Every story, and therefore every novel, has a protagonist: at least one. I wrote yesterday about troubles I’m having with a character trying to fight her way up, becoming more and more my novel’s dominant presence, and that now has me asking: how do you balance multiple protagonists?
Do you HAVE to balance them? Who says that when you have two or more characters linked with your narrator, they have to have equally distributed time in the spotlight?
MANAGING PAGE TIME
I love the term “screen time” in reference to television and film, so I figure for books, it makes sense to talk about a character’s page time (or even page presence, if you go in for alliteration.)
I’ve read posts and comments by fellow author-bloggers who sometimes get frightened by the thought of not keeping to a pattern where narration is concerned.
They worry that breaking an established or semi-established pattern will throw off their reader or somehow weaken the structure of their work.
That pattern could involve:
- Who is narrating each chapter? You have a set up of your narrator following character X, Y, X, Y, X, Y. Can you go: X, Y, X, Y, Y, X, X, X?
- What if you need another character to narrate just one or two chapters in the entire book? What if you’re going: X-Y-X-Y-Z-X-Y?
- The length of each character’s chapters. What if one ends up shorter or longer to a noticeable extent than others?
PATTERNS CAN SOMETIMES MEAN OVER-THINKING THINGS. AND THAT’S NOT GOOD.
I’m rereading “Orthodoxy” right now by G.K. Chesterton, and one of his major points in the early chapters is that madness is not an overuse of or an entrapment in creativity. Madness is entrapment in logic.
Basically, Chesterton says that the madman who thinks everyone is in a conspiracy against him can logically explain every fact and every circumstance of life away. He can logically make every experience fit inside his mad idea that everyone is out to get him. You cannot use logic to convince him he is wrong. Logic is his ally. Paradoxically, it’s on his side.
(Chesterton gives further examples and develops his argument much more than that. But hopefully that gives you a basic idea of his approach and his overall point: too much logic is dangerous.)
It just struck me, as I got to writing this post without any clear direction of where to take it, that Chesterton’s idea…. his concept that an overabundance of logic can be a negative thing…. can apply to art. To fiction.
A pattern is great, don’t get me wrong. If you want to structure your work according to some kind of pattern, that’s fine. It’s no big deal.
When sticking to the pattern–to logic–impedes the quality and development of the story, though, the pattern should probably take a back seat.
ARTISTIC LICENSE EXISTS FOR A REASON
The greatest and perhaps the most important power of the artist is the power to ignore, or reshape, or distort rules. That’s artistic license.
That is the power of creation, really. And the patterns we try to stick to in our writing, those are rules.
I’m not saying the rules don’t have their value. They can help keep us on track. Keep our work organized and structured so that we don’t get lost in the words. If you’re trying to write according to a pattern, there’s nothing wrong with trying to make it work all the way through.
“Trying to make it work” is different than forcing it to work when it’s wrong for you and for your story. “Trying to make it work” is different than “going mad” thanks to over-emphasizing logic.
If you have two protagonists, it’s okay if they split the spotlight 60-40, or even 70-30. If that’s what your story needs, that’s fine. Nothing and no one requires you to write 50-50 between them.
You can focus your chapters without a pattern. You can create a pattern and then break it. In fact, breaking a pattern in my genre of sword and sorcery fantasy can be extremely powerful. It can mimic a sense of “everything falling apart” that’s occurring in the content of the story. Content and mood reflected in structure: brilliant!
You don’t have to go from X to Y to Z and then back to X, to start over again. In my novels that have multiple point of view characters, I’ve never considered having any kind of pattern.
I let the story guide me. What has to happen next at this point in the story? Which character is the character I need to follow through those events?
For me, that always matters more than patterns and keeping to a set “structure.”
So, what do you think? Do you write according to patterns? Have you ever broken a pattern? Feel free to comment below and join the conversation!
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