I'm writing a story that involves three main characters. They appear in linear form, each one's story leading to the other. So for example character A's story finishes leading to B's story which finishes leading to character C's story. But each story is relevant to each character. This for one book and it is all written in third person. Is this a good or bad idea?
Welcome to the site, Chimere! As a general rule, it's best to stick with one protagonist. As @Private has mentioned, if you have two, it should generally be a hero and a heroine (please see the comments below for details). However, I've asked a good number of questions myself, and I know that your story probably requires three protagonists, otherwise you wouldn't be asking the question. On that note, I will answer your question below.
Short Answer: It's not a bad idea, but you need to know how to do it.
(Very) Long Answer:
When a protagonist is developed correctly, the reader cares about him. The reader wants the protagonist to win, to overcome the obstacles and conflicts he faces. He's on the protagonist's side. I explain how this is done in my answer here.
When you introduce a new protagonist, the reader at first is not on his side. He wants to stay with the first one. Using what I detailed in the answer linked above, you can eventually make the reader care for this second protagonist, but it does take awhile.
The mistake most writers make when trying to do this is to think of their protagonists on an equal level. Essentially, they are both the main protagonist. This simply doesn't work, because the reader is going to like one more than the other (generally whoever was introduced first). Fortunately, you don't have this problem, since you introduce your protagonists one after the other.
Your problem lies in trying to get the reader to let go of the first protagonist and accept the second (the same process applies to the third, as well). I can really only think of one reliable way that you could do this:
Like I mentioned above, it will take the reader some time to switch between protagonists. He will not want to switch, and forcing him to do so is actually quite dangerous, as you run the risk of losing the reader entirely. Therefore, the only way you'll be able to do this is by lessening the impact.
The first thing you should do is to have the protagonists overlap. Once you start approaching the point where the first protagonist disappears, introduce the second protagonist as a side character. Don't switch PoV or anything yet, just introduce him. Give him strength and inner conflict like a normal protagonist. This will increase the reader's investment in him.
It's a good idea to have your current protagonist look up to your new one, and recognize him as better. If your current protagonist sees the new one this way, the reader will slowly start to accept that idea too (because he cares for the current protagonist, and so values what he thinks about other people). At the same time, start decreasing your current protagonist's strength, which is the very core of why the reader is on his side. Pick the quality that makes the protagonist heroic and start having him fail at it. Very slightly, but still failing. Slight failures will be enough to start tipping the reader towards the new character. Don't destroy the strength entirely; very slight failures will be enough.
When it comes time to switch over entirely, get rid of the old protagonist. The best way to do this is with a symbolic/literal 'passing of the torch,' as it were. Make it clear that the role the protagonist filled, at least in the reader's mind, is being taken over by this new character. This should likely end a chapter/section, and the next part will start with the new PoV. Only do this once the old protagonist's role is completely finished.
And then get rid of the old protagonist. This doesn't necessarily mean death, but you don't want him cropping up in the story after his time is done. If he does, the reader will have a harder time forgetting him and switching over. The only other option here would be to make the old protagonist into an antagonist - turn him into someone the hero wishes to lose. Then you can safely include him. In fact, doing this will repulse the reader away from the old protagonist and towards the only other option: the new one. Make sure that the reader is ready to go over to the new one if you do this though, otherwise he won't want to. It's a good idea to only turn the old protagonist into an antagonist only once the switch has been made and the reader has settled in with the new protagonist.
When it comes to the third protagonist, the process will be more or less the same. The transition will be easier because it's happened before, but this only means that it will take less time. You should still follow the entire process.
When it comes to experiments like this, it's best to remember three things:
- The rules are there for a reason.
- The rules can be bent or broken.
- Everything you do is done for the reader.
If you find yourself wanting to break one of the 'rules,' ask yourself how to do it in a way that will keep the reader, and keep the book enjoyable for him. Remember, every single part of writing and development is done for reader. Without him, why are you writing?*
*Some books you write only for yourself. In this case, write the way you want to write, since you will be the only one reading it.
I wish you the best in your writing endeavors!
Brandon Sanderson's Elantris does this to good effect. There are three protagonists, all of whom are intelligent, strong characters who are competent enough to carry a story on their own:
- Crown Prince Raoden, the most beloved man in the kingdom of Arelon. His father is not a particularly competent king, and Raoden is the only one who has a good chance of holding the kingdom together. Unfortunately, the book opens with the curse of the Shaod falling upon him, a chaotic magic that turns him into what the author once described as "a zombie leper." He gets thrown into the ruined city of Elantris, which was once a glorious place but is now a filthy oubliette where Arelenes send those who have been transformed to forget about them. From this point on, the rest of the kingdom considers him dead.
- Princess Sarene of Teod, Raoden's fiancee in a political marriage to cement an alliance between Teod and Arelon. She arrives by ship soon after Raoden's transformation and is not told about what really happened to him, due to the highly embarrassing nature of the Shaod. Instead, she is told that he died while she was en route, and by the terms of the marriage contract, she is officially considered his widow. Due to the political nature of the marriage, she's required to remain in Arelon.
- Gyorn Hrathen, a high priest of Shu-Dereth, a foreign religion that combines all the scariest and most authoritarian aspects of the Roman Empire, the Vikings, and militant Islam. He's been sent to Arelon to convert the people before the Wyrn (Pope/Caliph/etc) of Shu-Dereth decides to launch a holy war and wipe out the Arelene unbelievers. He doesn't want such slaughter, so he sets to the task of trying to bring Shu-Dereth to the people. He arrives at roughly the same time as Sarene.
The story alternates between the three viewpoint characters by giving them one chapter each in strict rotation: a Raoden chapter, a Serene chapter, a Hrathen chapter, then a Raoden chapter, and so on. In Teod they view Shu-Dereth as a religion of evil, which sets up a direct conflict between two of the protagonists right off.
Meanwhile, Raoden may have been thrown into Elantris, but he refuses to believe that his life holds nothing more for him than to rot away and become a miserable zombie leper, so he tries to figure out ways to improve things for himself and the other victims of the Shaod in Elantris. And eventually, as the plot goes on, he starts to interact directly with Sarene and Hrathen for various reasons.
The three character rotation structure works well as a rule to write by, and it also works well when the author breaks the rule: when the story begins to approach the climax, the strict viewpoint rotation falls apart, which really adds to a sense of wild, chaotic plotting and helps build tension for the reader.
If you want to do a three-protagonist story, you could do a lot worse than to study how Brandon Sanderson did it in Elantris, because he did it really, really well.
I just finished reading Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising sequence which does almost exactly this, although over five books. The first book has three siblings as main characters, book 2 has one boy (with many siblings), book 3 has the boy and a second boy both as main characters, and books 4 and 5 use all the kids.
I was fine with the idea of the story going back and forth; my only caveat is that it should be the same kind of story. The three siblings were "mortals getting involved with magic" and the two single boys were "magical folks dealing with magical things," and those are not the same kind of tale. That created more whiplash for me than changing protagonists or POVs.
Anne McCaffrey did it better in her Harper Hall trilogy; books 1 and 2 are about Menolly and book 3 is about Piemur. Each is a minor character in the other's story, and the overall storyline is chronological. It works fine.
Does your story have an ensemble cast? If yes, then having 3 (or more) main characters is expected. Look at Game of Thrones. It has many main characters and you can root for any of them.
Here are some guidelines for deciding format of story based on number of main characters.
- If you have one main character, the story should focus on that person. This works well for Person vs. Self, Person vs. Nature, or Person vs. Society.
- If you have two main characters, the story should focus on the interaction between them. This works well for Person vs. Person.
- If you have three or more main characters, then the story should focus on their many interactions. Now you can tell many separate stories within your novel. Each one can be either Person vs. Self, Person vs. Person, or Person vs. Society.
The night watch series (Sergei Lyuenko) each book is made up of sub-stories each of which has several central protagonists as well as sub-protagonists who are antagonists in other stories. This sounds like what you are trying to do. Peter F. Hamilton also writes a lot of stories with a LOT of protagonists but generally has one main storyline and then sub-plots moving along in tandem.
These are two series that handle multiple main characters well but in completely different ways.
I think the important thing is to make sure none of the storylines are throwaway or pointless and that your characterisation is honest to each character's identity.