The Multi-Headed Beast: 3 Ways to Tame a Story With Multiple Protagonists

by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)

At some point in their career, many writers will decide to work outside the traditional method of telling a story about a single protagonist on a journey. This can turn into a wild monster that gets away from the writer, causing them to chase their stories down a rabbit hole, often losing their audience somewhere along the way.

Here are three ways to tame stories with multiple protagonists before they escape from you.

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1. A TEAM WITH THE SAME GOAL

One of the simplest approaches to a multi-protagonist story is to create a “team” with the same goal. In these “team-based” stories, you’ll likely find a single character standing out more than the others. This isn’t a bad thing. One character directing your story can help you keep focus throughout your screenplay. Just make sure you don’t leave your other heroes in the dust. If we are going to follow a group of people and avoid confusion, the most efficient method will be to give all the main characters the same goal.

In The Hangover, all the main characters are searching for their lost friend, Doug. While having the SAME goal, all the character’s personalities are DIFFERENT. The same is true in Armageddon and Tropic Thunder. This is key in taming this sort of story – same goal, different personalities. The same approach is often used in sports films where the team’s goal is winning (Friday Night Lights), space films about astronauts (The Right Stuff), and heist films (Ocean’s Eleven).

Television uses the same approach with ensemble casts. In Orange Is The New Black, all of the characters have the same goal – surviving another day in prison. In True Detective, the crime investigators all want to catch the killer.

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2. TWO HEADS ARE BETTER THAN ONE

Sometimes, there are only two characters who could be considered the protagonist. “Buddy Films” have been a staple of storytelling for centuries. Many times, in these sorts of stories, both characters do share the same goal (Superbad, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Natural Born Killers and Good Will Hunting). However, one character will usually experience a greater arc (Thelma and Louise), but not always (Changing Lanes).

Other times, one character will act as the protagonist and the other will serve as the main character in the story. We see this in The Shawshank Redemption, where Morgan Freeman is the protagonist and Tim Robbins is the main character, as well as in The Sixth Sense, where Bruce Willis is the protagonist but Haley Joel Osment is the main character.

Of course, the most common stories that use dual protagonists are romantic comedies (When Harry Met Sally). When we look closely, these stories are structured nearly identical to “buddy films.” The opposite holds true as well. While Hot Pursuit is not a romantic comedy per se, this “buddy film” is structured exactly like one.

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3. MULTIPLE INTERSECTING STORIES

This discussion comes with a warning. These stories are some of the hardest to write and are usually only successful in the hands of the most gifted storytellers. They define the domain of advanced and experienced writers. Storytellers should work to earn the right to tell these types of stories. Robert Altman is likely the best-known master of the multi-narrative film. Nashville, Short Cuts, and A Prairie Home Companion are all testaments to the power these stories can have. Anyone wishing to work in narratives of this sort should begin with Altman.

Both Wes Anderson and Paul Thomas Anderson have done excellent work with ensemble casts. The Royal Tenenbaums and Magnolia certainly demonstrate that both writers understand how to execute multiple intersecting stories well. The key to all the above mentioned films is that at least one character has a clear journey with a marked external goal. They do not necessarily have to be the character with the most screen time, but having this element will create a more organic space for the other characters to breathe and function in.

Critics are divided on ensemble stories such as Crash, State and Main, and Love Actually. Yet, all found audiences they deeply connected with. This method has been successful in a wide range of genres including comic book adaptations (Sin City and The Avengers), independent faire (Little Miss Sunshine and I Heart Huckabees), and even action films (Smoking Aces and The Expendables). Those serious about attempting this form of storytelling might also want to take a look at Grand Hotel, Diner, Best In Show, Death At A Funeral and Babel.

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John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and the upcoming Secrets of Short Visual Storytelling. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to International Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his blog, welcometothesideshow.org.

One thought on “The Multi-Headed Beast: 3 Ways to Tame a Story With Multiple Protagonists

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  1. “The key to all the above mentioned films is that at least one character has a clear journey with a marked external goal. They do not necessarily have to be the character with the most screen time, but having this element will create a more organic space for the other characters to breathe and function in.”

    Please clarify what you mean by “a more organic space?”

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