, it is because it doesn’t present as neat of a big pattern as when all important pieces, including POVs, are set up in the First Act.

      • Good point. What if each main character had a section titled after them? Like Book I Mary … Book II Jane, Book III John. Would that work effectively? Or do you have a better suggestion?

        • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

          If you’re talking about creating separate sections for each POV character (versus distributing all the POVs randomly throughout the entire book), that’s a different approach. Michael talks about this approach in the comment just above your original comment, and in my response, I mention how this can be an effective approach. It still gives you that sense of a controlled narrative, so you don’t run into the same “sloppy” feeling you can sometimes get when a new POV is introduced late in a traditionally structured narrative.

  17. JM Kessler says

    I haven’t tackled this area, but this article is a great place to start when I do. Thanks!

  18. I’m a product of a large family and am used to having multiple conversations running at the same time, so multiple MCs didn’t bother me when I started writing. My present WIP has 4 teens, all main characters. I didn’t know why when it began, I only knew they HAD to be there. Now that I’ve finished the first draft, I understand. They are 4 determined loners, who now can only survive by learning to work together and are surprised by learning to care for each other. There is an overstory of good vs. evil, but it is the changes in them that drives the story action.

  19. Dennis Strack says

    Thanks for your post. In the novel I’m writing at the moment, I have four main characters in my detective/fantasy/horror story. They are the detective who is actually the lead, his ex-wife, an angel, and a demon, the antagonist. The detective and the angel must team up to destroy a demon that is the leader of human warlock coven whose mission from the Devil is to murder 13 descendants. The plot is more complex because it deals mainly with the detective’s inner struggle to eventually conquer his grudges toward God and his ex-wife. The angel and ex-wife must also help the detective do that through their subplots while the demon is also trying to prevent that. Since the 13 victims or descendants have spiritual connections with their ancestors, that is causing a curse that the demon and Satan are trying to end. That’s why they must kill all of them. Now, have a question. How can I show the descendants have these connections with their ancestors without overwhelming readers and/or me as to whose story it really is, and, at the same time, not making the descendants that get killed (not all get killed, however) merely throwaway? How can I accomplish this?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I would focus on fully characterizing one (or maybe two or three) of the descendants and letting them stand in as representations of the larger whole, so readers are not overwhelmed with too many characters. You might also find this post helpful: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/large-casts-of-characters/

      • Dennis Strack says

        Thank you very much. I’ll have to consider that and check out the post you referred me to. Also, in my story, the descendants aren’t always killed off one per scene. Sometimes it’s been two to a few. For the time being, I’m just going to try to finish the first draft and not worry so much about this until my other drafts. I’m to worried about getting everything perfect, but so many writers, especially beginners, have that issue too. Thank you for your advice.

  20. This article was perfectly timed, because I’m embarking on a writing project involving multiple main characters. I’ll definitely be keeping it handy while working on my project!

  21. In my last structural edit I cut my two MCs into one to simplify the story. The cut MC is now the protagonist and occasionally, if the MC is absent from the scene, I use the protagonist’s POV. (The scene is important to the MC and I thought it was better to show the event rather than tell it.) I was going to use this technique in the sequel where there are a couple of other important minor characters who have an occasional POV chapter.
    My aim is simplicity and coherence, but is it too jarring to have rogue POV chapters?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      You see “rogue POVs” frequently in many bestselling books. They’re effective, no doubt, but in my opinion sloppy. I much prefer to see a tight well-thought out use of POV throughout the book.

  22. Thanks for another great post. I’ve definitely played with Multi-POVs. There’s a fine line between enriching your story world, and bloating your novel, and multi-POVs definitely play red-rover across that line.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It really depends on the story. I like a tight-POV story myself, but some stories benefit from a very broad spectrum of viewpoints.

  23. Elisheva says

    You write: ‘Characters can believe in vastly different Lies at the beginning of the story, but all of these Lies should be challenged by the same thematic Truth by the end.’
    What about having two main characters who reflect each other? For example, one main character is a codependent who is enabling someone else’s demise through what they view as acts of kindness, while the other main character is too strict and her children cannot share with her that they need her help for they are scared that she will reprimand them. One of them shows too much compassion, the other not enough. I would think this is an interesting way to highlight a theme–for example, here the theme would be kindness–and show two characters who struggle with it in opposing ways to bring out how it is not black and white

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Totally. This is a great way of examining a single thematic premise from opposite angles. Very powerful.

  24. Ruchama B says

    I am writing a romance where each of the two has their own issue to overcome besides the romance issues. To complicate matters further, I have rival and I have found it necessary to add some scenes from her point of view. I don’t think there need to be many of these. And, I’m definitely uses some narrative in scenes where other supporting characters appear without any of the principals. I don’t see any need to get into the heads of these supporting characters. Does this make sense?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, I wouldn’t recommend adding too many supporting POVs, especially if their not showing up consistently throughout the narrative.

  25. Melissa Merritt says

    Good post! I’m writing a historical novel with two points of view: one is based on my great-great-grandmother, the other on my great-great-grandfather. It’s hard to work their lives into a cohesive plot, but I’m attempting it, and this post might help me, so thank you!

  26. My most recent book, Sarathem Hub, had multiple characters and was set in multiple places. Initially, I struggled with the complexity of it. I knew where and how and when to tie it together, but getting there was the hard part. I ended up breaking the book into 2 parts. Part 1 was a separate story about a character which pulled in references of the others. And so, by the end of part 1, we saw the overlap but not how it came together. Part two brought the players together and set them on their collective journey. Feedback on the approach was positive.
    My current project is not as complicated, but again follows multiple characters with separate arcs that come together. Note to self: next time keep it simple!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I tell myself to keep it simple every time, but it never seems to work out that way. :p

  27. Sylvia Taylor says

    I’m in my final edit of a story with multiple characters, though there are two main protagonist (husband and wife) and there are two antagonist (brother and sister) with with two main supporting characters.
    I am very happy that you have posted this, I was beginning to wonder if I was on the right track, though am happy with plot lines and how they interject.
    I am so grateful that a fellow student on a course gave me your contact details. I have learned much from your posts. 🙂

  28. Ramona Beresford-Howe says

    I am your new biggest fan, having gained a Ton from this post which led to purchasing multiple of your ‘how to’ books. My story is that of a prison psychologist and her BFF, a small town hairdresser who knows all the local gossip. Together they solve a 20 year old murder. The psychologist is speaking in first person while the story of the hairdresser is in third person. I’m considering adding another MC who is a friend of the two women and a domestic violence investigator. All that being said, my next challenge is determining how this will change or grow them. Maybe as a team? I would love to say that my aunt’s ability to write (Constance Beresford-Howe) was passed down to me, but since I am new to this game, I can only practice and continue reading your wonderful pieces of advice. Thank you so much!

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Welcome! 🙂 First of all, this sounds like a fantastic pairing for a mystery story. Second, protagonists in mysteries (especially serial mysteries) don’t always change. By their very function of solving the mystery, they usually represent a Flat Arc of some kind, in which *they* don’t change, but they change the world around them.

      See this post: https://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/flat-character-arc-1/

  29. I needed this! My current WIP, at present going through the rewrite process, has multiple PoVs. And not just 2, either.
    The characters split up for different quests, all related, but they come together frequently.
    I labelled each chapter with the name of the PoV character, but the biggest challenge is the timeline. I have to keep asking myself ‘What is so-and-so doing at this time? Will he/she have got to a particular point? And questions of this nature. Calculating it is a mathematical nightmare.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Hah. Totally! A trend I’ve noticed in my own fiction is that I use fewer POVs with every book. Mostly, this is to spare myself these kinds of headaches. 😉

  30. Thanks for this great post! What about timing different plot lines though? If I have two main characters with separate plot points, how do I time those in relation to the whole manuscript? Should the focus be on getting the timing right within each plot line or should the perspective change after/before each plot point so that they follow each other closely around 1/8, 1/4, 1/2 etc. of the whole text? I tend to do the latter or trying to synchronize the timing wherever possible – although that sometimes leads to one character’s plot point being seen through the other one’s eyes… Is there maybe another approach that would work better? I’m really struggling with the timing issue and would appreciate your thoughts about it very much.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      I prefer the approach of synchronizing the structural beats in multiple plotlines. Timing in structure is really just a matter of pacing. If the beats in one plotline are too far off the timing, then it is the pacing that will be negatively affected. This isn’t, of course, an exact science, and things can get very complicated and messy with multiple plotlines, but shooting for the ideal timing in each plotline is still the best approach, IMO.

  31. I’ve never really thought about creating a story with multiple main characters who have separate plots, but I think it sounds interesting! I’m definitely considering it now. What are the novels you think have done it best?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Oh, there are so many. As many stories as not feature multiple main characters. Romances are an obvious example. They almost always feature the two leads as co-equal protagonists. I’ve been reading L.J. Shen lately, and she’s quite good. (FYI: her stuff gets a hard R rating.)

      • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

        Oh, wait, just realized you were specifically asking about separate plots. Fantasy features this a lot. Brent Weeks comes to mind (also a hard R).

  32. I remember thinking years ago about stories with a collective main character, where you’d have a fairly large group with no readily identifiable main character / protagonist, where really the entire group is the main character. One tell-tale sign of this is when the title suggests it is about the group.

    ANIMAL HOUSE is about the Deltas as a group, with their plot goal just being to have fun and defy the system. There’s no way any one of them — Pinto, Flounder, Otter, or Bluto — qualifies as the main character. The group is the main character.

    Same goes for DEAD POETS SOCIETY, in which the schoolboys form themselves into the titular group, as they work through their coming of age beats.

    A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN is about the players (and a coach) of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. This story more clearly singles out Dottie (Geena Davis) as a main character — to the point where she was an example of the “Queen Arc” a few months ago — but there are individual arcs for several of the other characters (Jimmy [Tom Hanks] gets a redemption arc and stops drinking, Kit [Lori Petty] emerges from Dottie’s shadow), and the group as a whole comes together to overcome common obstacles, like bonding as a team and capturing public interest in the game.

    • As for the other form mentioned in the episode, where you have two mirror plotlines of more or less equal importance, the most elegant version of this I’ve ever seen is in a graphic novel by “God of Manga” Osamu Tezuka. In KARMA, the fourth volume of his unfinished masterpiece PHOENIX, the structure cuts back and forth between two main characters: the handsome and ambitious sculptor Akenemaru, and the hideously disfigured criminal Gao. A TIME magazine article from 2004 summarizes the plot pretty well if you’re interested: http://content.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,664969,00.html.

      But what’s wild about the structure is that while the same thematic truths inform both plotlines — the redemptive power of art, the cycle of life/death/rebirth, karma as reward or punishment for actions in a previous life — they go in completely different directions. Gao comes to an appreciation of life and works hard to redeem himself, while Akenemaru’s ambition leads to the corruption of his soul. In the climax, they end up with their roles completely reversed: a story that started with a completely unjustified act of cruelty by Gao against Akenemaru, comes around to find Akenemaru tragically harming the now-reformed Gao. But that’s not quite how it ends, because karma proves more than willing to intervene.

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