Compelling stories have interesting characters. Most writers know that for a story to function well and engage readers, they need to make us care about the main character.
But what about stories with more than one main character? It’s common for many stories, across genres, to focus not just on one character — but rather on a group of them.
There are no “rules” in storytelling, so yes you can have more than one main character in your novel. But the trick is to make sure its an effective choice.
Let’s take a look at The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman. I read this book recently and loved it! I also think there’re some excellent principles about multiple character stories which can be seen in action, throughout the book.
What’s The Thursday Murder Club about?
The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman follows the antics of four retirees, who keep things interesting by applying their extensive life experience to solve unsolved murder cases.
But when a real-life murder occurs in their usually peaceful community, Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron have a unique opportunity — to solve their first live murder case.
What I thought of The Thursday Murder Club?
As I mentioned in the introduction, this is a wonderful read. Published in 2020, this book is definitely evidence of a desire to breathe freshness into the mystery genre.
The plot is clever, the setting charming and the story itself highly satisfying. But it’s the characters where the book really shines, with humourous, witty, and heartfelt moments sprinkled throughout. I’m definitely eager to check out the rest of Osman’s Thursday Murder Club books (I believe there are two more titles at this stage).
If you’re not a fan of aged characters or the mystery genre, this might not be your cup of tea. But even so, it can be worth dipping into genres you may be less familiar with, in order to see how narrative and character development techniques are used — in a context different to what you’re used to reading.
Tips for having multiple main characters in your book
1.Pay Attention To Naming
Something I semi-regularly with books I edit, are characters who share similar-sounding names. While technically, you can call your characters whatever you like, it’s worth bearing in mind that readers may become confused if names are too similar.
Give your reader a hand to keep all the elements of your story straight. Especially if there’re a lot of characters to keep track of. Some editors and writers recommend not having any names that start with the same letter (eg. James/Jane).
I would also bear in mind the way a name sounds, and if it sounds similar, regardless of having a different first letter — it’s still likely to muddle a reader unnecessarily (eg. Addison/Maddison, Harry/Larry, Chloe/Zoe). Name length, as well as the cultural background it invokes are all important too.
Ideally, when you have a group of characters, their names should be distinct from each other in most (if not all) ways. Characters, just like people, are individuals and their names should usually support us viewing them as such.
The main characters from the Thursday Murder Club all have distinct names in terms of length, connotations/cultural backgrounds and sound: Elizabeth, Joyce, Ibrahim and Ron. Osman’s naming helps us not confuse these characters and sets up some fun opportunities for the story to play off the expectations readers may have for characters with those names.
2.Let The Introductions Have Room To Breathe
You don’t have to give the readers all the information about every character from the first time they meet them. Instead, spacing out character introductions, interactions and descriptions across a couple of chapters gives readers time to absorb and form a connection with each character. In the first chapter of The Thursday Murder Club, we only meet two of our main characters (though the other two are briefly mentioned). This pacing lets our intrigue be piqued, without information overload.
The Thursday Murder Club uses multiple viewpoints, generally from third person, to give readers a close narrative perspective. This means they’re in the room with a particular character, getting to deeply engage with their thoughts, background and individual arc without being crowded — or head-hopping.
Some sections of the book are also written as diary entries from Joyce, in first perspective, where she shares her views on the plot and the other characters.
This unique narrative style allows for deeper connection with each character, without rushing or confusing the flow of the story. All the members of the Thursday Murder Club are given their moments to shine.
We also see this to a lesser extent with the secondary characters, the detectives and suspects in the story.
3.Descriptions and individuality
Stories that tend to do well with a large cast place emphasis on the diversity or individuality of the characters within the story. People don’t all look the same, so neither do characters.
Find the details that make each character unique (describing them all as having different coloured hair, and that’s it, doesn’t usually cut it). When unique people come together, interesting events or conflict of some sort will usually result. That is magic for story engagement.
The character descriptions of The Thursday Murder Club are particularly well done, as an awareness of from what viewpoint the description comes is also important. Especially, given as this is a mystery and the deception of appearances is a genre convention.
The Thursday Murder Club descriptions of characters focus less on physical appearance (though those occasionally pop up) and more on perception. However, when physical description is mentioned, it highlights those perceptions and allows us to even further differentiate between the characters. Consider the following passages:
A hand shot up in the front row. Which was not normally how this went, but in for a penny. An immaculately dressed woman in her eighties had a point to make…The Thursday Murder Club, Richard Osman
The Man sitting next two him, wearing shorts, flip-flops and a West Ham United shirt, took this opportunity to stand up and stab a finger in no particular direction.The Thursday Murder Club, Richard Osman
‘Guess how old I am?’ challenges Ibrahim.
Donna hestitates. Ibrahim has a nice suit, and he has great skin. He smells wonderful. A handkerchief is artfully folded in his breast pocket. Hair thinning, but still there. No paunch, and just the one chin. And yet underneath it all? Hmmm. Donna looks at Ibrahim’s hands. Always the giveway.The Thursday Murder Club, Richard Osman
‘And what’s your story, Joyce?’ asks Donna to the fourth member of the group, a small, white-haired woman in a lavender blouse and a mauve cardigan. She is sitting very happily, taking it all in. Mouth closed, but eyes bright.The Thursday Murder Club, Richard Osman
The above descriptions take place in the same scene, as Donna (secondary character) meets all the main characters for the first time. These descriptions paint a picture of people who are visually different from one another. As we continue to read, these differences are also present in temperament, the jobs they’ve held, their marital statuses and more. This makes for an engaging reading experience and connects to the found family trope.
Consider if your characters are too similar to one another, and what changes could be made for a more interesting dynamic.
The Thursday Murder Club is an enjoyable read, that gives a writer plenty to consider. If you haven’t already, I’d definitely recommend checking it out. If you enjoyed this post, please consider subscribing to join in more bookish and writing discussions.
This is just my personal preference but I like books with a single main character because they normally come with better and deeper character development.