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"Fundamentals of Fiction" is a very interactive course, if you choose to make it so. This writer chose to use the feedback offered to ask questions specific to a novel on which he was working, basically using the course as a framework for mentoring. This was our correspondence for Lesson One, which deals with structure.


Hi Jim,

Good questions!

Is it OK to have multiple protagonists? My story has four, although I think one will emerge as the primary protagonist, but she is not introduced right away. I don't have villains. I have different people with different wants and fears but they are all good guys, although they have conflicts.

What you probably have is a protagonist and several main characters, which is fine. How late do you introduce your likely protagonist? As long as the story follows one character through the bulk of the story, then other characters can star in their own subplots, as long as all tie into the main storyline somehow. When doing this, it's usually a good idea to have an overall story arc — an overall story problem — that will focus the story while all your characters are having their own conflicts. If there isn't one, then what you might end up with is a bunch of separate vignettes, in which case perhaps they should be written as an anthology of short stories rather than a novel.

And a problem doesn't have to be personified as protagonist against antagonist — good guy against bad guy. It can be good guy against the environment he finds himself in — nature or society or that society's ideology — or against himself, and so on.

We get into all of this in more detail in Lesson Two.

Can I have a sequence of problems, one leading to another? As one problem is resolved (not always solved) another results. Can different protagonists be concerned with different problems simultaneously?

Yes to both! What you've just described is rising action, and it's something you should do to build tension in the story — tension that keeps the reader turning pages. And if you have several subplots, or a cast of main characters rather than just one protagonist, then it's hard to avoid simultaneous problems — these characters need to be doing something, or they have no reason to be in the story. All should somehow tie into the main storyline, though, to keep the story focused. If you give a character a problem to solve that isn't really related to the bigger picture, then what you're likely doing is revealing that character's personality through his or her reactions to that problem. This, too, is good — revealing the characters' personalities helps the reader identify with, and thus be interested in the characters enough, to keep him or her reading. (I say this a lot. Keeping a reader interested is the ultimate goal.) When introducing a problem solely meant to reveal character, the problem should be small enough not to deter from the main storyline, and thus muddy the focus.

All problems need to be resolved by the end of the story.

Hope this clarifies things for you. Each lesson builds on the previous, so much of this will come clearer as we go along.

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