Multiple Lead Characters

by Peggy Harris
(Apopka, FL, USA)

Question:Is there anywhere I can turn to learn how to write a novel that features an ensemble of three friends as lead characters? Or do I just have to decide once and for all that one of them is going to be the lead?

Answer: You actually have a lot of options here.

One is to make each of your 3 characters POV (point of view) characters. Essentially, you would have 3 stories running parallel through the book. Each character would be the main character of his/her own story. You would switch points of view, and POV characters, periodically in order to tell the next part of their story.

An example of this would be the Bartimaeus trilogy of novels which tell the interwoven stories of Bartimaeus, Nathanial, and Kitty (3 lead characters).

Of course, you could make just one or two of your characters POV characters, and the remaining one could be an impact character. The difference is that the reader does not see the story through the eyes of an impact character. Impact characters are "looked at" by the main or POV characters.

In many romance novels today, the heroine and the hero are both POV characters, and each is the impact character of the other's story. That may sound confusing, but it makes perfect sense if you want each of them to grow thanks to their relationship.

Finally, as you point out, you could make one character your main character and have the other two in supporting roles (as in Harry Potter, with Harry, Ron, and Hermione, or Spiderman with Peter, Harry, and MJ). This might mean having someone else as the impact character, or it might mean having two impact characters, in which case the main character must decide which of them is right in the end.

It depends entirely on whose point of view you feel is most important for the story. Whose big decision at the climax will determine the outcome? Do they all make important choices that resolve their inner conflicts, or just one of them?

Comments for Multiple Lead Characters

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May 19, 2011
Deep POV
by: Peggy Harris

I attended a writers conference and got a critique of the first chapter of my novel. They said it should have written it in "deep point of view," or "limited first-person POV." It is a way of blending the best of first and third person POV. I googled "deep POV" and learned a lot about it online. Can you recommend any other resources to learn about it?

May 21, 2011
Keep it simple.
by: Glen

The important thing to remember about POV is that the reader is privy to what your POV character feels, thinks, and perceives - and not to what other characters feel, think, or perceive. That is what makes the story personal. It allows the reader to imagine himself/herself in the main character's shoes and to empathize with him/her.

How deep or shallow you go is just a matter of how much of the POV character's inner world you want present to the reader.

Where most people go astray is not in how deep the perspective is but in breaking POV. For instance, if you start describing things your POV character couldn't possibly know - such as the thoughts of other characters or what's happening in the next building - without clearly switching to a new POV character - then the illusion, the intimacy with the reader will be damaged.

The simplest solution is to stick with one POV character almost exclusively. But, as I said above, you do have other options if you are confident you can keep your POV characters clearly delineated.

May 21, 2011
by: Peggy Harris

Thank you, Glen. I am enjoying your site and truly appreciate the time you put into your personal responses.

Jan 24, 2013
What about the multi generational saga?
by: Anonymous

I have recently published my first novel which is a multi generational saga, and this week received my first negative review. One of the main criticisms of the reviewer was the use of multiple main characters, which she didn't like. However, I can't see how to escape this when one is writing a saga about the impact of a vendetta on two families over several generations. Obviously different characters need to be the main character depending on which generation is in focus at the time. A superb example of this is the book, Roots, detailing the impact of slavery down through the generations of one family.

Jan 24, 2013
by: Glen

Don't let one bad review get you down. Everyone has their likes and dislikes, and obviously this reviewer just likes a single POV character. Your point about different generations is valid.

If it helps, consider the book "The Night Circus," which sold very well despite having multiple POV characters. (More than I like, actually, but so what? The book has other redeeming characteristics.)

For every so-called rule or guideline someone invents, you can point to successful books that violate it. The trick is having a good reason to violate it, which you do.

Mar 03, 2013
Three Main Characters
by: Catherine

You could have three main characters, I have that too (though only one protagonist.) You can make them all different, one could be brainy and sweet, one could be fierce and brave and the other could be humble and funny (just suggestions). I'd say having three main characters is a very good idea, three different opinions and maybe lead to some arguments and a choice between friends and glory for the protagonist? Hope this helped!

Aug 14, 2013
by: Bigspence

thanks for the help. I have been trying to write using multi character pov because of the distamce between people in my story . you have given me a couple points to strongly consider wondered if you had any advice on a timeline tool to help me such as i need to tell a history while im telling the story so two stories at once thing thanks alot good luck in the future

Aug 14, 2013
by: Glen

Some software programs, such as Outline 4D will let you plot parallel timelines.

My advice is to work out each of the two stories separately. Make sure they are both dramatically sound. Then braid them.

Jan 12, 2015
multiple characters with one main and one support
by: Leannf

Can I have the main character written in first person and the support character written in third person? They would be in separate chapters.

Jan 13, 2015
To Leannf
by: Glen

Yes, you can. It might actually be a useful way to help the reader separate the two POV characters.

Jan 17, 2015
Three Main Characters Journeying Together
by: Anonymous

Thank you so much, I am really glad that I found this site. I was wondering if you could write with three main characters that are going on the same journey rather than three different stories that join into one?

Jan 17, 2015
re: 3 POV characters
by: Glen

You could write from the point of view of three characters on the same journey. The question is why?

One reason might be that you want the character relationships to be the foreground of the story, and the journey is more of a vehicle to get them to interact.

Bear in mind that when you create 3 POV characters, you are essentially creating three stories in one frame, since every POV character is the hero of his/her own journey. That means each of them should have an inner conflict as well as an external goal.

Issues to consider:

More POV characters means the reader has less of a connection to any one character. It's a price that must be paid.

When all three characters are involved in the same events, you have a challenge deciding which events should be told from which character's POV. Whose journey is each event a part of?

One feature of a main character is that their choice at the climax determines the outcome. With three characters, you have to decide if one is the main POV character or try to find a way for all of them to equally determine the outcome.

Sep 28, 2015
by: Aretsu

So I'm starting to write this story about six different characters. They'll be talked about in their own chapter and their own POV. My question is after all of that they will all be put into a situation where they have to interact with others and themselves to reach their own goal. How do I do this? Do I write the rest of the story in third person? Or do I continue sectioning the chapters for the one character? Love your site by the way!!

Sep 29, 2015
To Aretsu
by: Glen

I think your challenge will be in creating a close connection between reader and character. Switching to third person could be rather disappointing, since the intimacy would decrease. Having so many POV characters also distances the reader from any one of them.

If your story is complex, you might try to develop a throughline for each character and switch between them at appropriate chapters. You will have some work deciding whose POV to use for key scenes.

The alternative is to choose one POV character.

Dec 27, 2015
POV Question
by: Cale

I have this book series planned, where it starts of with two main characters with one POV in the first book. The next one they both have POV sections,though primarily still the original, who is the protagonist. They start out as allies, but eventually the second guy becoms the primary antagonist, until the final book where they face off. Is this a wise course to take? Or do I want to just stick mainly with the protagonist's POV?

Dec 27, 2015
to Cale
by: Glen

I think you have to weigh up what you gain/lose by using multiple POVs. The gain may be giving the reader a broader perspective on the story and the chance to know things the main character does not. The loss may be that the reader may not have the experience of seeing the world entirely through the eyes of the main character.

Feb 03, 2016
Multiple characters singing
by: Anonymous

Hi so I have two books that I am writing and they have lot of singing involved. I am stumped on how to write multiple characters singing like if they are in a band and have it make sense to my readers. If anyone can help. Preferably with and example that would be great.

Apr 14, 2016
Enemy protagonists???
by: Callista

I am currently writing a fantasy book that involves FOUR main characters. So far, I have been switching POVs with each chapter, and it has been going pretty well.

Two of the protagonists are siblings, a brother and a sister, that will both be extremely powerful and influential to the climax. The other two protagonists are important, as well, but won't be as magically gifted.

The issue is that the sister ends up falling for the darkness, and the brother has to fight his own sister to resolve the conflict. So, in the end, each sibling's main conflict is the other sibling.

Will this confuse my readers? I read another website that claims that you need to provide a single character or group of characters for your readers to root for, but two of my characters are literally enemies. Will this force the readers to choose? And is that necessarily a bad thing?

Apr 15, 2016
To Callista
by: Glen

You can find many successful novels that are feature multiple point-of-view characters.

Giving the reader one main character or one primary POV character with whom they can develop a close connection is a technique -- and a pretty effective one. But it's not a "need to."

Multiple POV characters move the readers from a purely subjective point of view (imagining themselves as the main character) to more of an objective point of view in which they know more than any one character.

As the author, you have to weigh the pros and cons of both these techniques as they apply to the story you want to tell.

Apr 27, 2016
Re: Callista's enemy/protagonists
by: ilona Rapp

Hi Callista,

I just wanted to say that your idea of including POV for brother and sister as they turn from one another sounds intriguing, fascinating really. It is a very difficult situation, and by including both POV your reader gains insight, and is caught up in a difficult choice. Your own choice and evaluation of their motives will shine through and influence the reader, but you are bringing them deeper into the conflict by having them empathize with both sides. Great idea, and I would love to know how it all came out!

I am juggling my own multiple main characters and am so glad for this forum to read other author's ideas and solutions.

May 25, 2016
Changing Characters and POV
by: Anonymous

I am wondering your thoughts about how to tackle writing a story, where the story starts with two main characters and their POV die, and the story continues as a result. It is the actions of one of the first main 2 characters who disappear from the story.

The story is about 2 main characters, but after they are gone it is the consequences of one of those characters that drives the rest of the story even though he is out of the picture. Can you recommend any books that may have taken this approach. Or have any suggestions of how to navigate this.

May 27, 2016
re: POV characters who die
by: Glen

I think you risk disappointing or upsetting your reader if your POV characters die part-way through. It could make the first part of the book feel like a prologue.

Assuming another POV character takes over after their deaths, I would be inclined to introduce that third character early on, so that the reader has someone to care about all the way through. The third character will be the real main character whose story the book tells.

Even still, readers get attached to POV characters and, if they are developed at all, will have an emotional investment in them which you should be sensitive to.

Jul 14, 2016
by: Annie

Hi-I believe I have four POV characters. two are close friends from another country, the other two characters do not have close relationships with any of the other characters, but have their own stories. I have more story on the two close friend, so my question is should I have 2 POV characters versus 4?

Jul 16, 2016
To Annie
by: Glen

I think you have to ask yourself what each POV adds to the story, and why you couldn't make each one a regular character. Is it worth giving up a stronger central character in return for the broader perspective multiple POVs would add? Do you need the dramatic irony created from additional POVs (for instance, does it create suspense to see the villain's perspective?).

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