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