Why You Still Need a Clear Protagonist with Multiple Narrators

Multiple narrators are great, aren’t they? I love them because they allow the audience to experience the story from multiple POVs and to understand each character in a richer way. This strategy doesn’t work for every story, but when it is used and used properly, it’s very effective. The problem is when you’re giving two or three (or more) characters the proverbial microphone, how do you know whose story it is and does it matter?

When to Use Multiple Narrators

First, let’s consider when and why you might want to use multiple narrators when a single third-person narrator can easily shed light on the activities of multiple characters and give us insight into those characters (a la J.K. Rowling in Harry Potter).

Typically, multiple narrators is effective when each character’s arc is integral for the primary character’s arc and overall plot. It is also helpful when your protagonist has no way of gathering and revealing all of the information he or she (and the audience needs) to understand the story.  

If you’re not sure if you need multiple narrators, ask yourself if your protagonist could get all of the information they need to reveal the story without the audience having a deep look into the arcs of other protagonists.

Gillian Flynn provides a good example of what I mean in Dark Places. Libby Day, the protagonist and the story’s only first-person narrator, was seven when her family was murdered. With her brother in jail and every other witness she knows of dead, Libby can only learn so much as she sleuths for the truth. To help explain Patty’s actions as well as Ben’s motives, Flynn employs two other third-person narrative voices to reveal their characters. It all comes together at the end with the introduction of a fourth an final narrator, Calvin Diehl or the Angel of Debt (a bit of a Deus Ex Machina character (IMO); though, to Flynn’s credit, he was loosely mentioned here and there during the story, so the convenient circumstances surrounding him aren’t completely unbelievable.).

I digress. The point is that there’s almost no way Libby could’ve revealed everything on her own.

Why You Still Need a Clear Protagonist

So, we’ve made a point about the use of multiple narrators, but if that’s the case, why bother having a single protagonist? Good question and there are works where you have multiple protagonists; however, the risk in not having a clear protagonist, that is a person whose story you’re ultimately writing, is that you can risk losing focus.

After all, each character and narrator has his or her unique arc. Each character, should the story be their story would resolve uniquely. Further, your protagonist is the one who is transformed by the events of the story (or are the ones who transform the environment around them).   

In Dark Places, Libby is the one who changes, not Ben, not Calvin Diehl or anyone else. In Gone Girl, while Nick and Amy get almost equal air time, it’s Nick’s story. He’s the one whose eyes are opened by the story’s end (despite a failure to take action); Amy is still a narcissistic psychopath (but what a killer). In Liane Moriarty’s Three Wishes, all three triplets transform, but it is arguable Cat’s story as the arcs of her sisters most profoundly impact her and her crisis serves as the story’s inciting event.

Ways to Signal Your Protagonist to Your Reader

To conclude, let’s consider some strategies that you can use to clearly indicate who among your narrators is the one with the primary story because a truly solid multiple narrator story might be difficult to figure out especially if you have multiple strong characters.

  • If narrators are in the past and present, the protagonist will likely be the character in present day.
  • Use different a first-person point of view for your protagonist but not your other narrators. (It wasn’t until I read Dark Places for the second time that it even dawned on me that Libby was the only characters written in first-person because the other characters’ narrators were so rich and voiceful).
  • Your protagonist’s plot line serves as the inciting incident such as with Cat in Three Wishes by Liane Moriarty.
  • The other character arcs affect the protagonist’s story and character development more than theirs influences the others (also as in the case of Cat in Three Wishes; this can be observed in Gone Girl (Amy impacts Nick more than Nick’s actions impact Amy’s).
  • The protagonist gets the last word. Moriarty’s Big Little Lies has three very well-developed plot lines and while Madeline’s character is a true show-stealer, I’m willing to argue that it’s ultimately Celeste’s story because she undergoes the most robust transformation among the three women, and she has the last word in the novel.

The reason you want your reader to know whose story it is (or at least to have a good idea) is so that the conclusion you take them to makes sense. Naturally, if you’re writing contemporary, genre fiction, upmarket fiction, etc. you generally want to bring every storyline to a close. Done well, there will be just a little more emphasis on the conclusion of one character than the others.

Stories with multiple narrators can be very immersive experiences for your readers provided you have a strong focus and a consistent approach to how you allow your narrators to tell the story.

A few final notes when working with multiple narrators:

  • Ensure your narrators’ time in the story is balanced. No one narrator should have more air time than the other, and you also don’t want to leave a narrator out for a lengthy period unless it makes sense (such as in Peter Swanson’s The Kind Worth Killing)
  • Every narrator should be capable of enhancing the overall story and contributing to the primary story arc.
  • Each character arc should be richly developed. While you only have one true protagonist, each character should have an arc and a plotline as solid and as textured as your protagonist’s.

Personally, I love stories that have multiple narrators. They’re so engaging and complex. If you haven’t read any of Liane Moriarty’s novels, look at those for an example. Two new novels that also use multiple narrators to great effect are J.P. Delaney in Believe Me and Ghosted: A Novel by Rosie Walsh.

Not sure if your story has enough “character”? (Haaah…I’ll let myself out.) Worry no more. Click here to contact me, Vonnie York, at vonnie@creativeeditingservices for a manuscript critique. I’m an editor with a heart. I’ll tell you what I love while providing tender, loving, honest feedback on what you can do to improve it (or rave at how you’ve nailed it and are ready to conquer the world).