Main characters, also called protagonists, are the central focus of a story. Don’t gauge main character status based on how often a character appears in the novel. Some characters play prominent roles, but still somehow inform another character’s experience. Main characters, instead, are the ones in the middle of the action and the conflict. Their choices have consequences; their actions bring about significant change. While many novels have only one main character, some have more than one.
Joyce Carol Oates’ novel We Were the Mulvaneys tells the story of a family that struggles in the aftermath of the rape of the family’s only daughter, Marianne. Indeed, Marianne’s character is a central focus in the novel, but so are the characters of her parents, particularly Corrine, Marianne’s mother, and Judd, the narrator and the family’s youngest son. The novel traces the impact of this violence on every member of the family and, in the process, tells the broader family story.
There’s a risk in letting more than one character take center stage. Flitting from one character to another without a careful focus can result in a scattered collection of scenes and vignettes that don’t come together to create a cohesive and complete story. Consider your motivations. Are you truly telling a broader story? Is that story the most compelling one? Also, make sure you’re not skewing too broad in the conflict. If this is the whole family’s story, what is the more focused conflict they’re experiencing? A collection of scenes from the same family around the end-of-the-year holidays may have some great moments, but may not have much momentum. Focus the conflict with the eldest son’s recent outing of the father’s shady business practices and you’ll start putting the reading experience in motion.
Even in a novel with multiple main characters, you will want to set some limits. Is the novel focusing on the experience of all seven family members? Or will two or three of those characters emerge as more central? Jeffrey Eugenides’ novel The Virgin Suicides tells the story of the Lisbon sisters from the point of view of a group of men who, as boys, were infatuated with the five sisters. The Lisbon sisters are the focus of the novel but two in particular—Lux and Cecilia—have more prominent roles.
Don’t pressure yourself to label the main characters too early in the writing process. While knowing the main characters can help you make decisions, you may need to draft many scenes (or perhaps the entire novel) in order to get a sense of which characters will emerge as most central. Follow your gut, but also follow what happens on the page.