Using Multiple Main Characters and Story Lines

Thanks to Christopher Goodwine who recently asked:

The more I research and explore the blogosphere, the more I notice an implicit sense that there is one sole main character in stories: “My MC,” “the MC,” “your MC’s emotional development,” “the crisis your MC must face,” etc.

What if a story incorporates several characters’ stories interwoven to achieve its ends? I mean beyond minor and supporting characters. Would a novel be acceptable if it gives equal importance and wordage to two characters or more? Or is it essential for today’s readership that there is one particular character for whom the story is ultimately about?

This is a great question, Christopher! First of all, I don’t think it’s essential for today’s readership that there is one particular character for whom a story is ultimately about. This is the conventional way to tell a story, and seems to be the most popular. I personally prefer it, but perhaps that is because I have not read or seen many stories that effectively use multiple main characters, and because I tried to do this in both the novels I have written – and failed.

I asked Davin if he had any good examples of novels that effectively use multiple main characters and story lines. He brought up Everything Is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer and The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan. I’ll take Davin’s word and state that both novels use three to four main characters to tell the story. Now why does this work? And how? I’ll try and shed some light using my own experience.

How Are You Holding Your Story Together?

Bear with me here as I talk about my first novel. I rarely do this publicly, so consider it a rare treat.

My first novel failed. It has failed even in the sixth draft. I had this “brilliant” idea to write two story lines – the story of a girl who is reluctantly kidnapped, and the story of her selfish mother, Karen, who doesn’t care that her only daughter is missing. Both story lines, completely separate for most of the book, bore the same weight for me. Both characters were The Main Character. And both had their own chapters in the book.

Chapter One – Naomi
Chapter Two – Karen
Chapter Three – Naomi
Chapter Four – Karen

You get the idea. That should work, right? Both characters are well written and compelling. Both story lines have tension and growth. Both tie together at the end. It should work. Right? Well, I thought so until I put the book aside for 10 months. I had plenty of feedback from earlier on, but decided to let two friends read it a few weeks ago. Why is Karen in here? they asked. I get to her chapters and I groan. I want Naomi’s story! This is HER story! And there’s plenty of it to go around without her mother interfering.

Since I wasn’t as close to the novel anymore, I took a good hard look at the characters. I love them both, but I’ve ultimately decided that my friends are right. I could go both ways with this book – get rid of Karen’s point of view and only tell Naomi’s story (which I’m most likely to do) or tell both stories, but shift the themes of my novel to something bigger than character-related subjects. Let me explain. (Thanks to Davin, I can begin to wrap my head around this)

The Way It Is Now – A Character Framework

The themes in my book revolve around creating your own happiness, not relying on others to hand it to you. Great theme. It works. There’s more to it than that, but that’s the gist. Both Karen and Naomi take this journey, and they help each other reach the same conclusions. But in the end, nothing would have happened without Naomi’s story, without her character. She is the framework that holds the story together, the one my readers root for and genuinely care about.

The Way It Could Be – An Overarching Framework

If I made the point of the novel something bigger that held the story together, I could get away with more than one story line. For instance, when I asked Davin what the point of The Joy Luck Club is, he said: “Ancestry. It was about the generational gap, between people born and raised in China and their daughters, born and raised in the U.S.”

That’s a pretty big idea, and if that’s the point of the story, I can see how four separate story lines could easily work. So for my book I might use a larger framework to hold everything together – how partner abuse affects relationships, or how Stockholm syndrome works. Already I can see that if I made this the framework of my story, Karen’s point of view would add more depth and meaning to what I’m trying to get across. So unless Karen enters Naomi’s world and fights the same antagonists as Naomi (which she never does), her story is simply getting in the way of Naomi’s voice and journey.

It’s up to me which way I want to go. Going with the overarching framework would mean I’d probably have to rewrite the book. Not sure I want to do that!

Multiple Points Of View Doesn’t Mean Multiple Main Characters

I think there might be a misconception out there that if a story (not told omnisciently) has multiple points of view that each point of view character bears the same weight. That’s rarely true, that I have seen. In my second novel I have three Point of View Characters. At first I thought I’d try what I had done in my first novel (since I thought it worked at the time), but as I neared the middle I quickly saw that the story obviously belongs to one character. The other Point Of View Characters are secondary; they add depth and texture to the Main Character that I couldn’t do any other way. I’m still in the beginning drafts of this novel. Who knows what I’ll decide later down the road. I’m still new to all of this!

So how do you figure out who your story is really about? How do you know if you’ve got an overarching framework or a character framework? It’s oftentimes very hard to pinpoint these things in a first draft, especially if you don’t plan everything out and begin with what framework you want to use. Many new writers sit down and say, “I want to write this idea, but I’ll use this character and this character and this character to tell it all. Yeah, that’ll be cool.” Sometimes we do begin with things planned out, and the story takes us in a different direction! But no matter what happens, when you finish that first draft you can sit down and figure out whose story you’re telling. I have different methods of doing this. One method is to ask:

Which character is struggling the most against the antagonist?

If your story doesn’t have what you like to call the “antagonist” then which character is struggling most against the set of rules governing the story? Fighting against a storm, or a group of terrorists or zombies, a generational gap like in Joy Luck Club, an evil government, or whatever. That’s usually your Main Character. There are exceptions, but I won’t get into those in this post.

If there’s more than one character struggling against the antagonist, and they seem to all be equal in their fight, you might have a problem with identifying your Main Character. If you have a problem with that, you can bet your reader will too. It’s absolutely essential to know your focus. If you’re using an overarching framework, you’d better know what it is and make it clear what you’re doing.

As for me, I’m still trying to figure all this novel-writing stuff out. These are just my thoughts, so if you agree or have more to add, or even if you disagree, voice your thoughts in the comments. I’d love to learn from you!

Posted by Michelle D. Argyle

1 comment

Thank this was really helpful. I have a lot of strong characters swimming around my book

Leave a Reply