The Fiction Format of Flitting From One Character to Another

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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It’s Hard Being Indifferent to Characters This Different

Literature is filled with memorable characters, but which are the most original?

There are probably almost as many answers to that question as there are readers, so I’ll give you some of my picks and then ask for yours.

By original, I mean characters who have a rare set of skills, or possess an unusual combination of personality traits, or have done amazing things, or are unusually good, or are unusually evil, etc. They’re so original that it’s hard to find similar protagonists in literature, and so original that it’s difficult to find real-life people like them.

Given that I just finished reading Stieg Larsson’s riveting “Millennium Trilogy,” I’ll start by naming Lisbeth Salander — whose one-of-a-kind nature especially blazes forth in book two: The Girl Who Played With Fire. The 20-something Salander is under five feet tall and weighs less than 100 pounds, yet she can take care of herself against much larger bad guys — fueled by rage against all the wrongs done to her by men in high places. She’s antisocial, stoic, resourceful, a brilliant computer hacker, and more. Original enough?

Another 21st-century novel, Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son, features a North Korean character whose name is reminiscent of the generic “John Doe.” But Jun Do has a non-generic set of abilities. He’s a kidnapper (involuntarily), a radio operator, a learner of English, a hard worker on the lower rungs of society, and a survivor extraordinaire as he deals with physical and mental pain and deprivation. Then, to top it off, he audaciously manages to become a bigwig under a different name in an already existing family — and even gets his “wife” to watch…Casablanca!

Despite his part-African ancestry, French author Alexandre Dumas rarely featured black characters in his novels. One exception is the titular hero of Georges, which in some ways is a precursor book to The Count of Monte Cristo. The multidimensional Georges is cultured, educated, and has many hobbies and skills. His skin color allows him to pass as white, but he’s so outraged by racial injustice that he becomes a fierce military man leading a revolt against slavery on what’s now the island of Mauritius.

(As an aside, there are many similarities between The Count of Monte Cristo‘s Edmond Dantes and Lisbeth Salander. Both are falsely accused, both become rich, both are out for revenge, and both are very capable of exacting that revenge.)

Another 19th-century novelist, Jane Austen, gives us the impressive Anne Elliot in Persuasion. Anne is kind, smart, mature, cool in a crisis, adept at dealing with a difficult father and difficult siblings, and in love with a man — Frederick Wentworth — who’s self-made rather than born rich. While sad and frustrated for many years about her thwarted relationship with Wentworth, Anne doesn’t give in to despair despite being “old” (27) for an unmarried woman of her time.

Darryl Brock’s If I Never Get Back stars Sam Fowler, a 20th-century man thrust back in time to 1869 — where he joins the legendary Cincinnati Red Stockings. Sam is only so-so at baseball, but he has some boxing ability and lots of entrepreneurial instincts — even “inventing” the ballpark hot dog! And when he gets sick of America’s crappy 19th-century cuisine, he visits a Chinese neighborhood to pay a random resident to cook him some decent food. Sam also falls in love with the widowed sister of one of his Red Stockings teammates, and gets involved in major intrigue after meeting Mark Twain.

A few other nearly unique characters: Mattie Ross, the religious, fearless, stunningly mature 14-year-old who seeks to avenge her father’s death in Charles Portis’ True Grit; Wolf Larsen, the sadistic, handsome, and immensely strong ship captain who’s brilliant but not quite brilliant enough in Jack London’s The Sea-Wolf; and Cathy Trask, the amoral psychopath in John Steinbeck’s East of Eden.

Also: Charles Strickland, the selfish, people-hating stockbroker who makes an astonishing career change to become a legendary painter in W. Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence; Dinah Morris, a very rare female preacher for her time (18th-century England) in George Eliot’s Adam Bede; and Reggie Love, the brainy, brave, compassionate woman who rises above an abusive marriage and alcoholism to become a crack attorney in John Grisham’s The Client.

Also: Owen Meany, the small boy with a high-pitched voice and lots of smarts who predicts his own unusual destiny in John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany; Oscar Wao, the nerdy Dominican-American who’s into stuff like cartoons and sci-fi before things get scarily serious in Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao; and Ignatius J. Reilly, the slobby, delusional, neurotic, narcissistic, modernity-disdaining “wise fool” in John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces.

Who are some fictional characters you’ve found to be very original, and what makes them so different?

Thanks to everyone in 2014 who read my weekly blog posts, and left comments about literature and other topics! Those comments were wonderfully knowledgeable and friendly (and often humorous). This blog started on July 14, 2014, and by the end of the day on Dec. 31 there were 4,200 comments and 13,690 views from 85 countries during those five-and-a-half months.

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