There are two kinds of novels! Good ones and bad ones? Well, yes. But the novels I’m talking about this week are those that flit from character to character rather than mostly focus on one protagonist — as do books such as Jane Eyre and Crime and Punishment.
The advantages of the flit approach of course include getting to know, in-depth, a number of main characters rather than perhaps one or two protagonists per book. Readers get a wider, more panoramic view of humanity — and become curious about how much of a connection the various characters will have with each other before the novel ends. Also, it can be impressive to see the way an author juggles various fictional people and plot lines.
Disadvantages include the potential of not getting as absorbed with the lives of multiple characters as one might with a single compelling protagonist. And when flit-fiction readers do get absorbed, a character might disappear for several or quite a few chapters — requiring repeated efforts to become interested in totally different cast members.
I’m currently reading Louis de Bernieres’ Corelli’s Mandolin — which jumps from character to character, circles back to each one, and then jumps again. We get to know a soldier devastated by war, a doctor, his daughter, the daughter’s Greek fiance, an Italian officer who falls in love with the daughter, a dictator, and others. Takes a while to get used to, and to get interested, in those various people, but we eventually do in this wonderfully written, harrowing, funny novel.
Other novels that move from character to character (with certain people disappearing for many pages or chapters) include George Eliot’s Middlemarch, Zadie Smith’s White Teeth, Barbara Kingsolver’s Prodigal Summer, Margaret Atwood’s The Robber Bride, Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale, Julia Alvarez’s In the Time of the Butterflies, Julia Glass’s Three Junes, William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, and James Michener’s Tales of the South Pacific, to name a few.
What are some of your favorite novels that move from character to character? (Either books I named or didn’t name.) Your thoughts on the pros and cons of focusing on multiple characters vs. following the doings of mostly one protagonist?
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