Looking for a tag for books with many protagonists


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Looking for a tag for books with many protagonists

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ag. 29, 2007, 7:25pm

Hi there. I'm having trouble coming up with a tag for books that do the "game of thrones thing", where there is a large collection of characters and the narration switches between them fairly rapidly, devoting anything from a couple of paragraphs to a full chapter to each, and still maintaining a fairly consistent timeline.

I referenced Game of thrones because it's a well-known work, but I actually want the tag for The Wanderer by Fritz Leiber, which is a book from 1964 that somehow made it onto my list of all-time favorites. This storytelling trick is its most striking feature, since it follows the experiences of a number of groups of people that are all connected by the unfolding of a worldwide disaster. The author helps us out by starting the first sentence of each new section with the name of a major character in that group.

I'd like to keep track of what other books do this, and whether it works for them. Hence the tag. But I can't figure out what to call it. I considered "many protagonists" but that doesn't imply the viewpoint-switching that I'm interested in.

Please help!

ag. 29, 2007, 7:31pm

I'm reading the A Song of Ice and Fire series now, and the first phrase that comes to mind is "PoV switch".

ag. 29, 2007, 7:58pm

Or "multiple PoV"?

...actually, I really like that. I've got a bunch of works for which I could use this tag; I might have to steal it. :)

ag. 29, 2007, 10:27pm

I've used "multiple narrators", but like multiple POV too, except that it implies switching between first/second/third person. "ensemble" would be a good tag to use for the many character aspect... maybe "ensemble POV"?

ag. 29, 2007, 10:54pm

I tried to get a tag idea for you by looking for such a description in reviews for Craig Ferguson's novel Between the Bridge and the River, a character-driven book I read that was a coherent story comprised of separate yet interconnected journeys of different characters, but seems others are having describing such a book, too.

ag. 29, 2007, 1:58am

I think "polyphonic" is the snooty literary term for novels that switch between the perspectives of a number of characters.

ag. 29, 2007, 3:13am

I use "multiple narrators" when the story does this by jumping among multiple first-person narrators. I was looking for an analogous tag myself for the situation when there is a third-person narrator jumping among different protagonists and I'm glad fannyprice mentioned "polyphonic" because this is exactly what I needed. I am trying to decide now whether my polyphonic tag will encompass my multiple narrators tag...I think logically it should.

ag. 30, 2007, 9:09am

The next related question is of course how many characters are required in order to use this tag? Two? more than two? five? are there really books with five or more PoVs?

I like the idea, not something I'd considered tagging before. I'd probably go for multiple PoV but polyphonic works too.

ag. 30, 2007, 9:53am

#8: The Wanderer has about a dozen :) I even counted nine in one chapter. The number of threads goes up as groups split up, then down as some of them recombine -- or die in the disaster.

(I realize that I think of them as "story threads". Unfortunately the word "thread" is heavily associated with "plot thread", which is not what I mean here.)

I was leafing through A game of thrones in order to count them, and realized that its technique is slightly different: it dedicates a chapter to one character, then the next chapter to another, etc. The term "point of view" is actually more appropriate here, because each chapter presents that character's internal monologue along with the action. The Wanderer remains an impartial narrative that describes what the characters say and do, it just looks over different shoulders. With the exception of one specific thread, actually. Now I realize why I thought of that thread as the book's "main story" :)

Another book which does a similar thing is The reality dysfunction by Peter Hamilton. It differs from the other two in that it seems to actually tell a number of different stories, and the stories occasionally intersect. Like the others, it uses the unfolding of a large-scale disaster to tie the timelines together.

The drawback that all of them share is that if the reader takes a particular interest in one of the story threads, then all the others become boring by comparison and tempting to skip. This effect was particularly bad in A feast for crows, where I was tempted to skip nearly all of it, and only found out in the afterword that the author had deliberately deferred half of the story threads (including all of my favorites) to the next book.

To answer the specific question, I think having just two viewpoints isn't enough to be in this category. A book that intertwines two viewpoints would emphasize the contrast between them, which seems a different storytelling technique. I actually know a book like that -- Changeling by Zelazny is about a war between two brothers, told from both their points of view. It shows different interpretations of the same events, rather than different aspects of a worldwide event.