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JJ Barnes

JJ Barnes writes about parenting, feminism, current affairs and writing

By - JJBarnes

How To Write Multiple Protagonists

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I’ll be writing about the video How much description should you put in your prose? How to write Multiple Protagonists – writing advice for writers and screenwriters, from the writing advice series I’m doing on YouTube with Jonathan McKinney.

If you’re writing an ensemble cast, rather than just a single protagonist and antagonist, you may need to be able to write with multiple Protagonists, and understand what that means and how to do it well. However, an ensemble cast doesn’t necessarily mean you have multiple protagonists, you may have a large cast revolving around a single Protagonist. They’re only a Protagonist if you’re directly following their story.

You can find examples of multiple protagonism in stories such as The West Wing, Pulp Fiction, Lost, and the first two Avengers movies, rather than Infinity War, because Thanos is the protagonist in Infinity War.

A TV series is a good space for writing multiple protagonists because then your audience is able to spend more time getting to know the different characters and what they are motivated by. Over more time you can track the different characters and different stories more easily. Films and books are harder to write a good multiple protagonist story in, simply because you have less time to understand who all your Protagonists are and what they all want and to tell all their stories successfully.

When you’re writing a multiple protagonist story, you have to be careful to control the structure. You can end up with a bitty storyline, bobbing about so much you never fully get to grips with any of the characters story, or have to race through different characters stories too fast so you lose some of the details they deserve to make them rich.

In Lost, some of the Protagonists back stories end up cut short and rushed through because if you spend too long exploring one character’s life, you end up missing out on everybody back on the island who still needs to have their stories moved forward in an equally interesting and developed way.

The West Wing nails multiple protagonists in a really impressive way. Sorkin manages to make each Protagonist equally important and significant each episode, move each character’s individual story arc along each episode, and make sure you care about every character and every plotline each episode.

You might find that in different episodes, or different chapters, you choose to focus on one character predominantly, as happens in Lost and The West Wing for instance, but all the other characters still have to be moved along. The other storylines might not be directly involved with the focus plotline, but could be thematically linked.

When you’re getting to know characters in a multiple protagonist story, you have a lot of characters to introduce with equal value quickly, and that means you need your audience to understand who each of them are quickly too or it’ll just be confusing.

If you look at how Lost introduces the cast, it’s very clever and very effective. At first, you get to know each protagonist based on one single thing about them, something your audience can latch on to and recognise those characters by. You then slowly get to know them better, and understand what it is they want better, after you’ve been able to identify who each of them are.

To write this yourself, you need to give each Protagonist something really clear about them. Using Lost as an example, look at how these characters are recognised early on. The Fat Guy – Hurly. The Stuck Up Princess – Shannon. The Hero – Jack. The Cowboy – Sawyer. Each of these characters is deeper and more interesting than the stereotype you’re trained to recognise them by, but by having these single factors made the focus, you’ve got a base on which to learn more about these characters by. Once you know who they are, you can grow them, bring in their back stories and motivations.

A way to do this well is to write your story first, then when you know your characters really well, go back into your first chapter and give each Protagonist something clear that is an easy way to identify them when the audience reads their name.

For instance, in Emerald Wren And The Coven Of Seven, I have an ensemble cast of seven, and even though Emerald is the single Protaognist, the other six are still extremely important and motivated throughout the story. I went back in and made sure that early on each character had something the audience could latch onto, for instance, Celeste is a Christian so when she’s anxious I made her play with her crucifix. Celeste is much more than just a Christian, but that action tells the audience something significant about her immediately that they can recall when they next read her name.

An important thing to remember is that every Protagonist must have an Antagonist. It could be themselves if they have internal conflict, another person in their life who wants the complete opposite to what they want, or even the world at large, nature, or society. But to be a Protagonist they must have an Antagonist who is blocking them from getting what they want.

The benefits of writing multiple protagonists are that the energy of your story will be up. Every scene will have more conflict because the characters are equally important and equally motivated, and the more conflict there is in a scene, the more entertaining it is. It isn’t necessarily an easy thing to do, and won’t suit every story, but if you do it well it can be very effective and entertaining.

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