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Question and Answer:
What's Your Take on
Multiple-Protagonist Novels?

by Lori L. Lake

The following question came from one reader and has several parts. I'll address them step-by-step.

Q. What's your take on multiple-protagonist novels?

A. The first question I would ask is this: is the book actually a multiple-protagonist novel, i.e., is there more than one heroine seriously invested in the plot outline and in the outcome of the trials and conflict? Or do you mean you are presenting the story from multiple points of view?

Q. My nascent novel seems to have six very interesting (well, interesting to me, at least) lesbians who all clamor for front and center.

A. This all depends on whether there is one main plot line—or a number of plot lines that all seem somewhat evenly weighted? (More on this later…)

Q. Can you think of any multiple protagonist novels that succeed, so that I can read them and see how things work?

A. I can’t think of any moderate length lesbian romance/adventure with more than two major protagonists, though many novels may tell the story from multiple points-of-view. For instance, Jean Stewart’s ISIS books (there are 4 so far) have many different POVs with several subplots, but Whit and Kali tend to be the main characters, and their main goals and conflicts regarding saving their home is the main plot. Many other characters are very nearly main characters at various times, though, and you do tend to grow to care about them. Still, the stories are largely Whit & Kali’s.

I recently read the wonderful novel THE WOLF TICKET by Caro Clarke, and she told the story from, if I remember correctly, five points of view, including from the POV of the two characters in love for whom we are rooting as they search for one another. Each of the five characters’ experiences and circumstances draw the plot closer and closer to fruition. Still, Bron and Pascale are, I would say, the main characters. The story is essentially about them, and the other POVs serve to tell their tale, even though you do find out lots of things about those other secondary characters.

Many novels tell the story from two POVs with two convincing protagonists. Karin Kallmaker’s SUBSTITUTE FOR LOVE has two very specific main characters—and one of them doesn’t even enter into the book until about halfway through. Nann Dunne and Karen King’s TRUE COLOURS and its sequel MANY ROADS TO TRAVEL have two solid main characters. Most Uber stories tend to have two main protagonists (the lovers, usually) or one of the two who is front and center with the lover just a step behind her. Many lesbian novels (like many of Shakespeare’s plays) have a main couple about whom the main plot line revolves, but there are often one or two other couples with subplot roles as secondary characters. Any of those characters may tell some or all of the story or have it narrated from their perspective.

Q. And is this too ambitious for a first-timer?

A. Nothing is ever too ambitious…if you can make it work convincingly, then go for it. Trying to make a first novel work, regardless of how complicated it is, will give you marvelous experience. You learn what to do and what not to do for future novels. You may also write a large part of this novel, discover what doesn’t work, and revise and re-structure. Like swimming, the only way to discover your style and learn to write is to wade right in.

Q. Does having more than one major protagonist always weaken a novel? If not, are there certain pitfalls I should know about?

A. A first-person POV can be very personal and direct; and then again, the tale teller could also NOT be the main character. M.E. Kerr’s DELIVER US FROM EVIE is told first person from the 16-yr-old brother’s point of view, but the story is really about his lesbian sister, Evie, and the bigger picture surrounding their family. At the same time, any time a novelist tells the story from 3rd-person POV from more than one other character it can also be personal and direct—and effective.

People talk about character-driven stories and about plot-driven stories. What kind of story is yours? Or is it a little bit of both? Lesbian romances and adventures tend to be plot-driven with solid characterization. If you have too many people’s POVs swirling around, though, the plot better have narrative drive, because without it, the reader won’t move forward. It gets a little bit tiring for the reader to keep flipping from one consciousness or one world view to another. Then again, that didn’t stop zillions of us from reading Fannie Flagg’s FRIED GREEN TOMATOES, which was all over the map with POV and even had newspaper and epistolary entries. However, again, it was Ruth and Idgie’s story, even if there were other secondary characters and events adding flavor.

When you are writing your six lesbian characters, do their lives go off in tangents all over the book? Or does the telling of the story follow some sort of solid plot thread through the course of the novel? It may be possible that you have been blessed with two or three novels and that you have to focus more on one pair of women (meanwhile promising your other characters their own subsequent novel).

Just remember that any time a character serves in a 1st- or 3rd-person POV storytelling role, the reader is going to care about them in some manner. Sometimes that means that you hope they get killed off because their behavior is reprehensible. Sometimes it means that you grow to love them, even if they are flawed. I just read Lynn Flewellings NIGHTRUNNER fantasy trilogy, most of which is told from the POV of main characters Eric and Seregil. But there are many scenes laid out from other secondary viewpoints by critically important characters who tell parts of the story that occur when Eric or Seregil are not there. It works marvelously.

If you like, write in with more information or questions, and we can examine this further.

—© Lori L. Lake, 2003 - Associate Editor of Just About Write
Author of the novels Different Dress, Gun Shy, Under The Gun, and Ricochet In Time.

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