Your story has multiple protagonists and you’re in trouble. You can’t figure out how to juggle these characters to make the story work. What do you do?
Luckily, you don’t have as big a problem as you think. *phew* Read on…
To decide who is your protagonist, you pick one. This will be the character your entire story hangs on. Sure you may switch to many characters throughout the story, but this character (your protagonist) is the one who has the most scenes, the most speaking, the most action, and you have the most love for. In short, if you remove that character (your protagonist) from the story, it collapses.
Does that help you decide? No? Read on…
If you’re writing a series, the protagonist in this story doesn’t have to be the one for the entire series. This doesn’t have to be the protagonist you’re using in a series. It can be the protagonist for this specific story only. That might help you choose? If not…
Maybe you’re unaware of why we have one protagonist? A protagonist is like the top step of the ladder, or the peak of the mountain, we can only ever have one. Sure you can have lots of other characters, and they’ll all play a huge role, but only one of them can complete the entire journey and come out of the other side unscathed. All the other characters may go through hell and might be killed off. Your protagonist, however, will only suffer, and if they do die, it will be to show the reader a valuable lesson, eg: they didn’t die in vain – their death allowed justice to happen.
Can you select your protagonist now? Maybe? If not, read on to learn about all these other protagonists you’re fretting over…
The name for your main character is protagonist, the name for your bad guy (which can also be the protagonist, btw) is called antagonist. But are you aware there are more character names? Maybe you just haven’t assigned them all.
You should also have an Ally: someone who loves, confides, supports, and encourages the protagonist on their journey. This should be a long-held close friend or another they love deeply. They exist in the ordinary world and might get pulled in to the new world if things get desperate, or they may appear at the end of the story to show how the protagonist has changed.
You can also have a Sidekick: your protagonist’s partner in crime going with them on the journey. They will aid the protagonist, but they will never take the lead in the story. They exist to show how smart/right your protagonist is/was, maybe not at the start, but definitely by the end (even if the Sidekick has to die to allow the protagonist to succeed!)
You will also need a Mentor, a character your protagonist turns to for help or advice, because the decision they have to make is hard, and they have doubts about their ability. This Mentor could also be an Ally. The Mentor might not be wholesome, but for some reason, they are respected by the Protagonist.
Next the Trickster. This is a character who wants your protagonist to go on a journey but doesn’t care about them at all. They are in it for their gain. They may cheat, lie, or trick the protagonist, eventually, even if they appear loyal and loved earlier in the story. They will have their agenda! This person is not also an Ally. They are unlikely to be the Mentor, however, because the trickster appears in the new world only, if the Mentor was to be the Trickster, the Mentor would have to ’shapeshift’ into the new world and have a good reason to do so.
Next: let’s look at already mentioned Antagonist. I’ll assume you know this is the bad guy. But you need to remember that this character should be the polar opposite of your protagonist. Even if they’re after the same thing, they will go after it, with completely opposing ethics and beliefs. If your protagonist doesn’t want to harm people, your antagonist should, if your protagonist uses their intelligence to win, the antagonist will use their beauty and charm to do the same. They both will want the ‘best’ for themselves or another, but will never agree on how to do that.
The next character is the Herald. This may be one character or many, but they serve the antagonist, and your protagonist will need to face them to reach their goal. This char(s) could be a Sister, or a Henchman, or the Security Guard who protects the jewels with guns. The Herald should be the highest-ranking defender of the Antagonists way of thinking. It is very unlikely the Herald will survive mentally or physically, they might double-cross their leader and aid your protagonist if a reason to do so surfaces.
Finally, don’t forget that your Protagonist needs to change by the end of the story. They will reach their ‘higher self’, so you need to know what this transformed character looks/acts like. In essence, you need to have a flip-side to your protagonist: the character they are before the journey, and the character they become afterwards.
Finally, remember: words on a page do not make a story. A story needs all the components to fulfil the readers’ requirement. Otherwise, they might start reading and never finish and maybe you’ll get bad reviews in the process!
If this feels formulaic, you’re correct. It is and should be.
Story has a framework, just like every house needs foundations. Readers will never know it’s there unless they search for it, besides they’ll be too busy enjoying a great story to care. But if the foundations aren’t there, they won’t know why and struggle reading the story to the end.
So, now you know the essential characters for your story, it’s a case of assigning them roles and making sure their scenes match.