Narrative at Group Rates

[Originally posted at SF Novelists.]


When I was in high school and college, I played French horn.

(Bear with me; I am going somewhere relevant with this.)

I had also played piano for a number of years, through elementary school and into junior high. Piano is nice enough; it’s much better suited to noodling around and figuring out how to play random songs than horn is. But all of my piano experience was solo, or at best a handful of duets. As a French horn player, I was part of an ensemble — and, as I discovered, I far prefer that mode.

See, the cool thing about an ensemble is the interplay between its component parts. Flutes could do intricate little obbligato stuff that would kill a brass player. The tubas and trombones provided a resonant foundation for the higher instruments to float over. Percussion served as both engine and punctuation. And within the horn section . . . one year we played Gustav Mahler’s “Um Mitternacht,” and the harmonies among the four of us were just achingly beautiful. You can’t do that on your own; you need other people around you, who complement and play off of your own efforts.

So it is with characters.

Frankly, books (or movies or TV shows) that are all about their protagonist, with everybody else serving as a frame or plot device for that character’s personal advancement or angst, bore me very quickly. Me, my sister, and a friend of ours, have been killing brain cells for the last few years by going to see the Twilight movies, and the best parts of them have been the moments where the narrative steps back to care about somebody other than Bella. It’s partly a function, I imagine, of the fact that the books are told through first-person narration; the story is naturally Bella-centric. But I swear to god, the most interesting part of Eclipse was a conversation between Edward and Jacob, the two of them actually talking for some length of time, without interruption. It was still about Bella — in fact, she was asleep between them — but it did more to develop the two of them as characters in their own right than any other few minutes from the preceding two and a half films.

Maybe this is part of why romance, as a genre, doesn’t engage me. It’s so centered on the hero and heroine, their personal interaction and progress toward happiness, that it doesn’t spare as much time as I would like for the concerns of other people in the story. I like ensembles. I like side stories about side characters, bits where the tensions and alliances between them rise to the top for a moment. The first comic book I ever fell in love with was Elfquest, which did an excellent job with a sizable core cast; there’s a lovely bit in the eighth volume between Clearbrook and Strongbow, where by sharing their grief and pain over two deaths close to them they’re both able to reach a kind of peace. The plots that caused those deaths were important to everybody when they happened, but the aftermath is personal to these two — and it goes a long way toward making me really believe that they’re members of the same tribe, people who have known each other for literally centuries, and share a bond that has nothing to do with the chief of that tribe (who is the central character of the series).

It makes the story into a symphony, rather than a solo act. The rest of the people in it aren’t there just to be foils to the protagonist, his allies or enemies or conveniently-timed plot devices. They have their own agendas, that sometimes have nothing to do with the guy at the center. They can create harmonies in the story, punctuation, interesting little riffs dancing above the main melody. They can do more things, and different kinds of things, than one instrument character can do on his own.

I don’t mind there being a central character. As I type this, my husband has Love Actually playing on the TV, and while it’s undoubtedly a charming story, it’s a little too decentralized for my taste. To run even further with the musical metaphor, this might be the equivalent of impressionism. I like a strong thread to unify the whole thing. But I want that thread to be embroidered — okay, my metaphors have run off into the land of textiles, which is actually pretty characteristic of how I conceive of stories. Anyway, my point is, the main character is more interesting to me if you also give me other people to be interested in.