Rules of Writing Fiction – Dual Protagonists, Prologues and Whatnot

Not Quite Verboten

Basic fiction writing advice warns against prologues, dream sequences, flashbacks, adverbs, and dual/multiple protagonists. Over time, these conventions have come to be treated by many as absolute rules, or at least spoken of as if they were absolute rules.

This past weekend at the Southern California Writers’ Conference, some of these “mistakes” made appearances in the writing of attendees. After a bit of discourse, many of us came to the same conclusion: these devices are warned against because of the difficulty in handling them, but with the right amount of talent and hard work, a writer can defy these conventions without shooting herself in the foot.

A quick Google search would lead you to very similar conclusions, which makes it even more peculiar how often people seem to forget these rules aren’t set in stone.

More so than any other writer or SCWC attendee, Oz Monroe acted as a voice of reason in regards to these “rules,” reminding us (on several occasions) that you can break just about any writing convention so long as you do it well (quite a caveat, but still).

Dual (Multiple) Protagonists

June and Day of Legend

Marie Lu’s Legend is considered by many to feature dual protagonists, though for certain reasons Day can easily be construed as an antagonist (e.g., for ease of pitching the novel).

Baseline convention: stick to one primary protagonist. Other major characters must be limited to the role of an antagonist or supporting character. Why can’t we have two (or more) primary protagonists? As I see it, there are two big reasons: (1) the difficulty in fleshing out all protagonists fully while maintaining a compelling narration; and (2) the difficulty in pitching a story with multiple protagonists.

Fleshing Out Each Protagonist

To flesh out the protagonists, each generally must be given substantially equal stakes, obstacles, development, and resolutions.

The main protagonists must be equally compelling at practically all times with stakes of a similar gravity, and obstacles that give the same weight in conflict. The characters must each grow and achieve some sense of resolution (for a series, each should have at least some resolution per book/season/film). If a so-called protagonist falls short in one or more of these aspects, they’re likely not a protagonist at all but a major supporting character or antagonist.

Furthermore, protagonists with deviating parallel journeys must be substantially linked by plot and theme.

See “The Case for—Okay, Against—Dual Protagonists” by Larry Brooks (aside from the language indicating that a protagonist is a “hero” and an antagonist is bad, Brooks makes some good points); “Why You Should Steer Clear of Dual Protagonists” by Karel Segers (listing five common mistakes that may occur with having dual protagonists and offering solutions: give both characters a clear journey; unique goals and roles; equal and consistent attention throughout the work; and, with parallel leads, connect them through plot and theme); “Having Multiple Protagonists in a Novel” by Randy Ingermanson (noting that multiple protagonists can work if done well but, otherwise, poses the danger of reducing emotional impact).

Pitching Woes

Despite the numerous POV characters and the fact that the series has multiple protagonists, the first book in A Song of Ice and Fire could be pitched with Ned Stark as the sole protagonist.

Despite the numerous POV characters and the fact that the series has multiple protagonists, the first book in A Song of Ice and Fire could probably be pitched with Ned Stark as the sole protagonist.

During the SCWC, the issue of dual protagonists arose during a pitching workshop. The workshop leaders told us that there’s “no such thing” as dual protagonists and urged the one-protagonist formula.

After the workshop, fellow attendees and I were under the impression that the workshop leaders were saying that you simply cannot have multiple protagonists in any work of fiction. They certainly didn’t provide any caveats or exceptions during the limited time we had together. Other attendees were quick to come up with famous works with two or more protagonists.

Thinking about it, however, I concluded that the workshop leaders were trying to say that there should be no such thing as dual protagonists in a pitch. In that case, I totally agree as I’ve had my share of trouble writing my agent query letter and properly portraying my protagonists’ parallel journeys (after many drafts, I think both my manuscript and query show parallel journeys that are well connected in plot and theme as per Segers’ advice—I guess we’ll see).

See also “Dual Protagonists?” by Meredith Efken (pointing out that “it’s perfectly fine to have two protagonists,” but when it comes to pitching, it may be better to have a lead character “even if it’s just in name only”); Ingermanson (stating that multiple protagonists may confuse the reader and, as such, make it less likely a novel will be picked up by publishers).

Doing it Well

In the end, it’s up to the writer to muster the talent and discipline to make sure they write their protagonists well, whether they have one lonely hero or a giant ensemble of characters. To do so, the writer should make himself aware of the issues that may arise from breaking the convention.

Prologues and Whatnot

The general conclusion for dual protagonists applies to other writing “rules” as well: if you do it well and with good reason, any writing convention can be broken (or, well, you can break it and do it poorly and just have everyone hate your work).

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22 thoughts on “Rules of Writing Fiction – Dual Protagonists, Prologues and Whatnot

  1. Pingback: Rules of Writing Fiction – Dual Protagonists, Prologues and Whatnot | Bookish Lynx

  2. My WIP has dual third-person perspectives (a brother and sister) because a lot of the story takes place in two different locations.

    However, I tend to pitch it as the brother’s story. I think he gets a bit more “screen time” and his external and internal arcs are more dramatic. The climax of the book involves the brother. The inciting incident also mainly involves the brother. The sister is important, as is her perspective during several scenes, but I’m not sure she qualifies as a dual protagonist. It would be like calling Luke and Leia dual protagonists. Yeah, we follow Leia on her own for a lot of the trilogy – but Luke is still the main hero.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, sometimes you just have to nudge your pitch (and maybe manuscript) toward one character. You’re definitely right about Luke and Leia (and Han as another major supporting character). It’s similar with Anakin, Obi-wan and Padme as well (the latter two are important and are around throughout that trilogy, but Anakin is the focus). Even if it’s just for pitching purposes I may poke at my MS and query some to have it lean towards one of my protagonists a bit more.

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  3. Some great info here. Thank you. My second book has two protagonists, though one is dominant. I’ll have to check out those links you provided. Like you, I think we should see the rules as guidelines rather than stone laws. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I started to read your blog and I find it captivating, so many things to learn from your articles and your writing style makes it easier to understand. I admire you, I think you’re a very talented writer and I feel honored knowing you’re following my blog. Thank you, it means very much to me!
    Best regards,
    Carissa

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  5. Poor reviews from readers are an easy goal to achieve. It requires little effort. Still, I wonder why so many writers strive against those conventions meant to guide good writing. A rigid set of rules, followed by the majority of writers, produces cookie cutter solutions, though each story is different, after a while, they all seem the same. I prefer your guidance presented here. Whatever you do, do it well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yeah, and then the big question is whether you can do it well.

      Theoretically, with time, any work can be transformed into something worthwhile if you’re willing to make enough edits. For the sake of marketability you may have to give up aspects that (originally) makes up the heart of your writing (thankfully, this is not a dilemma I’m currently facing). Fun times.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Well said! Too often when I try to explain my stance my eye begins to twitch and foam pours out of my mouth. Now I can just say I disagree with the rigidity of the rules and direct them here. Thanks!

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  7. This has always been my reasoning when it comes to having more than one main character. I have always written with multiple perspectives, and I go beyond what the likes of George RR Martin does and I write it from a first person perspective too. There is absolutely nothing wrong with doing this, which naturally I would say, but it has to be done well, but I would add an extra caveat to that as well.
    If you are going to be writing from multiple angles you need to do it consistently. With the recent craze with Divergent, and the less recent craze of Twilight, multiple perspectives were brought into play only in the latter books, which didn’t work and is a prime example that the rule followers can cite to tell novices that they can’t have dual perspectives.
    If you’re going to do it well do it from the start, otherwise you’ll end up with a story that has cut itself up before has ended, making the conclusion a lot less satisfying for the audience. All that has been demonstrated was that the author either didn’t properly plan or didn’t have the talent to conclude the story they started with the tools they had started with in the first. Only in series like ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ where the author has the proclivity to kill off characters or expand the story world on an epic scale should new perspectives be considered.

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    • Yeah, it was a bit jarring with Divergent since she added the second POV only in the last book. Haven’t read the Twilight books, so I can’t comment there.

      I’d have to say that even A Song of Ice and Fire has some dangerous POV changes. However, most of it is so stinkin’ good, it’s really hard to criticize GRRM.

      Seeing as how even GRRM, Roth, and other bestselling authors stumble with multiple protagonists, it sort of just highlights how difficult it is to do it well (Tris is the protagonist of the Divergent series, but the second POV character of book three is definitely a protagonist of that installment).

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      • Oh I agree but I don’t agree with being told it’s just not possible in the first place. Being challenged makes people better writers. Telling people that they can’t just kills creativity and puts people off from even trying.
        Oh and don’t bother reading Twilight, I honestly only read it to research YA.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: 5 link-ups. Because I didn’t had web service for a week and I’m allowed to go a little crazy | de monte y mar

  9. It’s easy to cling to absolutes – especially in this cut-throat publishing environment. How easy to say – no prologues EVER. No dream sequences. No dual protagonists. What a load of hooey.
    Done well, they carry the reader forward. Done poorly, they shut the reader down.
    Wish the industry would recognize this. Makes it so hard to be a new novelist. I spend more time trying to learn what NOT to do than writing the stinkin story…
    What a great post.
    cheers-
    Sue

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Now you tell me. My newest series, Brides: a family saga trilogy,( which I need to give more attention to) begins with a prologue to introduce the main characters and plot. I am probably going to have to redesign my covers anyway. I am being told that my cover is too busy, although the upper half of it replicates a mural that plays a major role throughout the story, The cover of the book are the illustrations not found within. Any opinions on book covers?

    http://orples.wordpress.com/2014/10/29/weekly-photo-challenge-cover-art/

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  11. Pingback: 1st Anniversary Post: Top Posts and the State of the Novel | A.D. Martin

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