Friday, January 15, 2010

Whose story?

A short note before getting to the meat of this post. As you can see, updates have been scarce as of late. I've been reading, to be sure, but I simply had no motivation to post reviews. I'm going to try some different things, more musings on fiction and more casual reviews where I'll mainly just discuss the book instead of keeping to a format. So, to start that off, let's talk about characters.


In Directing I a couple years back, my director told our class something important about play analysis that has stuck with me ever since: when you're going to be directing a show, you need to decide which character the show belongs to. That means you have to decide who has the journey of character development that you want to follow. Even in an ensemble piece, my director stressed, you need to decide whose play it really is. Now, this advice has been stuck in my mind ever since, as I've always wondered if it applied to novels as it did to plays. It gives me an interesting perspective from which to analyse stories. Whose story, I ask myself, is this?

Sometimes it's obvious who the main character is. In A Doll's House, Ibsen's tense drama that gave rise to naturalism in drama, you would have to be very creative in order to justify the play being anyone else's besides Nora's. This play is all about Nora's inner struggle. Similarly, plenty of books have obvious main characters. Who is The Goose Girl about but Anidori? Her journey from a weak-willed girl to a strong-minded woman with the courage to take her destiny in her own hands in the whole point of the novel. No one else gets nearly as much focus as Ani does.

However, there are cases where it's trickier to decide whose story is the most important one. Taking another stage example, look at Wicked. Knee-jerk reaction is to characterize this as Elphaba's play; after all, she's the Wicked Witch of the West, the one who is "wicked". But some, myself included, might argue that Galinda has at least as big a journey of character development, possibly even a bigger one than Elphie. After all, we see Galinda go from a mean-spirited rich girl to a well-meaning ditz in just the first act, and from then she has to make choices about her future and her friendship with Elphaba. There's a real human struggle in her path, choosing between what's right and what's easy, and she doesn't always make the right choice either. In my book, that's certainly fuel for the possibility of making Wicked Galinda's show. And what about in books? Well, let's take another of my favorite series and look at The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya. Haruhi's the title character, Kyon's the narrator. Again, Kyon seems the obvious choice since we're inside his head, but it's Haruhi's development as a character that we're following, watching as she goes from a frankly terrifying amoral hellion into a determined but good-hearted girl who's always looking for more fun and adventure. She learns the value of her friendships with the members of the SOS Brigade and calms down and learns to enjoy life instead of moping about how it's not exciting enough. So again, whose story is this?

However, what about books like The Ask and the Answer? Two points of view in that one. Sure, Todd was the sole POV character in The Knife of Never Letting Go, but it made complete sense for there to be only one viewpoint in that book. At first we're not supposed to know that there's even a girl in the picture, and then we're following Todd's complete confusion as he tries to figure out this person with no Noise and who doesn't even seem to be able to sleep. Viola would lose a lot of her mystery if we were in her head, and consequently the reader wouldn't be able to identify with Todd quite as well. A large, large part of the novel's success as a moving story rides on seeing the relationship between Todd and Viola develop as Todd comes to understand her better. But then we come to The Ask and the Answer, where both characters get viewpoints. So is it still just Todd's story? Seems to shortchange Viola quite a bit that way, since we suddenly understand her so much better than we did in the first book just by being inside her head.

So, is this problem of whose story negated in novels by the author's ability to utilize multiple viewpoints? I actually don't have an answer. Can you say that just because each character gets a viewpoint section that one's not more important than the other? Especially with books series that have tons of viewpoints, like Green Rider or A Song of Ice and Fire, it becomes harder to weigh the characters equally. So is it a necessity that even in novels there can only be one truly main character in a work? I'm not at all sure, but I'm certainly going to continue to keep this in mind when writing my own stories and when reading the works of others. If nothing else, it continues to provide me with an excellent perspective from which to analyze media.


Well, I'm interested in people's thoughts on this issue, so if you have anything to say, please leave a comment! I'd like to know if other people have ever thought like this as well, or if this has given you a new way to look at stories. Also, expect either a book ramble or another discussion post within the next few days. I have an idea for a top ten female protagonists post that I've been working on for a while. Still need a few more girls for my list, though.


Anonymous said...

In that one story I'm always claiming to be working on, the viewpoint generally alternates between the 'heroine' and her brother, yet said heroine is the person I've established as the main character. I'm kinda uncertain as to how much to balance between the two actually - the girl's side is where the heroes are so it seems like that's where I need to be most, but the boy's side is where most of the important info gets shared and so yeah, will need to be there more than would otherwise be necessary... I wonder how this will work out @.@

Arty D'arc said...

I think there can be a difference between character development leads and plot leads. Haruhi, as you mentioned, is one of those cases. I think it's shared development-wise between Kyon and Haruhi, as I think their influence on one another is what the story is about. The others are developed in turn, but they're not as integral to the situation (however, in general, I think this sort of focus can extend to a number of different characters, so I guess I disagree with the idea that there must be only one). However, in terms of plot, I think very often there's the idea of The One. In Haruhi, I'd definitely say this is Kyon. Haruhi might cause the drama but Kyon is in it, all the time. If it's not happening to him, it's probably not important, and if it is important, I think it's a writing flaw not to include him in it.

Not to say that there can't be more than one plot lead; I just think we're trained to accept one. It's the hero and sidekick mentality. The sidekick is there fighting alongside all the way, but only one of them is getting a lunchbox.

Matthew Koric said...

I've always read that the main character is the character whose actions decide what everyone else does. For example, Star Wars. Your viewpoint character and protagonist in the original trilogy is Luke Skywalker, yet it's the father and antagonist in Darth Vader whom all the characters are reacting to. So that's one way of figuring it out.

Anonymous said...

I've actually thought about this too. And I'm not very sure about the answers either, because after awhile of thinking, it got boring and something else caught my attention. XD

I did keep a bit interest stored in my mind, though.

The story I'm writing (or trying to write) starts out with two characters, but it is the latter that I dub as 'main character', because the story centers around him most of the time (and his name would be the first to appear on the credit rolls if it was a movie). Although in a way, he's not really the only main character (in fact, he might even be the charactrer the reader will know least about until about 1/3rd into the story. Guuh... Spoilers. But I doubt I'll ever finish (or start) the story, so meh. >__>). If anything, I think that you can say that this story is actually the other persons story, seen from the 'main characters' P.O.V.

Although I haven't decided if I want it that way yet...

Amy Lynn said...

Arty, I think you have a point about us being trained by most fiction to accept one lead. Well, I know that ensemble casts are also usually accepted, but it seems like either there's one lead and everyone else supports, or there's an ensemble group of leads that's about four to eight people. You usually don't see two or three equal leads; one of them is usually the lead lead. Which is something I keep coming up against in the stories I'm working on.

Matthew, I like the the thought that the main character is the one whose actions determines what the others do, but I'm not sure if I'm sold on that. It's definitely a good perspective to read from, though, and I think I'll try that in the future and see if I can find it working for me or not.

And Tris, your last comment is actually pretty interesting. If your POV character is narrating another character's story, who's the main character? Kinda goes back to what Arty said about Kyon being the main character even though Haruhi drives the action. And that in turn really does tie in with what Matthew Koric pointed out.

Wow, thanks for the responses, everyone! This is all so cool to think about. ^_^

Matthew Koric said...

This is Elephande, by the way.

Off the top of my head, the only ensemble cast I can think of is a group of four, from the Narnia series. Come to think of it... Dawn Treader and a few of the later ones use three leads in an ensemble, I believe... I could be wrong though, lemme look back over it.

The key would be to split everything equally, as best as can be done. I've tried to pull three off myself, but always find myself leaning a bit more on one character than the others.

Anonymous said...

Hmm... Perhaps I thought a bit too much into it...

The story actually has 3 main characters ('main character' is one of them), yet all of their story begin at different times. I said this story was Person A's story just because his is the only story that begin at square one from the moment you read the first line (a.k.a, he and the reader begin from the same place. The other two characters don't.). That is why I say it's his story. To be honest, the story is THEIR (all 3 of them). But since they all start at different times, it's Person A's version/time that we follow (it becomes more evident as you read on. Or it's supposed to be.), and thus I say it's his story, even though that's a... Inaccurate way to put it...

It's not like Haruhi and Kyon though. All the three characters actually have part in 'driving the action/storyline'

XD I think I made it more complicated than it really is, eh?

Alexis said...

I don't know if there's a set way things work in novels and plays, but in film, there is almost always a single main character that drives the action of the movie. You know the main character because they make decisions that turn the action from Act I to II, and Act II to III. (there's rare cases of multiple protagonists, a la Pulp Fiction, though) Going with Star Wars, after Luke's aunt and uncle get killed, Luke decides to go with Obi-Wan. Later, Luke has to keep going after Obi-Wan dies. (the choices aren't always very active, but they're there.) So you can always tell a movie protagonist because they make the decisions that keep the story going.