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.