Can a novel have two protagonists? That’s what Dacre, a reader at Advanced Fiction Writing Blog, asks today:
I’m currently toying with the idea of using two protagonists as my POV characters. The basic storyline for the pair will be their history before meeting, meeting, best friends and finally arch enemies. I was just wondering how effective, if at all, this setup would be, as the two characters would have completely opposite personalities and different views on everything that happens.
Wow, sounds like a very dramatic, heartbreaking story line! I like.
Okay, this is one of those questions where you have to remember that advice on fiction writing tends to be quite subjective. Every editor, every writing teacher or mentor is going to have their own personal opinion about it. Ultimately, YOU are the one who will have to decide, and it’s going to be up to you to make it work for the story–no matter which way you go with it.
With that caveat, my thought is that it’s perfectly fine to have two protagonists. You can even make both of them point-of-view characters if you want (though please, not in the same scene–no head-hopping!). But it will be vastly easier for you if one of them is slightly more the lead character than the other. You can develop their characters in equal depth, and you can devote a nearly equal amount of the story to each one. And you can have the goals and desires for each be equally strong throughout the story.
But when it comes to describing your work, or pitching it to editors, or writing the back cover copy on the novel, people are going to expect that one of the two characters is going to get top billing. It’s just easier for most people to understand the story that way. And it’s easier for readers to enter into the story and become hooked when they can view it as “John’s story about his close friendship with James that slowly devolved into a tragic enmity” rather than trying to split the focus equally between the two.
This would be true, by the way, of even an ensemble story where there is a group of people who are the main protagonists. It’s still better to have a lead–even if it’s just in name only. And it makes it easier for you, as well, in terms of structuring the story because with one lead character, you know whose Goal is driving the story. Then you can use the other protagonist to function as the antagonist when you need to.
So yes, I think it’s a great idea to create two really strong, equally deep main characters. Just let one be slightly more the lead than the other, just for the sake of the structure and for the comfort of the reader. I hope the story goes well, Dacre–it sounds like you’re off to a good start.
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