multiple protagonists, or you’re not Tolkien

I’ve noticed many aspiring fantasy writers on various blogs discussing their multiple protagonists. Of course, the word count on these rather prodigious works often exceeds the 120,000 mark, because the writer feels the need to elaborate on each protagonist.

Whenever I mention, with the best of intentions, that it might be better to write a  novel with one protagonist and one antagonist, I am immediately bludgeoned senseless with all three volumes of The Lord of the Rings.

“But,” comes the well-known cry, “Tolkien did it with The Lord of the Rings!”

Yes, he did. However, please don’t be offended if I point out that you’re not Tolkien. Nor are you channeling Tolkien. Nor is your novel anything like The Lord of the Rings. I’m not saying this to be mean, I’m trying to give you the benefit of my experience.

If I was being mean, I would encourage you to write your 500,000 word novel with eight protagonists, twelve main plots, and forty-two sub-plots. Actually it’s to my advantage to foster your hope, because while you’re wading through a morass of verbiage, characters, and plots, I’ll be marketing my novel.

Fortunately, I’m not a mean woman. I just can’t tell you things like that. I believe with all my heart and soul that you take your writing just as seriously as I take mine. I have to. No one would spend so much time working for so little if you didn’t take the craft seriously.

So whether you listen or not, I’m going to advise you to write a novel, especially your first novel, with one protagonist and one antagonist. Tolkien wrote The Hobbit before he wrote The Lord of the Rings; Stephen King wrote Carrie before he wrote The Stand.

I can say these things to you, because I was once like you. I thought I could manage the monumental effort of multiple protagonists with my first novel. No one could tell me different. I was determined. My first novel had multiple protagonists. The novel lacked structure, meandered for around 100,000 words, and (here’s the important part, my friends) never sold. Nor will it ever sell as written.

Because I am not Tolkien.

And neither are you.

Mastering the craft of writing is one thing, mastering the craft of story-telling is another skill entirely. Like all skills, it’s generally easier to begin with what is simple and progress to what is more difficult.

So in spite of what published writers have accomplished, I will say again: for your first novel, one protagonist and one antagonist. Once you’ve mastered this type of story-telling, then move on to multiple protagonists, if you like. There’s nothing wrong with the desire to tell multiple stories, but hone your story-telling craft first.

Related articles on the use of multiple protagonists:

Thoughts on Multiple Protagonists by Christopher M. Park

Choosing a Viewpoint for a Story: Understanding the Advantages of Different Points of View by Debbie Roome

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About T. Frohock

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11 Responses to multiple protagonists, or you’re not Tolkien

  1. Theresa Frohock, I salute you!

    Thank you, thank you, thank you. Not only for a top-quality post that’s helpful and witty at the same time, but for being a fellow soldier of the truth.

    I’m not Tolkien. If I was I’d be a millionairess by now. But so many people make this mistake, and so did I when I wrote my first novel.

    “Oooh, but I have three main characters and two baddies, so therefore it has to be 80,ooo words per goodie and we need all their life histories!”

    Bah! Poo! Chuck it away!

    Better still, if they insist on writing it, they should keep it in a file. Then go write a manuscript with one goodie, one baddy and a more shapely plot of no more than90,000 words. Then they are allowed to look back at it and say, “Theresa was right! I was way over my head for a first-timer!”

    Then you can see how much you have advanced and how much better a writer you are for the experience. Then you may get a swollen head and do the “SUCCESS!” dance!

    Cheerio and thanks again,

    @natalieallan 🙂

    • Teresa says:

      Hello Natalie! How nice to see you here!

      My husband keeps asking me if I could ever sell my first book. I’ve finally told him, yes, after I select one protagonist and re-write the entire novel. Then I’ve got two or three more novels I could also write using characters from the book! 😉

      Thanks for stopping in, and I’m so happy to know I’m not the only person who has made that mistake!

  2. Jonathan Danz says:

    I agree–we have to learn to walk before we can run.

    Beginning in October, I’ll be revising my first draft of Shadow of the Black City and I can assure you that I’m already planning to pare it down and focus on one character and better define the antagonist. I fear that what I’ve done so far is a nice start, but suffers from what you post here.

    As a consumer of fantasy books, I can see how I fell in that trap – George Martin, Robert Jordan, Tolkien. Your examples of The Hobbit and Carrie are excellent. If I could write something like that, I’d be thrilled.

    Thanks for the great post. Its timeliness is much appreciated!

    • Teresa says:

      Thanks for stopping by, Jonathan. It was a hard lesson to learn, but even now I have to be very careful not to allow another character to over-shadow my protagonist.

      Two members of my critique group recently nailed me on a chapter that felt out of place to them, and when I went back and re-read it, I realized I was starting to give too much emphasis to another major character. It’s a fine line to walk sometimes.

      Good luck with your revisions and remember it’s always a lot easier to remove excess words than it is to add more.

  3. Kelly Bryson says:

    Seriously, though, how do you KNOW that I’m not channeling Tolkien?
    Point taken. My novel does not have any bad guys, though. Characters are ALWAYS at odds, until the clilmax, but it’s an impotant part of the story that everyone has a perfectly reasonable explanantion for what they’re doing, and I feel like they need to be understood, not glossed over. I’m trying to do that only inasmuchas it supports the major conflict and relates directly to the MC. This darn learning curve–I’d hate for this one to sit in a box under my bed!

    • Teresa says:

      First, I don’t believe your novel will be a trunk novel. You have conflict, and you do have an antagonist (not all antagonists are evil and we’ll talk about that next week). However, you have no worries . . . other than that little comma thing. 😉

  4. Beth says:

    Well…IMO, it can go either way. I’ve read some gripping fantasy novels with a single protagonist. (Juliet Mariellier, Stephen R. Donaldson ) And I’ve read some wonderfully meaty fantasy novels with multiple protagonists. (George R.R. Martin, Kate Elliott)

    Of course they’re not Tolkien. But they write terrific books all the same.

    If you’re going to have multiple protagonists, the trick is to be able to weave multiple story arcs into a coherent, meaningful plot. Not every writer can do that with finesse. Not every writer should try, and no shame to them if they don’t.

    But the ones who can do it…why would we want to tell them not to? We would have missed so many marvelous stories.

    • Teresa says:

      Hi Beth!

      Thank you for your comments, and for the record I think you’re absolutely right — there are a lot of great writers who can pull off multiple plots and protagonists. My point is that it might not be a good idea for a novice writer to attempt this type of novel with their first novel.

      So I’m not saying that it should never be done — I’m just saying it takes a while to build the experience a writer needs to produce a quality novel with the intricacies you stated.

      You made some wonderful points. I hope you’ll come again!


  5. Beth says:

    Hi, Teresa,

    I tend to agree, in most cases. However, _sometimes_ the story (and way it must be told) picks the writer, rather than the other way around. (g) IOW, sometimes a new writer may find herself writing a book that’s much bigger and more complex than she intended…but if it’s _working_ (as opposed to devolving into an incoherent mess), then maybe it’s best to just go with it.

    Also–some writers are going to be more comfortable and inclined toward writing a multi-protag story than others. We all have different strengths and I suppose part of learning to write is figuring out what those strengths are.

    I’ve enjoyed reading your blog; you have lots of good posts.

    • Teresa says:

      Hi Beth, thanks for stopping by!

      I think you’re right in that sometimes the story picks the writer, but I’ve seen so many young writers getting bogged down in their novels with no clear direction. A lot of them write fantasy that way because they think all good fantasy should be written with multiple protagonists. Everyone who read my first novel told me I needed to pick a character and write that character’s story, but I was so smart, and I used the Tolkien bludgeon too. I wish I’d listened to them, because my second novel is turning into what I’d wanted my first novel to be — coherent and (according to my beta readers) a very likable protagonist for whom they can cheer.

      Another thing I’ve seen is multiple protagonists vs. multiple points of view. You can have a novel with a single protagonist and still write from different characters’ points of view, but it is very difficult to keep the perspective on the protagonist. I’m stating that from first hand knowledge too. I had one main character try to ride off with the story in one chapter, but I have a great critique group that herded me back in the right direction.

      Finally, I think a lot of this is subjective. Some people really enjoy reading plot based novels, which often have multiple protagonists. When I pick up a book that has so many “main” characters the author has to provide genealogy charts, I usually end up putting the book back on the rack. Not because I automatically assume the book is badly written, often those books are not. This is the subjective part: I like to connect with the characters and live the story through their eyes, not read a winding plot. That’s simply personal preference.

      So if people enjoy reading plot based novels, they’ll write them. I enjoy character based novels — that’s what I read and write.

      I’m so glad this post is finally generating some discussion, because I really like hearing what other people have to say about their writing techniques.

      It’s always nice to see a fellow NC writer; I’ll be stopping by your blog tomorrow to say hi! 😉


  6. Beth says:

    P.S. I just noticed some links in the sidebar to writers’ associations in NC. Which is where I live. You, too?

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