Characters Who Are First in Prominence, But Not the First to Appear

Usually, a novel’s main protagonist appears quickly at/near the start of the book. But there are times she or he doesn’t enter the story until somewhat later, with readers perhaps first meeting a secondary character or two.

While the latter approach can seem odd and counterintuitive — especially if the novel is named after the main protagonist — there are advantages to waiting a bit. We might initially see the protagonist through another character’s eyes, which can offer readers some early insight into the not-yet-met person. Also, waiting for the book’s star to take the stage can be a nice “tease” — building some tension and imbuing the star with some mystery as our gratification is delayed. Last but not least, we sort of get eased into the novel.

I most recently noticed this approach in Richard Russo’s very absorbing Nobody’s Fool. Readers first encounter Beryl, an interesting 80-year-old woman in a small New York State town. After a few pages, I thought the novel would be mostly about her, but then — through Beryl — we meet her upstairs tenant Donald Sullivan, who turns out to be the book’s main character. By that time, thanks to Beryl, we already know a good deal about “Sully” (who, in the above photo, was played by Paul Newman in the 1994 Nobody’s Fool movie; he’s next to Jessica Tandy as Beryl).

Another novel I read this fall that initially traveled the indirect route was The Cuckoo’s Calling by J.K. Rowling (writing as Robert Galbraith). We first meet Robin Ellacott as she travels to the office of private investigator Cormoran Strike to work as a temp for him. Then, we start to learn about Strike when he crashes into Robin as she approaches his office — with the large Cormoran almost knocking Robin down the stairs as he dashes out the door to try to catch the longtime girlfriend who just broke up with him. As it turns out, Robin displays private-investigator abilities and becomes the co-star of The Cuckoo’s Calling and subsequent books in that Rowling series.

A number of much older novels also take this kind of story-telling route.

For instance, Lockwood visits his landlord Heathcliff in the opening chapters of Wuthering Heights. We of course also meet Heathcliff, the co-star of Emily Bronte’s book, and a scared Lockwood, while sleeping, intensely feels the spirit of the deceased Catherine — the other Wuthering Heights co-star. Soon, through the narration of housekeeper Nelly Dean, we learn the tempestuous tale of Catherine and Heathcliff’s relationship.

Mr. Smith, the grandfather of a differently spelled Nellie, is the first character we meet in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Insulted and the Injured. But he turns out to be a minor figure. The semi-autobiographical young author Vanya is the novel’s star, and Natasha (loved by Vanya), Alyosha (loved by Natasha), the orphaned Nellie, and other characters are much more significant players. But by trying to help the gravely ill Mr. Smith early in the novel, readers learn of Vanya’s decency and concern for others. And his moving into Mr. Smith’s place after that old man dies helps set some of the plot machinations in motion.

L.M. Montgomery starts Anne of Green Gables by showing nosy neighbor Rachel Lynde watching in shock as shy, scruffy old Matthew Cuthbert, who rarely leaves home, rides away in his horse-and-buggy dressed in his best suit. Turns out he’s going to pick up an orphan boy to help with farm work, but an orphan girl appears at the train station instead. We first learn of Anne Shirley’s braininess, originality, and other traits as she talks nonstop to the bewildered Matthew on the ride home. Anne then of course becomes the novel’s star — with the kind/gentle Matthew, his harder-edged sister Marilla Cuthbert, Anne’s best friend Diana Barry, Anne’s future love interest Gilbert Blythe, and others playing crucial supporting roles.

In Sir Walter Scott’s Rob Roy, we first meet Francis Osbaldistone. It’s quite a while until Francis and the novel’s readers encounter Robert “Rob Roy” MacGregor, the leader of a band of Highlanders. (In the 1995 movie starring Liam Neeson, the Rob Roy character is much more front and center.)

Which novels can you think of that don’t open with the main protagonist?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — a nightmare fantasy about Donald Trump possibly becoming mayor of my town — is here.

95 thoughts on “Characters Who Are First in Prominence, But Not the First to Appear

  1. Magwitch, the convict in Great Expectations. Btw, am off facebook, and have missed quite a few of your blog posts. Hope all is well, and Happy belated Thanksgivng 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, SW! Excellent mention of Magwitch!

      I’m doing fine — hope you are as well. And a belated Happy Thanksgiving to you, too! (One of my favorite holidays!)

      As for posting twice, Magwitch is flattered. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for those very kind words, Bill! I guess that WAS an unusual way to segue into being a member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists — which I first started covering a year before you became a stellar NSNC president!

      Like

  2. The introduction of minor characters before the arrival of major ones is a trope often followed in detective/crime fiction, usually taking the point of view of a victim who realizes, too late that life is coming to a close immediately, at the hand of an enigmatic shadowy person who comes into focus, and into the attentions of the police, as the book progresses– Jo Nesbo in his Harry Hole series has employed this strategy, for example.

    Liked by 1 person

    • jhNY, I agree with you completely about this. I suppose I’m so used to it with crime/detective fiction that I didn’t even mention it. So thank you, and am glad you seem to be enjoying the Harry Hole series by Jo Nesbo. Plus it took me a while to get to the book (probably the first), that he pronounced Hole as “ho-lay”
      that sounds much better. Have you read any of his standalones, that I’ve not felt ready to read yet? Thanks!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I wanted to send everyone here a Happy Thanksgiving. I know, Dave, that you don’t eat turkey, and I’m moving towards that myself. Although Bill did buy me a turkey dinner from Wawa, though he is a few hours away, after his long drive yesterday to drop off Lilyan at the rescue I adopted her from. I wanted to stay with Willow and my cat Jessie, rather than put them in a boarding place that I haven’t checked out myself. It was 9 degrees when I woke up this morning and tried to put her outside after giving her breakfast, but she was looking at me as though she was saying, “Are you kidding me”? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Happy Thanksgiving to you, too, Kat Lit, and to everyone else who reads this blog! I hope you and Bill enjoy your dinner later!

      We’ll be going to a local vegetarian restaurant for some “faux turkey,” and I’m thankful not to be traveling more than a half-mile today. 🙂

      Bitterly cold here, too. But when we brought Misty the cat out on his leash, his desire to be outside outweighed his being cold. He stayed out about 20 minutes before we coaxed him in!

      Like

      • That’s quite interesting, because my kitty Jessie is always looking for the warmest place around my home. She’s finally decided not to try to run outside when I open the door. She has ventured out into the unheated garage, but she is quite happy to come back in when she can!

        Liked by 1 person

        • P.S.: I just got my latest gift card from B&N and after agonizing over what to buy, I finally settled with “Daniel Deronda,” as well as Michelle Obama’s book, “Becoming.” I don’t normally buy memoirs about current events, but I do love her so much and wish was still the FLOTUS, and of course her husband as well as POTUS. They have so much more class than Trump and Melania it’s staggering. I just read a news story that Trump gave an address to our troops via teleconference in which he railed against justices, etc. I’ve lost count of the outrageous statements he made, but it is to be expected for him.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Two great choices, Kat Lit!

            As I might have mentioned, “Daniel Deronda” is one of my favorite novels. Takes a little while to get into it, but, once one does, it’s incredibly rewarding and emotionally powerful.

            And I agree that Michelle and Barack Obama have infinitely more class (and intelligence and decency and…) than Trump and Melania. Trump has made so many outrageous and narcissistic and mean statements, it’s beyond mind-numbing.

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  4. HAPPY THANKSGIVING DAVE!!!!!

    I’m too exhausted with Turkey day stuff so the only thing popping into my head is Lestat de Lioncourt in Interview with the Vampire.

    The story is depressingly narrated by Louis de Pointe du Lac and it’s only at the end that Lestat actually sinks his teeth into the narrative as a character.

    As always, typus and grammaticals are baked fresh with love for all to enjoy!

    Liked by 1 person

    • A very Happy Thanksgiving to you, too, Jack!

      “Interview with the Vampire” is an excellent example, and I loved your “sinks his teeth into the narrative” line.

      Nothing wrong with having typos on the Thanksgiving Day menu… 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Dave, I mentioned in last week’s comments that I had just read “Nine Perfect Strangers” by Liane Moriarty. It’s put together so well, with each of the nine having a voice (though in 3rd person), as well as the owner and a few high level employees of the health resort where everything happens. One of them actually starts off the novel, but he’s soon supplanted by Frances who seems to be the main protagonist, though every chapter is told by one of them in their own voice throughout the book; however, some characters don’t have their stories told until later on in the novel. I’m not sure that made much sense. 🙂

    Then there is another book I read a few years ago, “Then We Came to the End,” by Joshua Ferris, which takes place in an ad agency, and there is no main protagonist, because everything he writes uses the word “We” rather than “I” — which is quite an interesting way to talk about working in business, which I’d done for 40 or so years and was part of “the cubicle culture” before I went out on disability and then retired. I’ve never read a book that captured this so well, and in such an entertaining and funny way, down to people fighting over an office chair, which I’ve actually seen.

    I’m not sure either of these completely capture what your column is about!

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s an interesting angle on this topic, Kat Lit! If a novel has a number of relatively equal co-stars (even if there’s a “first among equals” like the Frances you mentioned), it will of course take a while for some of them to appear. In addition to “Nine Perfect Strangers,” other multiple-main-protagonist books that come to mind include George R.R. Martin’s “A Game of Thrones,” Agatha Christie’s “And Then There Were None,” and Margaret Atwood’s “The Robber Bride,” among many others.

      “Then We Came to the End” is another fascinating addition to this discussion. I also remember office interactions well; heck, sometimes the scenarios in the “Dilbert” comic strip were not THAT exaggerated. 🙂 “The cubicle culture” — nice term!

      Liked by 1 person

      • During my last job that I had at a major healthcare company, in which I asked our facilities department once to turn off the fluorescent light above my cubicle. They refused to do so without a note from my doctor; fortunately, I worked for a lot of Medical Directors, and one of them wrote a note. It turned out that I had ocular shingles and was out of work for over a week! Also, for a couple of years I was the fire warden for our floor, and some used to tell me that I was absolutely the worst person to do this, with all of my asthma and breathing issues, since we were supposed to make sure everyone was out before getting out ourselves. 🙂

        Liked by 2 people

          • Well, as I recall I didn’t volunteer as much as I was conscripted to do so. Anyway, the good thing about working at a major corporation for the last 20 years of my life, was they had very generous 401k, STD, LTD benefits and had a company that got me SSDI payments, which they paid for and lessened the aggravation many disabled people go through. After the first two years of disability, I was enrolled automatically in Medicare, which has worked out great for me, and I agree with those who want Medicare for All I know that some don’t want M/C as they think the government is too much of a bureaucracy, but in the 7 (?) years since I’ve been on it, along with an AARP supplement, I’ve not put out a dime for anything from either, other than manageable premiums, as well as some prescriptions. So, I’ll get off my soapbox for now. 🙂

            Liked by 1 person

            • Oh, involuntary “volunteering.” In the last office I worked at, the fire warden spot was a volunteer one.

              Yes, some corporations at least offer good benefits to go along with the negatives of working for a very big company.

              Whatever downsides the current Medicare and the hopefully future Medicare for All might have, I’d take then over private insurance any day!

              Like

              • Even though I worked for an H/C corp. for 20 years, it didn’t even occur to me to choose a Medicare Advantage plan over a Medicare/supplement plan. I hope you don’t mind if I insert another personal comment here, which I’m wont to do, but Bill just left not too long ago to take my dog Lilyan back to the shelter I got her from in January. She’s a wonderful dog, but I finally had to come to grips with the fact that she is too big for me to handle. She deserves better than that. The owner of the shelter I adopted her from has a special place in her heart for Pyrenees (or a mix), and I think she’ll make her a house dog, or knows someone that will adopt her. Plus, it’s a no-kill shelter. So, I’ll leave this off for now, as I become somewhat weepy, though I’ll still have Willow the dog and Jessie the cat to comfort me.

                Liked by 1 person

  6. Every time you bring up Anne of Green Gables I get a badly needed smile! 🙂 I so love those books, and also the movies with Megan Follows (haven’t seen the new one yet – but the Megan Follows movies are a tough act to follow). I actually finished a novel recently that might fit into this a bit – it’s called “Hotel Sacher.” As the name suggests, Anna Sacher is the main character, but the intro to the book was very unique. It starts by looking through the eyes of “love” and “death” as actual characters that are watching the main characters, and they appear on and off through the whole book. So when I started the book, I had no idea where it was going! But once I shook off my initial confusion and kept going, and met the true main character, the book was amazing!

    Like

  7. Great post again, Dave! I was thinking of Anna Karenina, the novel starts with her brother Oblonsky and his marriage problems and Anna is introduced after a while as his sister coming to his rescue, not immediately as a main character.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Hello Dave,
    The first novel I can recall is “Jane Eyre” – Jane of course is the main character through the entire novel as she first appears as a child, but the other pivotal one appears much later: Rochester, the man whose daughter becomes a pupil of the adult Jane. Jane and Rochester fall in love and plan to marry. And here is when a third character, who for most of the novel is only a secret, a shadow hovering in the background, becomes the key protagonist and shapes Jane’s and Rochester’s future: Rochester’s insane wife who lives in a cell hidden in Rochester’s home, unknown to Jane until her wedding day (if I recall correctly). Jane leaves, and eventually the insane prisoner causes the house to burn and deprives Rochester of his fortune and sight, which does not matter to the loving Jane who returns to comfort Rochester for the rest of their lives.
    Have read the novel three or four times over the decades, and still love it!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Clairdelune, for your thoughts on, and the excellent summary, of “Jane Eyre” — my favorite novel. Like you, I’ve reread it several times. 🙂

      Interesting perspective — Jane is clearly the star of the novel, and its narrator, but Rochester is pretty much a co-star, and he indeed doesn’t appear until a number of chapters have gone by.

      Liked by 2 people

  9. Harper Lee`s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) , captured our heart, I remember long ago in my teens someone gave me the book to read. Fell in love with Atticus Finch and later with actor Gregory Peck. In spite of so many movies Mr. Peck remained Atticus Finch in out hearts.

    Then Go Set a Watchman was published 2015 , the existence of the book we never knew, was the first book Ms. Lee wrote. In the book Mr. Finch was a different man, and his brother Jack became a prominent character , whose existence readers never knew in TKAM .

    Although these two books are separate but the story line was the same.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I can’t think of any books to add to your list, but as always I enjoyed your post and the unique perspective you bring to your extensive study of literature. I am happy you like Sully – he is a terrific character. “Everybody’s Fool” doesn’t feature him as the main character – maybe that’s why I didn’t like it as well as the first book. But it was still fun and a good read. Happy Thanksgiving! 🦃

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Molly! Sully is indeed a terrific character — unambitious and not exactly a family man, but he has a core decency and is funny as hell.

      Strange to think of Sully not being the main character in “Everybody’s Fool,” but glad to hear it’s still a pretty good novel. I plan to read it. Someone who commented last night on my Facebook page is a big fan of that sequel.

      Happy Thanksgiving to you, too!

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Another fun topic, Dave! A book that immediately springs to mind is Lermontov’s “A Hero of Our Time,” which starts off with the narrator describing his own journey through the Caucasus, then running into Maksim Maksimych, who starts telling him a story about an officer named Pechorin, who turns into the main protagonist, although he don’t get anything from his point of view till the third chapter.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yours is the first time I saw Lermontov mentioned by anyone – I read the book when I was about 14, way back in the mists of time 🙂 , and it was one of my favorite books that years later were lost during one of a couple of transatlantic transfers :-(.
      I did not recall the names of the protagonists, but do recall the travel through the Caucasus, as to a 14-year-old it seemed to be the most exotic voyage ever.
      Thanks for bringing back that memory!!

      Liked by 2 people

    • Gratifying, as it is a favorite, to see the book mentioned, though it does make my intent to name it here redundant…

      I have read “A Hero For Our Time twice, and will, given time, read it again– one of a very few books I’ve read twice, and thus, one of the very very few I would read three times. There is a sort of poetic structure to the thing that haunts and promises something that has to date eluded me, despite rereading, despite the feeling I have understood much of what the author intends me to understand. And yet…There is also a heedlessness intrinsic to Pecherin that compels him, which in turn compels the reader to follow him to his end.

      Happy Thanksgiving, everybody!

      Liked by 1 person

  12. Howdy, Dave!

    — Which novels can you think of that don’t open with the main protagonist? —

    Speaking not of novels but of plays — and not of main protagonists but of titular personae — the one mentioned in Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” kind of strikes me as the alpha and the omega among “Characters Who Are First in Prominence, But Not the First to Appear” . . .

    J.J. (Alias MugRuith1)

    Liked by 2 people

  13. In the mystery genre, two of the Dorothy L. Sayers, Lord Peter Wimsey novels, “Gaudy Night” and “Have His Carcase,” begin with the prominence of Harriet Vane, but Lord Peter, though mentioned, eventually is the one who comes in to “save the day” so to speak. There are other mysteries that begin with characters who are not who we think they are; e.g. “Brat Farrar” by Josephine Tey, and “The Ivy Tree” by Mary Stewart. I guess those count! I’m pretty sure I’ll come up with other examples later.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Kat Lit, for your usual mystery genre expertise!

      “Gaudy Night” is an excellent novel; glad you recommended it — and Dorothy L. Sayers — to me! 🙂 While Lord Peter is the star of several Sayers mysteries (of which I’ve only read two), Harriet Vane seems to me to be more the star of “Gaudy Night” than he is — though Peter, as you say, is important to the latter part of the book.

      Like

      • Clairdelune, there are short stories she wrote featuring Montague Egg, a wine salesman who solves mysteries. The only standalone I can recall is “The Documents in the Case” that I read many years ago and don’t remember too much about it and can’t find it in my still disorganized bookshelves. It’s nice to find another fan of Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane novels. 🙂

        I also love P.D. James and I think I’ve read all of her novels, as well as her non-fiction book “Talking About Detective Fiction.” I was somewhat sad that she only wrote two Cordelia Gray novels, though her portrayal of Adam Dalgliesh won me over.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I really liked the novel, Fitzgerald is fine author. I should be reading more American writers, having more acquainted with British and new world literature, I guess I should be reading more American literature now. But frequent migraines and a young toddler has restricted my reading now days 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

        • Fitzgerald is definitely a fine author. I also liked “Tender Is the Night” and the unfinished “The Last Tycoon” a lot. His debut novel “This Side of Paradise,” not so much.

          It’s hard to read as much as we want, whether it’s American literature or literature from various other places. A young toddler and frequent migraines certainly don’t help when it comes to finding time for books. Very sorry you have to deal with the migraines.

          Liked by 2 people

          • Dave (and Tanya)
            At your mention of the lack of time to read as much as one would like, I found myself nodding in agreement… the reasons may not be identical but the end result is the same – a shelf full of books I really want to read or re-read, but all I can do is look at them with longing, then return to the waiting computer for my daily work. Which helps finance the purchase of the books I have no time to read… ARRRGH.
            ( my expression of existentialist angst)

            Liked by 1 person

              • Here’s an old joke that may pertain, culled for the interwebs:

                The Mexican Fisherman

                An American investment banker was at the pier of a small coastal Mexican village when a small boat with just one fisherman docked. Inside the small boat were several large yellowfin tuna. The American complimented the Mexican on the quality of his fish and asked how long it took to catch them.

                The Mexican replied, “only a little while. The American then asked why didn’t he stay out longer and catch more fish? The Mexican said he had enough to support his family’s immediate needs. The American then asked, “but what do you do with the rest of your time?”

                The Mexican fisherman said, “I sleep late, fish a little, play with my children, take siestas with my wife, Maria, stroll into the village each evening where I sip wine, and play guitar with my amigos. I have a full and busy life.” The American scoffed, “I am a Harvard MBA and could help you. You should spend more time fishing and with the proceeds, buy a bigger boat. With the proceeds from the bigger boat, you could buy several boats, eventually you would have a fleet of fishing boats. Instead of selling your catch to a middleman you would sell directly to the processor, eventually opening your own cannery. You would control the product, processing, and distribution. You would need to leave this small coastal fishing village and move to Mexico City, then LA and eventually New York City, where you will run your expanding enterprise.”

                The Mexican fisherman asked, “But, how long will this all take?”

                To which the American replied, “15 – 20 years.”

                “But what then?” Asked the Mexican.

                The American laughed and said, “That’s the best part. When the time is right you would announce an IPO and sell your company stock to the public and become very rich, you would make millions!”

                “Millions – then what?”

                The American said, “Then you would retire. Move to a small coastal fishing village where you would sleep late, fish a little, play with your kids, take siestas with your wife, stroll to the village in the evenings where you could sip wine and play your guitar with your amigos.”

                Liked by 1 person

  14. Hi, Dave. The first thing that popped into my head was Daphne du Maurier’s “Rebecca”. Since she is long dead at the start of the book, she doesn’t make an actual appearance; however, her true nature isn’t fully revealed until late in the story, so does that count? 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Pat! Sounds like it counts to me. 🙂 A very interesting angle on this topic!

      Your mention of Daphne du Maurier reminded me that the title character of her “My Cousin Rachel” didn’t appear until a ways into the novel (if I’m remembering right).

      Liked by 1 person

  15. I can think of two novels immediately:

    ‘The Great Gatsby’ is narrated by Nick Carraway, who is arguably as much a main character as Jay Gatsby. Nick rambles on about himself and other matters before mentioning, and finally meeting, the title character, who also departs a few chapters before the end of the novel as I recall.

    Then there’s ‘Moby-Dick’, narrated by “Ishmael”. Ishmael takes his own sweet time talking about himself and other matters, explaining the circumstances of what led him to join the crew of the Pequod. Several pages ensue before we meet another lead character, Captain Ahab. For several passages, Ishmael disappears altogether (presumably eavesdropping outside Ahab’s cabin door?) while Ahab explains why he is so obsessive in his quest. Of course, it’s not until the last few chapters of the novel before we meet the title character. How’s that for delayed gratification?

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, bobess48, for mentioning those two ultra-prominent novels in which the main character doesn’t appear in the beginning. Can’t believe I forgot to include them. 🙂 (I’ve read “The Great Gatsby” once and “Moby-Dick” twice.)

      Excellent point about Nick Carraway possibly being as important as Gatsby in Fitzgerald’s novel.

      As for “Moby-Dick,” it almost has three co-stars: Ishmael, Queequeg, and Ahab — although the last is ostensibly Melville’s “mainest” main character. (Among the humans, anyway.)

      Liked by 1 person

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