Who is This About?: How Many Protagonists?

I thought I’d start off the return to worldbuilding posts with something about character first.  Specifically, how many main characters.  As usual, my examples will be limited to fantasy, urban fantasy, and sci-fi sources.

One is the Loneliest Number

Using a lone protagonist is favored by some authors because it helps narrow the reader’s focus.  Both reader and author get to know the character better and in more depth, with less confusion and surface reads than a large cast.  On one level, this is easier because only one protagonist background, appearance, and personality needs to be created and developed.  On another hand, it is very focused and limits the potential number of plotlines and timing of actions/plot to some degree.  But, a lone protagonist allows for more introspection, while also limiting the number of lenses through which the readers see the world.  Good examples include: Michael Moorcock (Elric), Jim Butcher (Dresden), Harry Harrison (Stainless Steel Rat), and Kat Richardson (Greywalker).

Two Can be as Bad as One

Adding a second protagonist allows the writer to show more character development through their  relationship—whether they are mentor-student, partners, lovers, siblings, or whatever.  However, this also means that twice as many characters need to be developed and the character relationship needs to be thought out and developed, potentially over many years of shared personal history.  The big upside, for some writers, to a pair of protagonists is that it allows a greater frequency of dialogue versus introspection and presents a wider range of data sources.  Good examples include Fritz Leiber (Fafhrd & The Grey Mouser, friends and partners), Ilona Andrews (Kate Daniels and Curran Lenart, adversaries turned engaged to be married), Rick Riordan (Carter and Sadie Kane, siblings), and Steven Brust (Vlad Taltos and Loiosh, witch and familiar).

Three is a Magic Number

The triple protagonist is a favorite of young adult and paranormal romance writers, mostly because it provides inherent conflict and drama within the character relationships.  The triangle lets the character relationships slide between preferences for everyone involved.  Most appearances, at least in YA and paranormal romance, seem to be male-male-female.  Some benefits to the trio are that it allows for immediate relationship building, or establishment, and presents various sources of information.  Unfortunately, it has become a bit cliché, though there are some who play with the conventions.  Good examples include: J.K. Rowling (Harry, Hermione, and Ron, school friends at first), Cassandra Claire & Holly Black (Callum, Tamara, and Aaron, school friends), and Jaye Wells (Adam, Sabina, and Gighul, friends, lovers—Adam & Sabina; not a lovers’ triangle, though, partially due to Gighul being a demon).

Two Twos

A number of writers, particularly for TV, consider four to be the ideal protagonist number.  One of the biggest advantages is that four is a pair of twos.  The core four person team can be featured, but can also split off into two pairs.  This maintains the interaction while pursuing two concurrent plotlines or sequences with no single character having to act alone or be left out.  The quartet also allows a wide range of skill sets and backgrounds without getting out of hand.  Good examples include: Stargate SG-1 (Jack, Sam, T’ealc, Daniel), Stargate Atlantis (Sheppard, McKay, Teyla, and Ronon), and classic tabletop FRPGs (the fighter, rogue, cleric, mage adventuring party).

Everyone Gets a Part!

The ensemble cast of protagonists works best for epics and long term stories—ex. the five year mission or year long quest.  It provides a lot of different perspectives, but can also cause reader confusion and characters can be drowned out by other characters.  It also keeps the writer from having to produce 300,000+ words all from one character’s point of view.  The ensemble can also add complexity, show complexity, and allow for several concurrent plotlines and action sequences.  Good examples include: J.R.R. Tolkien (The Fellowship), George R.R. Martin (every single person living in Westeros and half the residents of the Free Cities), Battlestar Galactica (the Galactica’s crew), Star Trek (the crew of the Enterprises, DS9, and Voyager), and Babylon 5 (the station command staff plus key alien ambassadors & their staff).

Point of View

Even with two, four, twenty protagonists, it is entirely possible to retain a single point of view.  In fact, this is common in order to preserve both reader and writer sanity.  Sometimes it can be interesting to switch things up, though.  For example, Rick Riordan’s Kane Chronicles switches point of view every chapter—Carter gets the odd chapters, Sadie gets the even numbered ones, or vice versa; Riordan’s Heroes of Olympus has an ensemble of protagonists, each of whom narrates a chapter, before cycling back through (or he decides which character’s voice would be best for narrating a given chapter).


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