3 Tips for Featuring Multiple Main Characters in Your Story

multiple-main-charactersWriting 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.

Tell me how you’ve handled multiple main characters, or pose any questions raised by this post. Connect with me in the comments below.

Related Posts:

How to Write Dialogue That Works

How to Write a Short Story That Captivates Your Reader

How to Write a Book: Everything You Need to Know in 20 Steps

  • Karen Saari

    A very pertinent post for me. I’m in the middle of the third and last book in a series with multiple characters. I started with 7 ladies in a quilt group. They just seemed to multiply like bunnies. Husbands, children, people across the country and a few perfect strangers. I do need to go back through each scene to make sure the POV is clear and distinct. I know I should know how many important characters I have, but I don’t. I’m afraid to list them in case they turn on me.

    So, my question is, as I’m bringing this story to a close, can I phase out characters as I go along? Those that aren’t as important could have their stories wrapped up, say one third of the way in. And on throughout the book until the end wraps up the story I started with. Is that the way to do it, or is there another way? Thank you.

    • Karen, my fear is that you have mistaken major characters for main or perspective characters through whose points of view you would tell the story. If these are merely characters who come and go and can be phased out, they are not main characters and shouldn’t be your perspective characters.

      Also, if they can be phased out, perhaps they can be combined. There’s no need to have two quite similar characters who could be interchangeable. For a story like yours, I think I’d keep it as simple as possible and choose one or maybe two at the most main/perspective characters.

      • Karen Saari

        Ah! Yes, I have mistaken the majors for the main/perspective characters. I see that now. Unfortunately, I can’t combine anyone as this is the third book and those people already exist in the first two books. I’d have to completely change genre to combine them. But I will remember this advice in future books. In fact, I’m going to write it down in my notebook. This is important, and I missed it. Thank you! And it also takes a lot of pressure off of me for ending the story.

  • R Frederick Riddle

    I agree with your teaching. In books I have written I have had multiple POVs. Keeping them separate and intriguing is hard work. Your books have consistently demonstrated how to do this effectively. Just my opinion, but I think part of the success of your books is your ability to have interesting multiple POVs.
    I like your column as it is always filled with good advice.

  • Jamie Jenkins

    My novel has two main characters in it. There might be a third one further in the story, but probably not. Since I’m a seat-of-the-pants writer, I don’t know all the details of my story yet. But I do see that having too many POV characters is very confusing, and I will not have more than two or three in the stories I write. I don’t have a special way of handling them in my writing. I just write the scene from their perspective and make sure I don’t head-hop.

    I do have a couple of questions, though: when switching POV characters in a chapter, how many spaces do I include to indicate the change in POV character? Is it the same amount of spaces to indicate a change in time or location in the story?

    As always, thanks for the writing advice!

    • Sure, just one extra line of white space is plenty if you also flush left the next line and make it crystal clear from the first word that you’re changing camera angles. Like:

      Meanwhile, In Los Angeles, Mary Smith…

      • Jamie Jenkins

        Thanks Jerry!

  • I’m writing my first novel, and it has only one main character. But I decided to write her story in third person. It is an action/adventure story, and I felt if I wrote it in first person it would be obvious she survives the events of the story. Third person (for me, anyway) was just one more way to raise the tension. Since the story is told about her (rather than by her), maybe that next intense scene really will be her last.

    • On the other hand, Bruce, readers have an innate sense that the main character, especially if she’s the sole perspective character, can’t die except perhaps at the very end. Otherwise, where would the story go from there? All of a sudden a new perspective character? Or the omniscient author?

      It may be the best you can do to make the reader really worry and care about your heroine is to have her suffer nearly to the point of death.

      • Without a doubt. There is no easy solution. Protagonists almost always triumph in the end. It is extremely rare for a writer to pull off something like Joseph Stefano did in his script for “Psycho,” in which the main character dies in the first third of the story and the remainder of the tale is told from a different perspective. I wouldn’t want to attempt it.

        • You mean the Psycho that Hitchcock made into a movie? What main character dies?

          • Yes, that’s the one. The novel is by Robert Bloch. Joseph Stefano wrote the screenplay. The movie version is the story of Marion Crane, a bank teller who steals $40,000 from her employer and flees. She inadvertently gets off the main highway and stops at a small motel. The young man who runs the motel fixes her a light dinner and talks with her about how we are all in our own traps. After their conversation, Marion has a change of heart. She realizes she must go back and face the consequences of her actions. She never gets the chance, as she is suddenly and shockingly murdered in the shower in her motel room.

            The rest of the story is the story of Marion’s sister, Lila, who tries to discover why Marion has unexpectedly vanished.

          • Wholly familiar with the story. Never even considered the victim was the main character.

  • Robert Murphy

    My novel has two main characters, my “primary” character who is a private investigator, and his wife who plays a critical but a smaller role. She has a couple of chapters devoted to her but there are several times when I need to cut from one character to the other, which I do by inserting an extra blank line. I’m writing from each of their points of view, and while they are separated throughout the entire book, both witness interconnecting events through their own POV. Assuming that my novel gets published, it will the be the first in a series, so I’m also grooming her for more important roles in future novels and have outlined at least one book featuring her solo.

    • It helps, Robert, that the two are opposite genders. That should help you keep it clear whose perspective you’re in every time you switch.

  • As usual- Awesome. Thanks Jerry.

  • Thank you for this great instruction! This was my favorite takeaway: “Choose the one who has the most to gain or lose in the scene.”

    I have two main characters. I’ve considered switching between first and third person, but I have a nasty habit of snarling myself in overambitious ideas.

    Here’s my question: How do you handle it when neither character is on the stage? I have a bad guy moving behind the scenes, but my leads are never around when he’s conniving. How do we show scenes that, of necessity, leave the leads in the dark?

    • Thanks for your kind comments, Rebekah.

      It’s tricky, but if you want your readers to identify with your main characters, you can’t have something happen without one of your perspective characters on stage. If things are happening they will only later become aware of, the reader can’t be ware of it either.

      That said, I’ve seen it done. The author switches between a voice limited to perspective characters and an omniscient voice or one limited to the villain. But that’s not ideal. Better, and as I say, tricky is to let what the villain is up to come to the main characters through hints, threats, warnings, conversations, etc. I assume they’ll all be on stage together eventually.

      • What! Cut my villain scenes! But my villain is such a dastardly devilish dude! Surely you never dealt with such evil incarnate.

        Bwahahahaah!

        On second thought, I guess I can trust the author of Nicolae. :)

  • Thank you so much, Jerry. I have been wondering about this myself. I am writing a YA sci-fi novel and have two main characters. One a human teen male, and the other is a female teen alien, and have been using this exact method to tell the story. I had been wondering if I was even able to do this and had not ventured any further for weeks. I’m ready to get stuck into it and finish it. Yay!

  • Lewis Jenkins

    Hah! In an email today Jerry asked how we handle multiple POV.
    Since he asked for it, here’s mine:

    My book Diary of a Robot is a story about thinking machines and the funny,
    aggravating, upsetting, surreal problems that thinking people have
    dealing with them. There are three main characters: Doc designed the
    technology that enables the robot to think; Guy programmed it, and then
    there’s TM2 (the robot). These three (plus a few others in Doc’s team of
    engineers and technicians who built the first machines) often think
    important things while someone else may be talking. It was a challenge
    to get the pacing right and avoid confusion about who is talking (or
    thinking). I don’t know how well I’ve succeeded because I’m inside the
    black box.

    I handle multiple POV either in a free-for-all scene
    where everyone has something to say, or by having thoughts done in
    italic when there are fewer speakers, or by asides that can be seen as
    data the narrator obtained from other sources. When the narrator is
    guessing, I try to make that fact plain to the reader. Whether the
    narrator is guessing or not, I try to make its lines funny or
    interesting as a reward to the reader for sticking with me.

    Major shifts of POV or scene are done with blank lines or dingbats. The story
    covers several years, and Doc and Guy do a lot of italicized thinking, but this is more the robot’s memoir than a Sci-Fi tale or other kind of novel.

    Because both the machine and the people are learning
    about each other, there is a lot of miscommunication in the story, and
    the best way to inform the reader in that situation is to display their
    inner speech either in italics or by narration that has been informed by
    other talks with the people. I have found, in this case, that “show”
    slows the story down more than “tell” does. But maybe I’m just
    incompetent and therefore wrong on this point.

    Best to everyone, as always.

    • I hesitate to say this without seeing your writing, Lewis, but frankly this sounds like a mess you’d have to self-publish. It’s the very reason for our Writers Guild training that urges a limited point-of-view voice. The title is brilliant and promises a fresh, unique reading experience. It seems you could have a load of fun rendering a robot’s diary.

      It could show that the robot has feelings, a sense of humor, a sense of wonder, etc. And if you HAD to reveal more about, say, the programmer than would make sense for that person to reveal in the robot’s hearing, there are creative ways to do it. For instance, I could see the robot writing in his own diary, “Having wondered for a long time about my own genesis, I was intrigued and pleased to happen up my programmer’s own notes on the subject when I was conducting a standard scan of my hard drive. Look what I found: …”

      Then you could render the programmer’s detailed memories of creating/programming, etc., revealing his mistakes fears, experiments, etc. Even his experience of seeing the new entity come to life.

      • Lewis Jenkins

        Dear Jerry,

        I have self-published, and it may be a mess. (The reporter
        describes it as such at the climax.) It may be that the story does have a single POV voice but you and I are using different meanings for the term. If this is the case, the fault is obviously mine. The machine’s diary is its entire memory of what it hears, sees, and thinks. It remembers everything, not just what it chooses to write down. The machine uses information it has gleaned from the Internet, its co-workers, and its sensory
        experience. It only tells stuff that it knows from experience, although that experience is partly the result of interviews with the people and other machines after the fact when the mess is being cleaned up.

        I refuse to fall in with the tired cliché where the machine
        struggles with being human. (The Doctor even says this when he argues with his development team about how the machine could be able to tell harm from not-harm.) A thinking, truth-telling robot cannot comment on human nature as being weird if it is trying to be human. The machine’s reactions to what it
        considers weird would not be funny either because they would tend toward self-justification just as people’s do. It was great fun writing this story, and others have had fun reading it, although my youngest sister quit near Chapter 20 when the machine’s comments upset her theology.

        If you go to my website (lewisjenkins.com) and click the book cover you will see the table of contents and snippets from the book in any chapter that is underlined. If you have already done this and still think it’s a mess then let me know that, and accept my thanks for the evaluation. You can’t hurt my feelings. But if you have not read any of the excerpts, do so and let me know what you think. I used to be a professional programmer, so I’ve written a little program for selected readers to follow:

        1. Read the book until you can’t stand to read any more.
        2. Note the page at which you stop.
        3. Note the reason you stop (tired, angry, confused, etc.)
        4. If you decide to keep reading, go to step 1.
        5. Note what you liked.
        6. Email all notes to me, putting “DOAR notes” in the subject line.
        7. Stop.

        Lewis Jenkins

        • “It may be that the story does have a single POV voice but you and I are using different meanings for the term.”

          No, a quick peek your book on your website shows that you are clearly using multiple points-of-view.

          Lewis, I didn’t read enough to be able to evaluate your writing, however I do believe you’re going to learn a lot in the Guild that will help you. I really like the program you’ve written for selected readers to follow. I can tell you care about your work and getting better. It’s good to have you in the Guild.

  • Lynda

    I am writing my first novel. It is a love triangle between a woman and two men. One of the men is a heroic type and the other one is a selfish jerk who starts out taking advantage of the woman, but over the course of the story begins to change.

    The woman is the main character, and obviously the question is, which guy will she choose. I am using all three as pov characters, and I think I am doing well at keeping the pov distinct. Most of the time pov changes at a chapter.

    Each of the main characters starts with a problem, and his or her problem doesn’t (at least initially) involve either of the other main characters. The woman doesn’t even know one of the men, and the other man is from her distant past. In the course of grappling with their problems, the characters encounter each other, and a romance develops.

    My question is, is it generally better to introduce the main character first? The first three chapters introduce the three characters and each one’s thorny problem. Currently, chapter one is the woman. Chapter two is the jerk, who knew her back in high school. Chapter three is the suffering hero guy. I could start with any one of them. Chapters two and three seem more gripping to me than chapter one.

    What are your thoughts about the order of introduction?

    Thanks for your help.

    Lynda

    • My question is, is it generally better to introduce the main character first?

      Not only generally, Lynda. Almost always.

      The first three chapters introduce the three characters and each one’s thorny problem. Currently, chapter one is the woman. Chapter two is the jerk, who knew her back in high school. Chapter three is the suffering hero guy. I could start with any one of them. Chapters two and three seem more gripping to me than chapter one.

      What are your thoughts about the order of introduction?

      I would start with the main character, but my fear is that you’re going to have trouble marketing a story with multiple main characters, because this doesn’t seem like the story in which to employ that technique. I would make her the main character and the perspective character throughout and tell it in third person, limited to her perspective.

      Of course, I’m just guessing without having seen your manuscript, so take that into consideration. It’s your call.

    • Lynda

      Thank you.

  • Michael Tolulope Emmanuel

    My NaNoWriMo manuscript had five POV’s, with two coming in the middle of the novel (and on of those was penned in first person). Thinking back, I can spot some errors even without rereading. The mess of first drafts.
    Thank you very much for your invaluable contributions, Mr. Jenkins. I’ve learned so much in 2016, thanks to you (and others).

    • Thanks so much for your kind comments, Michael. Glad you’re learning a lot and we’re glad to have you.

  • Thanks for these great reminders. I have written six novels and published one with another under contract. For some reason, I seem constitutionally incapable of writing a novel from a single POV. Maybe because things just seem more interesting with multiple viewpoints. But your “reader first” rule is absolutely the most important. There’s nothing more frustrating as a reader than having to flip around trying to figure out who the heck you’re reading about.

  • Deb Gorman

    I loved this article, Jerry! I’m writing my first novel…just published my first book (woot-hoot!) through CreateSpace/Amazon, called “Who Are These People: Spiritual Lessons Learned in Obscurity”, am working on Book Two of same, and writing the novel, “The Master’s Inn”, based on a play I wrote a few years back. In my novel, I have 3 couples and 3 children. I am using several POV. But, I’m trying to be careful to limit to 1 per scene. For instance, I picked one adult per couple for POV and only one of the children. And each scene only has one POV. I think it’s working…my amazing editor will let me know if it doesn’t. Thanks for all your encouragement.

    • Sorry if this is a dupe, Deb, but I thought I had replied before. All the best with your first novel. I hope it’s your goal to be paid to be published rather than to pay to be printed.

  • Elizabeth Herendon Dyer

    I recently read a book in which each chapter was from a different perspective. I found it interesting how the author was able to carry the tale through each person’s eyes without a lot of repeats in action. The book was “The Things We Wish Were True” by Marybeth Mayhew Whalen.

    I also had a bad experience with the final book in the Divergent series in which the author had told the story from one person’s view in the first two books and then to 2 character’s view point in the last. I did not appreciate the change that far into the series.

    • Thanks, Elizabeth. Writing each chapter from a different perspective is tricky and difficult, but done well it can really be effective, as you point out. Interesting, I’ve heard others say the same about the end of the Divergent series.

  • Karen Keil

    The story I’m working on was meant from the start to be a “simple” story, told from the perspective of one person. There have been challenges and times when I felt compelled to add different points of view, especially since some of the other characters didn’t get to interact with the main character during the story. What I am learning at the moment is that if I feel a need to add POVs the story needs to expand to include interactions between the main character and the character whose perspective is not adequately presented. It has led to a better, more complex “simple” story.

    • Good point, Karen. I often say that fiction is organic. Stories can feed on themselves, and our job is to intuit which storylines and subplots should make the cut.

      • Amanda Perry

        like karen my story started with one POV character. Now as the story has evolved i have three . Your article has helped me understand how to give each character a strong and viable voice . Loving it.!!

        • Jerry B Jenkins

          Great! Thanks, Amanda.

  • How do you handle scenes where neither of you POV characters are present? I am still in the outlining part of my story, so I am thinking through these type of details. There are scenes where my supporting characters will be the ones present. I usually write nonfiction, so this is a bit of a mind shift for me! Thank you for being so generous with your wisdom. It is invaluable.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Hey, Susan!

      By definition you can’t include scenes in which your POV characters don’t appear. Those scenes must take place off stage and be told to your POV characters. So either get them there or make sure what happens is not so compelling and dramatic that the reader will feel shortchanged to have it told, as opposed to shown through the camera of your leads.

      • Some novels (“Jubilee” comes to mind) are so good that readers don’t mind a big chunk of background information at the beginning of a chapter. “On the war front…” for up to a page or more, and then “Elvira had heard little about this” and back to what she’s doing. Probably a novel has to be as good as “Jubilee” for me, as a reader, to put up with this.

        • Me too, and yes, some master writers can break the rules without consequence.

  • Soumya

    In my current project, only 3 or 4 chapters need a different POV. The problem is they are not organized and are required at random points during the plot. I don’t know if it’s okay to add POVs without a pattern. One chapter, in particular, is giving me a lot of trouble. When I put that chapter before the plot twist, the intensity and tension fade away and When I put it after the plot twist, it hinders the flow of events. The vague summary of the situation is as follows- The best friend (B) of my protagonist (A) realizes A’s true identity that even she is unaware of and tries to distance himself from her. When A comes to know about her identity she makes a stupid decision and gets in trouble. The B’s POV describes how he figured the secret out. Hence, I can’t add it before the plot twist. Adding it later in the plot gives rise to confusion. I would’ve omitted the chapter altogether but it is crucial to the plot. I don’t know what to do about this.
    By the way, a huge thank you for writing this blog! I found it during the begin of this year and honestly, I have grown so much as a writer because of it.

    • Jerry B Jenkins

      Thanks so much, Soumya. Let me challenge you to take a tough route here. If only 3-4 chapters seem to need varying POVs, try to wrestle them into submission and DON’T give them alternate perspective characters. Stick with the one, and figure out a way to get in what you need to…through dialogue or getting your main character mobile enough to be on stage in them. I think you’ll have a better chance to market it that way.

      • Soumya

        Okay! I will try my best to work without a different POV. Thank you so much for the advice!

  • Andrea Santana

    I’m writing, in third person, a fantasy/fiction book with six main characters. Some of them are more important than others, of course, but they’re almost always together, as they’re what you could consider a RPG party.

    Most of the time, I write from the truly main’s point of view, but when she’s not around, I switch to whoever is on the spot. There are also a few chapters when one of the six is mostly alone and I give them some special time to shine and show their personalities by themselves.

    All those six characters are protagonists and so often together because the book is partially based on RPGs. While I’d love to be a commercial success, it’s not my number one goal, as I’m writing this book to represent my group of friends. I wanna do the best for them, and also for me. It’s indeed difficult to write with so many main protagonists, but I’ve been writing for seven years and have matured along with the book. It’s looking quite polished!

    Anyway, sorry for the random vent. I’ve found some very good hints on the blog and I appreciate them. I’m going through a big edit phase now, I hope I can make it work with all those guys. Thanks!

    • Micah Maynard

      Funnily enough, I have started a “novel” with an inspirational background from from many RPG games so it’s interesting to find somebody else with the same mindset.

      If you like, could you contact me? I feel we could learn a few things from each other to aid in our work.

      • Andrea Santana

        Hello! Yeah sure, I must alert you though, English is not my native language.