On Writing: Having More than One Protagonist

Protagonists

My first book, Relic, has two protagonists, Dana and Mel. Before writing the book, the story in my head was all about Mel. Typed out, it was longer than a short story but less than acceptable novella length. It just didn’t work. I wanted a full length novel and Mel needed a counterpart.

I’d been reading lots of genre fiction in the lesbian mystery arena prior to sitting down to finally create a book of my own. Lesbian themed fiction, romance or mystery, contains two protagonists quite a bit of the time in the form of the two leading ladies. Even in all out mystery featuring two women, there’s always an element of subtext to the work hinting at a past or future romantic relationship between them or hinting at sexual or romantic tension. Many lesbian readers expect a romance as part of any story featuring their peeps and they’re vocal in reviews and online forums about the lack of one or the pacing in getting to one. Don’t believe me? Check some of the reviews for ‘Relic‘!

Not ever having had formal training in writing fiction novels, and having read several genre examples as guides, I dived right into bringing a second full on protagonist into Relic as a counterpoint to Sheriff Mel. In so doing, I jumped in and out of both of their heads from time to time. I tried to be very careful to only switch point of view (POV) across chapters and to note that in the chapter header and, the half dozen times when the viewpoint switched mid chapter, to give cues when it did or to divide the paragraphs in an acceptable manner. I had one early reviewer that complained the book was hard to follow because I had two main characters. Other readers commented that they liked what I’d done very much and that it wasn’t hard to follow. One reader did make a big deal in her review and in email conversations back and forth with me about using a 1st person narrative. Since I was going with two different protagonists, that only made sense to me but she didn’t care for it. So be it. I can’t please everyone.

I thought all of this was so much water under the bridge now. Book two, Busy Bees, is told almost entirely from Mel’s POV. Book three, Dana’s Dilemma, of course, is almost entirely from Dana’s POV. There are a couple of points in both, because they’re also written in first person POV and because of circumstances where they are not acting together, that I jump into the other’s head. I really did try to avoid it since they weren’t working in tandem in books two and three. There was a reader who posted a comment about being confused on Goodreads that I had responded to. Recently, a male reader in a Scandinavian country commented on our discussion chain that he too was confused and he couldn’t rate the book very highly based on it. He was further pondering whether he should bother to read the second and third books based on his experience. I commiserated with him and apologized for his confusion but, I have to wonder if either language or popular conventions in lesbian fiction produced in the U.S. played into it for him. I guess I’ll never know. 😦

Curious that this has come up again, I decided to do a little research on reader/writer/editor thoughts on the use of multiple protagonists. Here’s a taste of what I found:

  1. A blog post on protagonists by Joe Bunting at The Write Practice. Some quotes from it:

“My favorite definition of the protagonist is from Stephen Koch’s Writer’s Workshop:

“The protagonist is the character whose fate matters most to the story.”

“Protagonists must make decisions. A character who does not choose her own fate, and thus suffer the consequences of her choice, is not a protagonist. She is, at best, a background character.

  1. Donald Miller in a blog post says story is, “A character who wants something and is willing to go through conflict to get it.” If your character does not want something enough to choose to go through conflict to get it, your reader will walk away disappointed.” In Relic, both women choose and both women go through conflict to get to the same end point – together.

He also asks, “Whose future is most important to me?” His point is that the person you choose should be your lone protagonist. Anyone else might be an important character but not the main character. I would answer that, in a lesbian themed work, the answer for the author is quite often both, regardless of genre. It’s certainly true in Relic.

  1. A blog/site post by J. Gideon Sarantinos: “A PROTAGONIST is defined as the principle character who drives most of the plot based on their choices, values and environment. The term is often used interchangeably with  MAIN CHARACTER who is defined as the character whose point of view the story is told.”

“DUAL PROTAGONISTS refers to two main characters striving towards a single main goal. One isn’t the supporting character, but has their own strategy for achieving the said goal. Furthermore, each protagonist has their own character arc.”

My Take on this view: A traditional love story often has a protagonist (the woman) and an antagonist (her love interest). He is often referred to as the hero who comes in and rescues her from her plight or who changes his ways to be with her. They always end up coming together and in a Happily Ever After (HEA) ending. Lesbian romance novels sometimes follow the protagonist/antagonist model but, in many cases, because the women are equally strong people, neither is signaled out as the main character but, rather, both are. Even when romance isn’t the primary focus of a lesbian themed story, like with a mystery, it’s not uncommon to see two protagonists working against each other or – often reluctantly – with each other toward the same end or goal which is to solve the crime and nail the antagonist. Buddy stories in non-LGBT sub-genres are a heterosexual equivalent to this concept.

In a traditional mystery, the lone protagonist is often the sleuth but sometimes it’s the villain It’s rare for both to be protagonists which would allow the reader to be inside both heads leaving little to surprise.

  1. Out of the blue, I found this Q & A style post by Lori L. Lake where she’s working with an author who is writing a lesbian themed work with a half dozen protagonists. Please note: ‘Lesbian’ wasn’t in any way a keyword in my search terms. All thoughts as to dual protagonists in lesbian fiction before the quotes below were mine and mine alone. The thoughts below belong to Ms. Lake:

“Many novels tell the story from two POVs with two convincing protagonists.”

and

“Most Uber stories tend to have two main protagonists (the lovers, usually) or one of the two who is front and center with the lover just a step behind her. Many lesbian novels (like many of Shakespeare’s plays) have a main couple about whom the main plot line revolves, but there are often one or two other couples with subplot roles as secondary characters. Any of those characters may tell some or all of the story or have it narrated from their perspective.”

  1. In a blog post, Karel Segars writes:  by 

  2. In a forum post, RT104 answered a budding author with a multiple protagonists conundrum with this:

“What is the downside? Insufficiently close engagement with any one character because of the split in focus, I guess. But if you are aware of that pitfall, and work hard to engage the reader with all of your (protagonists), I can’t see why it has to be a problem.”

  1. Finally, From the book How to Grow a Novel: The Most Common Mistakes Writers Make and How to Overcome Them (1999) by Sol Stein there is this:

“I strongly oppose having more than one protagonist because the readers emotions become diffused. If a writer has difficulty deciding who is the main character, he should ask himself which characters experience is the stronger in this story, or which character undergoes the greatest change that exemplifies the story.”

So here we have one voice of total dissent (Stein), one issuing heavy cautions about even handedness and goals (Miller) and the rest who don’t see a problem if the author takes due care.

In Relic, I had two strong women reaching toward the same end and working, mostly together. Along the way, they started to fall in love. Neither was more important than the other. Neither had a goal that had anything over the other. Without one or the other, the story is a shell with missing pieces. Having two protagonists made the most logical sense.

I’ve added small revisions here and there to the book in an effort to make whose head we’re inside of more clear to the reader. I’ll continue to work on issues as specific ones are pointed out to me. That’s the beauty of electronic publishing!

Disclaimer: A few links on this page are active book links to Amazon. If you click one of those links and you buy anything at Amazon, I will earn a tiny commission as an Amazon affiliate. I do, of course, endorse my own books. No other endorsements are implied.

About Anne Hagan

I'm an East Central Ohio based government employee by day and a fiction author by night. I specialize in mystery fiction featuring lesbian sleuths and cozy fiction featuring women sleuths. I also dabble in romance especially romantic lesfic. I live with my wife and our dogs in a tiny town that’s even smaller than the Morelville of my first fiction series and we wouldn't have it any other way. My wife grew up here and she has always called this little village home. Though it’s an ultra-conservative rural community, we're surrounded here by family, longtime friends and many other wonderful people with open hearts and minds. My wife and I are the co-owners of a commercial haunted house: Hagan's House of Horrors. Much as my dream has always been to write fiction, hers has been to create it through the medium of horror. We went full commercial in 2015. Watch us as we grow!
This entry was posted in On Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to On Writing: Having More than One Protagonist

  1. bryndonovan says:

    Really interesting post! I often sort of blur “main character,” “POV character,” and “protagonist” in my head, when the distinctions are important.

    Like

  2. Pingback: My 3 Most Popular Blog Posts to Date | Anne Hagan

Comments?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s