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How to Structure Stories With Multiple Main Characters

How to Structure Stories With Multiple Main Characters

One of the most common questions I’m asked is how to structure stories with multiple main characters. If you have two (or more) characters who are equally important to the story and receive equal POV time, how should you balance them when structuring your novel?

At its core, story structure is a simple equation: one primary actor—the protagonist—moves forward toward a goal through a series of obstacles that ultimately demand personal transformation of some kind.

Any discussion of structure reveals that plot is necessarily intertwined with character arc. Indeed, many basic explanations of plot points are in fact less about external forces working upon the characters and more about how the character is changing from the inside out. Usually, these discussions emphasize the protagonist as a singular entity within the story, and usually this is precisely because the protagonist’s character arc is so closely linked to the story’s external plot structure. The single protagonist in alignment with the plot structure produces elegantly powerful stories. If we consider the storyform as a map of psychological transformation, then it makes sense that it is often at its most thematically powerful when it is most streamlined and simple.

And yet many stories choose to follow multiple main characters, for many different reasons. For one thing, this complexity more closely mirrors our real-life experiences. But, too, some stories are more about the panorama than the personal transformation, and they require more than one character’s perspective in order to give readers all the necessary information.

So how can you structure stories with multiple main characters? If you have more than one person acting and changing over the course of the story, how can you tie them both into one solid structural form, so that everything feels cohesive and appropriately causal?

Let’s take a look.

The Two Different Types of Stories With Multiple Main Characters

Generally speaking, we find two different types of stories with multiple main characters. Either we see different characters walking side by side in the same structural plotline, or we see them each as the primary actors in separate plotlines which will eventually meet toward the end of the story.

In the first, the main characters will influence one another’s structural progression and personal transformations. In the second, they will probably have little to no impact upon one another’s storylines until their individual journeys finally bring them to a mutual meeting place.

How you structure a story with multiple main characters will depend on which type of plot you’re working with. (For simplicity, the rest of the article will assume we’re discussing stories that feature two main characters, but of course you can have many more than that. Aside from added complexity challenges, the same basic principles apply no matter how many main characters you’re juggling.)

Multiple Main Characters in the Same Plotline

This is the most streamlined approach to multiple main characters. Even though you have multiple characters, you do not have multiple plotlines.

This is a common choice for relational stories such as romances. Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus comes to mind. We also sometimes see it in mysteries in which partner detectives are featured equally.

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We also see it in stories in which the character who would generally be considered the antagonist is elevated to equal importance with the protagonist. This might be done for many reasons, but is most notable in stories in which there isn’t a great deal of moral separation between the characters—i.e., both characters are equally sympathetic and/or equally amoral.

Structuring these stories isn’t much different from structuring a single-protagonist story, in that both characters will be equally affected by the same structural beats. This means that as per usual, you only need to plot a single storyline with a single set of plot points. The trick is making sure both characters are equally affected by each beat. If one character consistently is not an actor in the structural beats and/or is not impacted by the beats, then you may discover you’re really dealing with only a single main character after all.

Important Variation: Protagonist and Main Character as Separate People

Sometimes we see this approach with stories in which the two characters are not structural equals but still receive equal emphasis within the story. The term “protagonist” refers to the character who is the primary actor in the plot—the character who makes things happen and moves the plot forward. The term “main character” refers to the person who is most central to the story.

Usually, the “protagonist” and the “main character” will be the same person. But occasionally, these roles may be split, with the main character acting as an important observer to the protagonist’s actions. We see this with pairings such as Sherlock Holmes/John Watson and Atticus Finch/Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. In most of these instances, the main character will act as the primary narrator who observes, comments upon, and is probably impacted by the protagonist’s actions—for better or worse.

Multiple Main Characters in Multiple Plotlines

The more complex approach to stories with multiple characters is that of creating what effectively amounts to multiple plots, each with its own main character following his own structural progression—until the plotlines converge late in the story.

We see this technique used in stories that require a grand scale. Although these stories can certainly focus on relational conflict as well, they tend to thematically highlight a “bigger picture,” showing one particular crisis through the eyes of different people. Epic fantasies, such as Game of Thrones, often employ this technique.

We can also see it in such stories as Cold Mountain, in which one plotline follows a Confederate deserter trekking home through the mountains, while the other plotline focuses on his sweetheart’s struggles to eke a living out of her farm back home. Other than the obvious relationship between the characters, the two plotlines have no effect upon each other. The primary purpose is that of widening the story’s thematic theater to show the wider suffering of wartime.

The structure in stories such as this is more complicated. Although certain “global” events may be significant enough to occasionally create mutual plot points, most of the time each plotline will create its own structure. This means the events in one plotline will not likely (or at least not immediately) impact the events in the other plotline. This remains true until the plotlines finally converge toward the end of the story.

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The trick here is making sure readers understand why they are being asked to follow two separate plotlines. This should be clear either from a thematic standpoint and/or because it’s obvious the characters’ individual goals will inevitably bring them together at some point in the story.

Important Variation: Dual Timelines

Sometimes we see this approach in stories that feature not only multiple plotlines but also multiple timelines, in which one of the plotlines takes place in an entirely different time than the other. In fact, it is possible for the same person to be the main character in both plotlines. In one she will be older and in the other she will be younger. This approach is usually chosen when using one timeline to comment upon the other offers either greater thematic depth or heightened suspense.

Timelines will (usually) not converge the way plotlines will, but at a certain point the events of the earlier timeline should provide an important catalyst for the latter timeline, driving it forward into the Climax. Usually, the earlier timeline will be subordinate to the later one, and the story’s structure will bear this out by placing more emphasis and drama on the later timeline’s structural beats.

4 Tips for Managing Stories With Multiple Main Characters

If you’ve decided your story works best with multiple characters, you can use the following four tips to help you manage this complex approach to storytelling.

1. Identify Your Structural Throughline (Look at the Climax)

The most important key for managing multiple main characters is to make sure they are contributing to rather than taking away from your story’s structural integrity. You will want to carefully assess your story’s structural beats to make sure you’re maintaining cohesion and resonance across plotlines and POVs. Look particularly to the Climactic Moment, since this is the scene that “proves” what your story’s structure is ultimately about. Then check all major structural moments leading up to the Climactic Moment, to make sure they are all arrows pointing toward the same endpoint.

2. Balance the POVs

Usually, when you are writing a story with multiple main characters, this means you have decided both characters are equally important to the story. The clearest way to signal this to readers is by balancing their POVs throughout. This doesn’t mean you must strictly alternate between POVs every other chapter, but you will want to try to main regular intervals for both.

You also don’t have to be hyper-meticulous in ensuring each POV receives the same word count, but you will want to give them essentially equal weight—otherwise one character will implicitly take center stage as the “real” main character.

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It should also go without saying that POVs should be equally interesting to readers. If all the good stuff and all the best supporting characters are lumped into one POV, then you should assess whether the weaker POV is really as necessary as you originally thought.

3. Consider Thematic Resonance

Even if your story uses multiple main characters and plotlines, it should still feature one cohesive theme. This is best achieved by harmonizing all character arcs within the story. Characters can believe in vastly different Lies at the beginning of the story, but all of these Lies should be challenged by the same thematic Truth by the end. If you discover your main characters’ individual character arcs are about vastly different Truths, then you may find that they pull too hard in opposite thematic directions and end up fracturing your story’s cohesion and resonance.

In adding an extra main character, you have made your story’s structure that much more complicated. This means it is all the more important that every piece contribute thematically. Consider the context these two characters, POVs, and (perhaps) plotlines are creating for one another. What are they saying about each other that neither one would say in isolation? Consider, too, the subtext. Because readers can see the larger picture through the eyes of more than one character, the subtext in each individual POV will grow.

Finally, examine all of your story’s structural beats (and, by extension, each character’s arc) to see how thematically harmonious they are. Cold Mountain is a great example of a story in which the two main characters endure vastly different experiences—and yet both experiences are ultimately about the same thing.

4. Pay Attention to Key Supporting Characters Throughout

Supporting characters are always important, but they can make or break a story that features multiple main characters. Especially in stories with multiple plotlines, you will want to make sure all the key supporting roles are sufficiently filled in both POVs. Ideally, each main character will be surrounded by a full complement of supporting characters: antagonist, contagonist, mentor, sidekick and/or love interest. These archetypal characters not only add color, they fill key functional roles within the storyform itself.

One of the most powerful guidelines for any author is to “honor simplicity.” This doesn’t mean you can’t write stories of deep complexity, but it does mean you should never confuse complex with complicated. This rule of thumb is particularly valuable when writing stories with multiple main characters. The more main characters you add, the more opportunity you have for a certain kind of complexity—but the more risk you run of complications as well.

Choose your main characters with an eye on how those choices will affect your entire story—plot, character arcs, and theme—and use these tips to keep everything balanced and resonant.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Have you ever thought about writing stories with multiple characters? Tell me in the comments!

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