I’ve seen the term “main character” used a couple different ways. Unfortunately, and a little ironically, this is a common problem with writing terminology. Often there aren’t good hard and fast definitions for these terms, so most authors, publishing houses, and editors just have to pick one and be consistent. For my blog, I’m going to use “main character” to mean the single character around which the whole book revolves, or the protagonist.
Some people are going to disagree with me on that "single" part. There are books that have dual protagonists. But let me tell you why that’s an exception to the rule.
A single main character will be a constant connection to pull your readers into the story and also a guide to take them all the way from that first page until the very last one. If you have other perspectives, readers will know that their issues are eventually going to become relevant to the goal of the main character and that will help them piece everything together in their minds.
So while having multiple main characters could be right for your book, unless you have a good reason, stick to a single main character.
A good example of this principle is the Legend of Korra. During one of the later seasons, Korra ends up being taken out of action for a while. I won’t give away exactly why or how, but she sits on the sidelines while all the other characters run around doing things.
And the episodes were boring. After each episode ended, no matter what challenges or conflicts the characters had faced, no matter how much I laughed at my beloved character’s jokes, I wasn’t really eager to start the next episode.
I like this example because I really hated Korra as a character. I watched the show because it was a spinoff of Avatar: The Last Airbender and I fell in love with many of the side characters, but Korra was specifically designed to be the opposite of everything the previous main character had been. She drove me nuts throughout the whole show. So when she wasn’t around, I was relieved. My favorite scenes were ones that had nothing to do with her.
But when she stopped being the main character of the show, the show still suffered. There was a purpose she served in the story. Without her, the story was wandering.
Books are fun because they can get inside other people’s heads. You can experience another life through another person, sometimes even multiple other people. But if you want the reader to really be invested in the outcome of your story, you have to point them towards the ending. If you spend your precious word count setting up multiple characters with multiple goals and multiple paths to get to those goals, you risk readers wondering where the story is going.
As with all writing rules, there are always exceptions. If your story is more about exploring perspectives and inter personal conflict than a big drama climax scene, multiple main characters may work for you. Dual main characters are common in romance stories for this reason. Knowing both of the characters helps make the ending more satsifying. You'll notice that in this case the characters have the same goal and the readers have a clear expectation for the ending (the couple getting together). Stories about perspectives that focus equally on several characters can do well in contemporary or literary fiction. But they general are hard to pull off in a middle grade adventure novel or an epic fantasy novel.
People experience life through one point of view. When your best friend tells you a story about their day, they may imply what everyone else is thinking, but you still know that you’re getting a single side to the story. You know that at the end of the story something is going to happen to your friend, not to this random other guy in the background that wasn’t mentioned at all in the set up. It’s all about the communicated expectations. This story is about me. The things that happened are about me. You’re supposed to sympathize with me. It is a framework people are used to, to such a point that they expect it subconsciously. Providing a single main character can help organize and structure your book in a way that pulls readers in a guides them naturally through the events of your plotline.
About my coauthor:
Ahna Larson is an awesome editor who was a huge help working on this blog post.