Creative Writing Reflection: Do Multiple Protagonists Require Some Pattern of Narration?

multiple protagonists: how do you find balance?

multiple protagonists: how do you find balance?

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 isย  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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52 responses to “Creative Writing Reflection: Do Multiple Protagonists Require Some Pattern of Narration?

  1. What patterns? Are there patterns? Gosh! No wonder I never sell anything. Interesting and illumining, I like this bit best “The greatest and perhaps the most important power of the artist is the power to ignore, or reshape, or distort rules. Thatโ€™s artistic license.” without this I could never write, patterns, what do they look like?

    • ๐Ÿ™‚ Glad you enjoyed the post, and best of luck to you, Stephen! I definitely don’t think patterns are the most important thing…. I just wanted to address them because I’ve seen so many writers–me included–struggling when characters want to break out of the pattern.

  2. I agree with you 100% This has been a slight worry for me with my NaNo novel, where my main protagonist ended up taking more of a back seat than I intended her to. I shift around quite a lot, and I think the main worry isthat, rather than creating tension by breaking up bits of narrative, it merely seems a bit unfocussed.

    • That’s a great point and it can be a worry. Patterns imply that a writer has given thought to craft and structure. If you’re worried it feels unfocused you can find ways to tie the shifts and what happens during the shifts together and see how beta readers feel about the structure. That’s what I would do.

  3. I enjoyed reading your post. Like you I think there’s always the possibility that the best structure for our stories is one that hasn’t been tried yet.

  4. I’m with you, Victoria. The needs of the story come first. If something I write happens to adhere to a pattern, it’s purely coincidental.

    (I still haven’t figured out why sometimes my comments are rejected by your blog. I have to log out of my WordPress account and log back in sometimes, and even that doesn’t always work. I’m sure it’s a WordPress thing and not something you’ve done, but I’ve only noticed the problem on this blog. It’s strange.)

    • oh my gosh that is BIZARRE!!! ๐Ÿ˜ฆ If I can find a moment this afternoon I will send a report telling WordPress what you just said because you break it down very well. Thanks for that. Sorry for the problems…. This is just nuts that it keeps happening. No one else has mentioned they’re having problems commenting so this is just really strange. Technology…. :-/

  5. I might fall into a pattern when I have the 3-6 protagonists. I’m going to have to balance 6 of them at some point in my series. Splitting them up in the plot where each ‘mission’ is necessary helps give them enough screen time, but I don’t kill myself over it. If a character takes a lesser role in a book because the plot is more focused on another then that’s how it’s going to be. If they are equal protagonists the story will naturally bounce between them as it progresses. For narration, I do third person and I try to choose one character to focus on for a scene. It may slightly shift when another character gets excited or in trouble, but it seems to work out most of the time. It’s hard to tell because present tense lends itself very well to jumping narrative points. You’re reading in real-time, so characters are going to share their perspective at once.

    • That’s a good point about present tense. I don’t usually give much thought to present tense writing (where fiction is concerned) because it’s still rather rare, so I enjoy when you pop by and talk about it from your experience. It’s definitely a viable option and like pretty much any stylistic choice, can work well if it’s done well and for a reason. You clearly choose the present tense for a reason and know what you’re doing.

  6. Interestingly enough, I am also rereading Orthodoxy at the moment. That’s the book that gave Catskinner his name, BTW.

  7. I’ve just been bouncing between them–depending on where the story needs to go. I use third-person limited and keep the POV limited to whichever character is the “eyes & ears” for the scene. It works for me as a reader as well as a writer.

  8. As a reader, I don’t always like a pattern in narration. I think George R.R. Martin is a great example of this. While at first his style of switching in between so many characters with each chapter drove me crazy, I know like the unpredictability of it. That’s definitely just an opinion, though ๐Ÿ™‚

  9. In my current WIP my protagonist is the focus for all the 3rd person chapters. But there are three instances when other characters tell their stories and for these I switch to 1st person narrative – so in these sections they become my protagonist, but not in the necessarily traditional way. I’m still in the process of structuring the plot, and while I’m hoping the 1st person narratives will have elements of the required plot points (set up, conflict, climax etc) I’m concentrating more on these aspects in the 3rd person narrative because, essentially, that’s the story I’m telling…
    As an aside, if you know any other novels that do this, I’d love a heads up. It’s a difficult structure to find in novels without having many prior knowledge!
    Great post Victoria, good luck with your current protagonist issues!
    Cat

    • Cat, that sounds so intriguing!!!!! Oh my gosh! Do you intend for the first person narrations to be actual written accounts within the world of the story? Journals or notes or something? That would be so cool!!!

      The closest thing I can think of, off hand, that I’m familiar with would be epistolary literature, books written as a series/progression of letters. That doesn’t usually interweave a third person narration within it, though. I can’t think offhand of a novel I know of that is structured the way you’re describing. It sound really, really intriguing!!!

      • Actually, they’re verbal accounts. My characters actually sit down and tell my main protagonist their story – hence why the 1st person is so integral. It’s also why I chose to have the main text in 3rd person (limited) view, to distinguish from these sections.

        I think this is why I’m having so many problems finding comparative books…I don’t know of any written like this but I can’t be the first to attempt it!

        Glad that you find it an intriguing approach – let’s hope the story itself lives up to it! Lol.

        • Harry Potter actually has a quite a few chapter labelled things like “Hagrid’s Tale” or “Sirius’s Tale,” where a more minor character tells Harry what he’s been up to. That sounds a bit similar to what you describe.

        • catherinelumb

          Oh no, does that mean I have to read Harry Potter! Already tried and failed at that!

        • hahaha, oh no! the choice is yours, for sure. No one’s going to make you ๐Ÿ™‚ But Rowling does that particularly in book 5

  10. The masters of any art are masters because they dare to push the limits and try new approaches.

  11. Excellent article! Reblogging!

  12. Pingback: A Healthy Approach to Editing a Chaotic Draft: It’s About Mindset | Creative Writing with the Crimson League

  13. I had never even considered writing in a pattern, I tend to let the story flow out and then do heavy re-writes. I do however get worried if my chapters are of very different lengths and I am only writing from one P.O.V so thank you as this post has made me feel a bit more relaxed about the varying lengths.
    Your posts are always so informative ๐Ÿ™‚

  14. I don’t follow a pattern either, just let the story dictate. I think I have to read this Chesterton book. It sounds like it contains much food for thought!

  15. In the first six chapters of my last book, the narrator is hearing the stories of Beatrice and Moses. She is a Nurse and is narrating in the first person, of course. After she hears her cousin’s story and gets her hands on her cousin’s diaries, she writes her cousin’s story in the third person for the next fifteen chapters. The conclusion chapter is then again written in the first person by the narrator. I know I broke all sorts of conventions in writing that book. It was also in a little explored genre currently referred to as “faction”, a subgenre of historical fiction. My WIP is a crime novel, and I am feeling like I need to stick with convention here if I want to be taken seriously. I think I am feeling that way because convention seems to be what sells. I have my story mapped out in my mind and recently trashed 30,000 words. I have read much in this genre. My husband, who reads two to three novels each week in this genre, keeps telling me how it should be done. I am resisting.

    • That is SUCH a tough call…. change things to fit a standard or tell the story you want to tell?

      I can’t tell you what you should do, of course. But people with non-standard formats have found success in self-publishing. It’s hard to pick up an agent with something out of the ordinary, but that doesn’t mean people won’t love it.

      Best of luck!!! Wow, your story sounds really intriguing the way you describe it. I think I would read something like that.

  16. Oh, back on subject. I meant to add that my narrator seems to be the protagonist in her first person parts, but two people, her cousin and her cousin’s lover seem to be dual protagonists in the third person parts. Each has their clearly defined leading roles in the story.

  17. I was glad to read this post, as it’s an issue I’ve given concern to. My novel has a primary protagonist and a secondary protagonist. Because of the nature of the story (scifi with lots of space travel), they aren’t in a position (literally) to narrate a number of events which occur elsewhere, so I have a fair number of additional POV characters (who are also important to the plot).

    I gave up worrying about a pattern and generally let the plot dictate the order of POV. I just finished the first big edit of the draft, and was thrilled to see the #/words per POV character matched almost perfectly with their importance to the story :).

    • That sounds like a great strategy you came up with. I have read a lot of stories like that, with narration just following the story rather than being forced into a pattern that holds the story back. Sounds like you made the right choice there (at least to me!). Thanks so much for this example. It’s a fantastic one to show how sometimes a pattern/ self-imposed rule of narrating just doesn’t function for you but against you.

  18. This is just what I needed to read! I’ve got two protagonists in my novel and I’m currently puzzling over how to balance the narrative in the middle part of the book, but you’re right, I’ll go with what the story needs

    Juliet
    http://craftygreenpoet.blogspot.com

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