Friday, May 20, 2011

How Many Main Characters Should Your Story Have?

Image via Microsoft Office free clip art
The best answer is “one”.   

A story is usually defined as one character’s journey: how he got from Point A to Point B, how she solved the mystery, what he learned along the way, how she changed.  It's difficult to pull off this journey if a story has more than one protagonist or if the audience doesn't know who to root for.

Take The Wizard of Oz, for example.  This is Dorothy's story, and her desire to get back home is what the audience cares most about.  Other characters want things —the Scarecrow wants a brain, the Tin Man a heart, and the Cowardly Lion courage— but the story doesn’t end when they get what they want.  The story ends when Dorothy goes home.

Single Protagonists Vs. Multiple Protagonists

Writers sometimes like to experiment with multiple protagonists, however.  Recently, a friend asked me to review a script-in-progress for an online comic series he writes and draws.  After I read the script, my first question was, “Who is the protagonist?”  My friend responded that he wanted multiple protagonists, each with his or her own story arc.

I know what he means.  One of my early writing inspirations was the story telling style of St. Elsewhere and Hill Street Blues.  Both ‘80s TV dramas featured ensemble casts in overlapping story arcs that went on for several episodes.  Each of the dozen or so characters could be a protagonist or a supporting character (or even an antagonist) in various episodes.  I tried to emulate this writing style in my early efforts.

I’m older and (I hope) wiser now, and I’ve come to realize the benefits of writing stories with a single protagonist.  For one thing, it makes my job as a writer easier.  I don't have to find something interesting for each character to do.  Supporting characters are free to serve the needs of the plot instead of having to grow and change themselves.

Single protagonists also make my job more challenging in some ways.  When a difficult scene or passage comes up, I can't simply avoid it by focusing on a different character for awhile.

But I’ve also come to realize that the genius of shows like St. Elsewhere and Hill Street Blues is that they followed the single protagonist model after all—each story arc centered on a single character.  
St. Elsewhere: A Model [Spoiler Warning]

St. Elsewhere’s pilot (which you can watch on Hulu) centers on Dr. Jack Morrison (played by David Morse), an inexperienced young resident at St. Eligius hospital in Boston, who becomes attached to one of his patients, a teen-aged girl neglected by her wealthy parents.  Jack mentors the girl as he seeks to find the cause of her illness.  However, in typical St. Elsewhere fashion, his efforts lead to nothing when the girl's mother transfers her to a more prestigious hospital.

Overlapping with Jack's story are several arcs that introduce us to other main characters, including:
  • Dr. Wayne Fiscus (Howie Mandel), who begins a sexual relationship with Dr. Cathy Martin (Barbara Whinnery), the eccentric pathologist.
  • Dr. Annie Cavanero (Cynthia Sikes), struggling to find her place in the male-dominated field of medicine, who turns the hospital upside down to find a patient who has disappeared.
  • Handsome Lothario Dr. Ben Samuels (David Birney), who learns he has VD and tries to warn his former sexual partners, even though he can't remember all of them. 
  • Outspoken Dr. Mark Craig (William Daniels), who, eager to bolster St. Eligius’s reputation, schedules a press conference to publicize the hospital's care of a bank bomber and one of the bomber's victims.

These additional arcs tell us where the series is going.  Some take several episodes or even seasons to play out.  (And, notice how some are intended to be humorous, others serious.)  Continuing story arcs gave the audience multiple reasons to tune in next week, but if the show had featured only continued stories, it would have left the audience unsatisfied.  It is Jack's story which provides that all-important sense of closure.

Multiple protagonists can add variety and spice to a series, but every story arc should focus on a single protagonist.

What do you think?  Do you like stories with multiple protagonists?  Have you used them in your own stories?


Kristi's Book Nook said...

Very interesting points. I used to watch Hill Street Blues and loved it. I am not that far along in my writing so I don't know if I would use more than one protagonist.

Greg Gildersleeve said...

@Kristi. I always recommend that writers master the art of telling a story about a single protagonist before attempting more complex story structures. This is something I learned the hard way.

SmearySoapboxPress said...

Maybe that's why all my efforts at crafting "team" books have come to naught! Good advice, and looking back at the first issue of New Teen Titans, for instance, I could see this theory in play: every character had their little "bit" to establish their arc to come, but the plot began and ended with Starfire's escape to Earth...

Greg Gildersleeve said...

Good point about New Teen Titans, Dale. I re-read the first few issues of that series about a year ago. Starfire's rescue does unify the first issue. Then the focus deftly shifts to Raven--her struggle to get the Titans to believe in the threat posed by Trigon is what the reader most cares about in the first arc.

Marv Wolfman knew what he was doing. That's why he was always among my favorite comic book writers.

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