Main character or a group of characters…

Single protagonist vs. ensemble writing

When trying to sell a story or summarize a book, a question I get asked a lot is “who is the main character?” For me, when trying to sell the Lone Prospect this is more difficult to answer than you think. The titular main character would be Gideon, the Lone Prospect. But, he’s not really the main character, he’s an important character. He’s one character in the pack that is hiding in plain sight as a motorcycle club. There are other important characters too. Brand, the President, is an important character. Savannah, the Vice President, is an important character. So, they could be classified as main characters too. Because there is more than one way to write as story. There are single person stories and then there are ensemble stories.

Single person stories are the stories that most book readers are familiar with. Anne of Green Gables, The Hobbit, The Dresden Files, The Hollows, Harry Potter. Those stories are stories about one particular person. In movies, spy movies tend to be single person narratives, James Bond, Jason Bourne, the Taken films. The story is focused on their life and their adventure. The pitfall of single person narratives is that the main character has to become everything. They are the hero, the savior, the pinnacle, they are the driving force behind either saving the world or destroying it. Unless you’re writing say a romance series where your main character changes every book, in speculative fiction the main character of the story often becomes larger than life with a very drama filled life. They have to be special in some way in the minds of most authors in order to keep the reader interested. (There is a point to this, if the character wasn’t special in some way why would we read them but so many authors go over the top with this. The female is chased by four different men, her blood is special, she has special powers, she’s descended from some deity and so on and so forth ad nauseam.)

Ensemble stories in some cases are just as well-known but not really praised for what they are. Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, X-Wing Novels, Anne Bishop’s The Black Jewels. Ensembles are stories about groups of people. A lot of ensemble writing has gone to television where having a large group of people can be shown better. Seinfeld, Buffy, Firefly, Sons of Anarchy, almost all forensic style crime shows, Blue Bloods, Gilligan’s Island, MASH, Star Trek. Movies also get into ensemble writing, The Avengers, X-Men, Lord of the Rings again. (Which revived the ever popular argument about who is the main character of Lord of the Rings. I argue having a main character is not the point.) Heist movies tend to be ensemble movies, The Italian Job, Ocean’s Eleven, St. Trinian’s, Sugar & Spice. In ensemble writing, there are important characters and at different times during different parts of the story, some characters are more important than others. The pitfall of ensemble writing is that there can be too many characters and the reader/watcher can’t focus on any of them or can’t tell them apart. (Always bad.)

There are also buddy stories, Rizzoli and Isles, Rush Hour and any other buddy cop movie, Thelma and Louise, These stories are focused on a pair of characters and their interactions.

Writing an ensemble story and writing a single protagonist story are extremely different. They require different modes of thought at times. When I write a story and it doesn’t feel to be working as a single protagonist story, I have to ask myself some questions. What story am I really trying to tell? What am I trying to convey to the reader? Who are the important people to this story? What is my theme? Can that story, can that theme be told with a single character? Or do I need to broaden my scope and embrace the stories of the other characters? At some point, I sit there and go “Well, I can’t be everything. So, let’s focus on this story for now and work on adding more to it later.” Or else I’m going to be overwhelmed and the reader is going to be overwhelmed. But by answering these questions, I can get a feel for if I need to stick with one character or if I need to make a group. Or even write the group I have without worry about trying to stick to third person limited omniscient point of view.

It can and does start with the point of view. A lot of single protagonist stories in modern speculative fiction (urban fantasy) are in first person. Thus narrowing the viewpoint of the reader even further with unreliable narrators. Writing an ensemble story in first person requires having character chapters or even character scenes. Sometimes this happens even if the story is written in third person. George R. R. Martin and Anne Bishop do this. Ensemble stories tend to be written more in third person especially if they are not using individual character chapters. Ensemble stories will have different character arcs against an overall plot arc and the scenes of these character arcs are put juxtaposition to each other to further the overall story. So, while there are two characters doing one thing, another set of characters are doing another thing possibly at the same time and all of it pushes forward the overall plot. The Star Wars Classic EU X-Wing novels are really good at this. I recommend the Wraith Squadron arc over the “this is actually a story about Corran Horn” Rogue Squadron arc.

In an ensemble story, if the author wants to show another part or facet of their universe, they can spread it across to a different character, create another character arc that may or may not effect one of the other important characters. And in an ensemble story, that’s okay, you can get away with it. But in a single person story, if it doesn’t affect the main character, then it probably won’t be shown unless the author ties the story into knots to show it. Anne Bishop’s Stories of The Others is this way, it started out as a single protagonist story about Meg, and by the fourth book had to twist itself into knots as an ‘ensemble’ story to show what was going on in the war of humans versus the others. It didn’t work well because these characters hadn’t been set up back in book one and so, as a reader, I didn’t care about them enough.

A lot of times it comes down to a preference or even what the author is trying to convey. What is the story? What is the theme? Look no further than the Hobbit versus Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit was a tale focused on Bilbo and an adventure he took to the Lonely Mountain and how he found the ring. Sure, there were dwarves and a wizard with him, but the story didn’t focus on them very much. It was Bilbo’s journey. But in the Lord of the Rings, it wasn’t just Frodo’s journey. It was Aragorn’s journey. It was Gimli’s journey. It was Legolas’ journey. It was even Gollum’s journey. The journey, the story, was bigger than just one person. The fate of the world rested with a group and Frodo could never do it alone. The tones of the two stories were different. The themes were different. The purposes were different. The audiences were different.

I’m not saying one is better than the other. They are both very valid methods of storytelling. They are tools in a writer’s tool kit. And the choice of to use a single main character or a group comes down to what serves your story better. Choose wisely.

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