Sunday, August 28, 2016

A Tale of Two Protagonists

By Kasie Whitener

A single character’s perspective limits the story. Motivations and realizations that occur for other characters must only be guessed at by the central Point of View (POV) character. Yet working within the limitation demonstrates the writer’s skill. It’s on the author to help us see all characters’ journeys through the main character’s perspective.

When the writer ignores the limitations of the single POV and exposes us to multiple characters’ experiences, our writers’ group calls it Head Hopping. We recognize that there are rules to sharing the POV with multiple characters.

Rule #1: Clearly distinguish the points of shift. Shifting during the scene confuses the reader. Our group allows spacers and chapter changes for the shift to logically occur.

Rule #2: Only give a point of view to a character if you need the audience to know something about that character that no one else can know. Some internal motivations and secrets have to stay hidden from the other characters until they create a pivot point for the story.

For example, if at the pivot point in the story you plan to have the character Sasha perform an illusion she learned while traveling with a carnival magician as a teenager, then that carnival experience needs to be part of what the reader knows about her. We cannot arrive at the pivot and think, “Since when does Sasha know magic?”

When people claim something happened out of nowhere in a novel, it’s because the knowledge, skills, or motivation to commit that action have not been disclosed.

In The League series of fantasy romance books I’m currently binge reading, the author frequently shifts point of view between the male and female leads. The habit seemed like poor writing in the first two books. By book three, though, I started to wonder if she was working with a dual protagonist.

In most stories the protagonist wants something and will do anything to get it and the antagonist stands in that person’s way. But in a romance, there are two main characters, the lovers. Can a novel have two protagonists?

The benefits of two protagonists include watching two unique plot arcs, seeing two characters grow and change, and enjoying the intermingling of the two whenever their actions interfere with one another. Even so, only skilled authors can keep two protagonists separate but equal. It’s a unique challenge to engage the reader with two (or more) main characters.

Two protagonists in one story is a literary no-no that has recently been challenged by some significant works such as All the Light We Cannot See, The Orphan Train, and the entire Game of Thrones series. Those books follow the rules stated above. They only give POV to characters we need to know more about and they shift on definitive lines.

As writers continue to experiment with multiple protagonists, to see if that experiment works, and to show others how it’s done, our literary rules are evolving. And as the craft evolves, the distinction between head-hopping and multiple protagonists may become a measure of skill.

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