Puzzling Star Billing in Some Fiction Titles

The Three…um…Four Musketeers.

When a novel’s title features names of people, they’re sure to be the stars of the book, right? Think Jane Eyre, Anne of Green Gables, David Copperfield, Don Quixote, Madame Bovary, Ethan Frome, Eugenie Grandet, Evelina, Lelia, Mrs. Dalloway, Mrs. Bridge, Agnes Grey, Life of Pi, Emma, Heidi, Carrie, Camille, Suttree, Pierre, Lord Jim, Sister Carrie, Hadji Murat, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, How Stella Got Her Groove Back, etc.

But this is not always the case. Occasionally, the people in a title are secondary (albeit significant) characters, or they share top billing. Why? Maybe the titular secondary character is particular charismatic or mysterious. Maybe the chosen title just has a nicer ring to it. Maybe the author intends a bit of misdirection or surprise.

One example is Sir Walter Scott’s historical novel Rob Roy. While the Scottish outlaw has a major role in the 1817 book, the most prominent character is narrator Frank Osbaldistone. Rob Roy is of course a more interesting fella, and who would want to read a novel called Frank Osbaldistone? 🙂 Anyway, it’s logical that those behind the 1995 film version of Scott’s novel made Rob Roy (Liam Neeson) the main guy.

Four years after Scott’s novel was published, James Fenimore Cooper came out with The Spy. But Revolutionary War agent Harvey Birch is not the main player in the book; he’s part of an ensemble of about a half-dozen characters who get roughly equal time. Still, Birch is the novel’s most intriguing creation, and faces some memorably dangerous situations.

Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers? Athos, Porthos, and Aramis are of course a big part of that swashbuckling 1844 novel, but the younger D’Artagnan — who becomes essentially the fourth musketeer — is really the star of the show.

The true star of R.D. Blackmore’s 1869 novel Lorna Doone is John Ridd. But John falls in love with Lorna, much of the story stems from that romance, and Lorna IS a major player in the book, so the title is understandable. Plus who would want to eat a cookie called “John Ridd”? 🙂

Daniel Deronda is the linchpin of George Eliot’s 1876 novel of that name, but a case can be made that the fascinating arc of Gwendolen Harleth’s life makes her at least equal as a character in that book.

Jumping nearly a century, we have Toni Morrison’s 1973 novel Sula, whose protagonist is actually Sula’s best friend Nel. But Sula — while occupying less of the book than Nel — drives the plot with her charisma, her unconventionality, and (at times) her selfishness and not-niceness.

Any other novel titles that might fit this theme?

My 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 2003-started/award-winning “Montclairvoyant” local topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece — about my town belatedly becoming eligible for federal disaster relief after Hurricane Ida — is here.

61 thoughts on “Puzzling Star Billing in Some Fiction Titles

  1. Dave, I got a kick out of the title of your column because I’ve been doing my own “puzzling” of late, though nothing to add to this discussion. For the past few weeks I’ve obsessively been putting together jigsaw puzzles (six so far) since Bill gave me a puzzle table for my birthday. Who knew there was actually such a thing? I’ve always loved jigsaws and had quite a collection, but my cat Jessie was such a pain with knocking pieces off the dining room table and just generally driving me nuts, as is her wont to do (don’t all cats?), so it’s good to have a better workspace. I’m also “puzzled” by the fact that one of my new puzzles is a montage of classic and some contemporary literature book covers, and alas I’ve only read 24 of the 50 novels shown. How can this be? Some of my favorites are included, such as “Pride & Prejudice,” “Persuasion,” “And Then There Were None,” TKAM,” and “Little Women.” My next puzzle is going to be of 50 different album covers, I think all from my era of the 60’s and 70’s, so it should be a lot of fun — also I can play the entire albums of many of them on Spotify and sing along (something I can’t do while reading!). Poor Bill! 🙂

    It seems apparent to me that my love of puzzles of all kinds, especially crosswords and jigsaws, is why mystery/detective novels are by far my favorite genre of fiction. There’s nothing so satisfying to me as the final payoff of the solution of the mystery and/or the identity of the perpetrator of the crime, usually a murderer, even if I haven’t figured it out myself before the ending. In fact, it’s more fun if it’s a surprise. But anyway, I get the same feeling of satisfaction as when I fill in the last box of a crossword or the last piece of the puzzle.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Kat Lit! Very sorry for the delay in responding.

      I really enjoyed your comment! I’m not super into jigsaw puzzles myself, but my wife enjoys them a lot. And it’s nice when puzzles have attractive themes such as images of famous novel covers. I’m very impressed that you read 24 of the 50 pictured! (Good luck with the album-cover puzzle!)

      And, yes, there must be a connection between loving jigsaw puzzles and loving mystery novels that contain puzzles of a different sort.

      Cats knocking off puzzle pieces, among other things, from tables…hmm…sounds familiar… 🙂

      Like

  2. I’ve never read Melville’s “Moby Dick” but just from reading plot outlines on the web the obsessive Captain Ahab rather than the great white whale Moby Dick is the protagonist of this novel.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Tony! I’ve read “Moby-Dick,” and Captain Ahab is indeed the main character (along with Ishmael and Queegueg, to an extent). The title-character whale of course is the target and obsession, but doesn’t literally appear much in the novel.

      Like

  3. Titled “The Thorn Birds”, but not one of the major characters had wings, or literally impaled their dinners!

    Then there’s the “Lord of the Flies”– he appears in plain sight nowhere, though lies hidden in the hearts of not a few.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I very much enjoyed reading your thoughts and your and your readers proposals! Have many thanks. I thought that I could maybe contribute “Angela’s Ashes” by Frank Mc Court, in which he speaks about his very touching childhood memories in Ireland.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. I think Anna Karenina fits into this a bit – while she is a star character for sure, she’s far from the only one, and interestingly, not the one I was most invested in when I read the book a couple years ago! 🙂 (That went to Kitty for me). “Bettyville” also fits in here a little bit. George Hodgeman’s memoir about leaving NYC to care for his mother (Betty) in Missouri. While his mother Betty and their many differences certainly feature heavily, central to the book is Hodgeman’s feelings and thoughts about not only caring for her, but also his life leading up to this transitional time. And maybe it doesn’t fit quite as well, but I also might mention the Olive Kitteridge story (both books). While the characters are all people in her orbit, and she is the glue that kind of holds them all together, there are other key story lines and view points that are just as interesting. A very fun topic this week Dave! I like me a challenge 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, M.B.! 🙂

      You’re right about “Anna Karenina,” even as her name itself is so title-worthy in the way it flows.

      And a great mention of “Olive Kitteridge”! Novels that are basically a collection of stories (also including such works as “Winesburg, Ohio” and “The Martian Chronicles”) would seem to almost inevitably focus on a number of characters.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. (Spoiler alert) Literary works where the title character may not be the same as the protagonist are actually quite ancient. In the classical era Greek tragedy “Antigone” the tyrannical Creon has far more lines, takes up more stage time, and undergoes more character change than the noble Antigone even though it is her moral vision that triumphs at the end.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. Dave, I don’t mean to be critical, but I miss the edit key that I see on comment sections in some blogs. Not being a professional writer or typist I find that I need that key to correct mistakes.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I hear you, Tony. I like having an edit button, too — I often use it on Facebook, for instance. Unfortunately, the blog platform I use only allows the blogger to edit comments. So, if you’d like a comment of yours changed, you could post another comment saying what you’d like me to fix.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. You’re making us work hard this week, but what a great theme! The first character that sprung to mind was Jay Gatsby in, of course, ‘The Great Gatsby’, which is narrated by Nick Carraway. In a similar sort of vein is ‘The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde’ which is told from the perspective of Utterson. We don’t really ‘meet’ Jekyll until the end of the book. And finally, although I’ve never read it, does the Wizard in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ count?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Sarah! Three great citations!

      The Wizard in “The Wonderful Wizard of Oz” book (and “The Wizard of Oz” movie) definitely counts. Dorothy is probably the star — with The Scarecrow, The Tin Man, The Cowardly Lion, The Wicked Witch, and even Toto ( 🙂 ) all just as prominent as The Wizard. Though of course several characters are eager to meet The Wizard so he’s a (not seen that much) focal point.

      And re your other two mentions, narrators in a novel can definitely be as prominent as the title characters!

      Liked by 1 person

      • There were so many mentions already of titular characters who aren’t actually the main focus. There are quite a few narrators who tell someone else’s story….I was thinking of Dracula as another one in this vein and I suppose we’d better add Dr Watson to that list…so really, I’m not doing that well this week!!
        Actually, I have got one! ‘The Third Man’ by Graham Greene – although the book came about as a result of the movie and was never meant to be read. Narrated by Major Calloway, the British and Americans area all running around Vienna looking for the elusive third man in the death of Harry Lime…little do they know the third man is……
        It’s quite a clever device though and does get the reader thinking about perceptions and reliable narrators and so on.

        Liked by 3 people

        • “There are quite a few narrators who tell someone else’s story” — so true, Sarah! A classic literary device. Dr. Watson is a fantastic example of that — with Sherlock Holmes clearly the star despite Watson’s crucial sidekick-y role.

          I haven’t read “The Third Man,” but it sounds like another great example of this theme. Well described!

          Liked by 2 people

  9. You have the very best themes Dave – always challenging and thought provoking. The two books that came to mind were Rebecca and The Aspern Papers. What they had in common was that the name of the main character was never revealed in the book. You had me thinking about books where I preferred the secondary characters to the main. For example, Melanie in Gone With the Wind, was more appealing to me than Scarlett. That is what I most like about books – we connect in different ways to the personalities as they unfold. G.K. Chesterton had an great thought: ‘I wish we could sometimes love the characters in real life as we love the characters in romances. There are a great many human souls whom we should accept more kindly, and even appreciate more clearly, if we simply thought of them as people in a story.”

    Liked by 4 people

    • What a great comment on a great post Rebecca. We connect to different personalities. And yes there are people we could accept more kindly if we thought of them as people in a story. Maybe even what would be explained is why they are the way they are. So, books that fit this Dave, well I had to smile at the four muskies cos I aye thought the first book is about D’artagnan, can Dumas no count? I also classed Anna Karenin. I know it gets onto the biz of these arranged power and money Russian marriages and how she goes against convention, not re the affair but the falling in love, but since she does no make an appearance till God knows how many pages in and she chucks herself under thon train half a book from the end, I was never sure.

      Liked by 3 people

  10. The protagonist in Shakespeare’s tragedy “Julius Caesar” is his assassin Brutus. You could also argue that Konstatine Levin is the main protagonist of Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina”. There are actually more passages describing his thoughts than Anna’s. Of course there is also the novel “Rebecca” where the unnamed female narrator is the protagonist and Rebecca is a minor character who died before the beginning of the novel even if her memory haunts all the other major characters.

    Liked by 2 people

  11. You could say the same of Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”. Beloved is an important character, but Sethe’s experiences and evolution pulls more weight and creates more of an exposition and a grounding to the larger social issues.
    I wonder if this sort of titling is a pattern practiced by some authors rather than being limited to certain books.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Donna!

      That’s an excellent mention, and well said. You’re absolutely right about the prominence of Sethe in “Beloved.” Interesting that Toni Morrison did that for the title of more than one of her novels — exemplifying your point that this could be a tendency of some authors.

      Liked by 2 people

  12. Intriguing theme, for sure, Dave. The novel, whose title and characters, which comes immediately to mind is Louise Erdrich’s recent Pulitzer Prize winner, “The Night Watchman.” Thomas Wazhashk’s co-hero or heroine on her own quest is Patrice (Pixie) Paranteau. In all ways, her journey, though personal, is far more perilous. (Eliot’s “Daniel Deronda” is up next after I conquer “Romola”) 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s