Writing a novel with multiple main characters can seem insurmountable. Who’s on stage when, and what do you do with the others at the same time?
When your top priority is crystal clarity for your reader, you must somehow weave different perspectives in a way that makes sense.
Common wisdom says you get one perspective or point-of-view (POV) character per scene, preferably per chapter, and usually per book.
My latest novel, The Valley of the Dry Bones, has one perspective character throughout. Though it’s written in third person, it’s limited to just my lead character’s perspective. He is the camera, so everything that happens on every page is seen through his eyes, heard through his ears, and any internal dialogue is his.
That’s the easiest, most direct, and clearest way to handle POV. Using more than one is not for the faint of heart. It’s complex and tricky, and only more so if you go beyond two. I first used two perspective characters when I wrote my novel Left Behind.
So why did I do it?
Because the scope of my story demanded it. I needed my airline pilot (Rayford Steele) to get around the world—and I told a cosmic tale that also impacted him and his immediate family. But meanwhile, I also needed my globe-trotting journalist (Buck Williams) to be where Rayford wasn’t. If your story likely requires more than one main character to make it work, it’s crucial you learn to deftly navigate featuring multiple main characters.
So what’s the secret? A few clear guidelines can make it work.
Here are three:
How to Successfully Feature Multiple Main Characters
1. Think Reader-First
You want nothing to stand in the way of the reader’s experience. She should know who your POV character is without having to re-read or ferret it out. When I began a scene Rayford Steele’s mind was on a woman he had never touched, there was no question he was the main character and that we would experience this scene through his lens.
For some reason, many beginning writers mistakenly assume that rendering a scene from one character’s perspective means it must be written in the first person from his or her point of view. As you can see from the example above, it can be done just as well in third-person limited.
Also, remembering that you get only one POV character per scene should keep you from head hopping—where readers get a peek inside the minds of others. Say Jim is your POV character and he notices Mary is scowling. You can say, “Jim thought Mary looked skeptical, so…” But you cannot say, “Mary was skeptical. She doubted Jim knew what he was talking about.”
If you do, you have hopped into her head mid-scene and have either switched the POV from Jim to Mary, or you have slipped into an Omniscient Viewpoint where the author is not limited to one person’s perspective. You know all and tell all, and unless you are a master like J.K. Rowling, you’re unlikely to sell such a manuscript.
I’ve written 192 books, two-thirds of those novels, and I wouldn’t even attempt such a thing.
In Left Behind, when I switched to my second POV character, I added double the space between paragraphs (and some authors or publishers also center a typographical dingbat like * * * between paragraphs, just to make things clearer) and introduced him this way:
Next to a window in first class, a writer sat hunched over his laptop. He shut down the machine, vowing to get back to his journal later. At thirty, Cameron Williams was the youngest ever senior writer for…
Handling it that way ensured that no reader could miss that I had switched from Rayford in the cockpit to Buck in first class.
2. Make Your POV Characters Distinct
In subsequent books in the Left Behind series, I used as many as five different perspective characters for one novel. That made it even more vital to make clear to the reader who my perspective character was whenever I switched.
But just as important, my individual perspective characters had to be crisply distinct from one another. I established Rayford as a middle-aged family man, while Buck was younger and single.
Another perspective character was female, another an elderly man. The more distinct the better.
Some novelists have multiple perspective characters speak from their POVs in the first person. That can make it easier to distinguish between characters, provided you work hard to give each his own voice, pace, vocabulary, and delivery.
3. Choose Carefully
The point of having multiple main characters is to allow your story to expand geographically. But you may find, as I did, that eventually your perspective characters wind up in the same scene.
Then from whose perspective do you tell it?
If one of your main characters is most main, if you know what I mean (in Left Behind Rayford and Buck were both strong leads, but Rayford was really the star), stick with that character. Otherwise, choose the one who has the most to gain or lose in the scene.
You Can Make This Work
As you can see, there’s a lot to consider when you try to tell a story featuring more than one main character, but if you’re careful and intentional and always consider your reader first, you can enhance a story this way and make it something special.
Our best writing often results from working through such difficult challenges.