Narrative at group rates

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.

What ensemble stories do you really love? I’m always on the lookout for recommendations. Especially in novels, since right now I have time to read some (for the first time in a while), and I’m plowing through them like an alcoholic falling off the wagon.

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  1. 1. Stephanie Burgis

    Have you read any Jennifer Crusie novels? They’re romances (and comedies) but very much ensemble pieces – she has huge and very active casts. _Bet Me_ would be a great one to start with, if you’ve never read any of her books before.

  2. 2. Marie Brennan

    I haven’t read any Jennifer Crusie, no. Hers are mostly contemporaries, right? Most of the romance I’ve read has been historical or paranormal.

  3. 3. Mike Barker

    Have you tried the Liaden Universe (r) by Sharon Lee and Steve Miller? If you’re interested in romance, start with Local Custom and Scout’s Progress, maybe, but you’ll also enjoy the Agent of Change arc (starts with Agent of Change… and goes on for a while).

  4. 4. Rachel Green

    Pratchett. Ever book’s anensemble of characters. Kate Atkinson, because you anticipate all the threads joining up.

  5. 5. NewGuyDave

    I think that’s why I loved David Edding’s Belgariad and Malorean so much. The story is about that wonderful group of characters as much as it is about Garian vs Torak and the clash of the prophecy of light and dark. There are times when each of the characters is more in the forefront as they offer their assistance to the light side of the prophecy, but they also function wonderfully as a group. Polgara the motherly aunt, admonishing her father, Belgarath the eternal one, is hilarious. Belgarath getting into trouble with Silk still cracks me up after three reads.

    BTW, loving your stories in BCS. I’ve been listening to them on the audio podcasts.

  6. 6. Ensemblista

    For the screen, Firefly immediately comes to mind, which so much of an ensemble story that IMNSHO there really is no central character.

    For novels, the things I liked most were R.Scott Bakkers “Prince of Nothing”, and Joe Abercrombies “Last Argumant of Kings”. Both of these are trilogies, and both are rather gritty (almost to the point of unpleasantness at times). They both have a strong center ensemble and different people will tell you that different members of that ensemble are the main character.

    And then there’s Steven Erikson of course, his “Malazan Book of the Fallen” has a huge ensemble, probably something around 50 *main* characters, which can be pretty overwhelming, but they’re all fully realised “people” with motivations, history, preferences and choices.

  7. 7. Elias McClellan

    Ms. Brennan, this was an excellent post/point. Nuggets of candy like this is why I haunt this site and pester most of you. I think the reason many book series loose readers is they are build brick by brick on the back of one, (center-of-the-universe) protag.

    My favorite authors in any genre are the ones that bring a deep backfield (sports analogy to break things up). Walter Mosley, Karen Traviss, and Jacqueline Carey are authors I cannot recommend highly enough. They bring a wealth of side streets and back alleys.

  8. 8. Marie Brennan

    Mike — the Liaden books have been on my to-read list for a while; thanks for the specific recs of titles. (It can be hard, with a series like that, to know where one should start reading.)

    Rachel — I’m on a kick right now of finally getting through a lot of Discworld stuff. Atkinson I’m not familiar with; what title(s)?

    Dave — yes! Those series are among my childhood loves, and largely for the random interactions between the characters. Their sense of humor is a lot like mine. :-) Had I not enjoyed spending time in their company, I would have gotten bored with the story very quickly, as they rode across every single bit of the map. (Also, glad you’ve enjoyed my stories!)

    Ensemblista — I almost mentioned Firefly in the post, but it didn’t really fit into the flow. Because that one’s TV, they can do a lot just by including somebody in the frame; Jayne kneeling on the walkway outside the infirmary, watching through the window, after Kaylee gets shot is a fine example of how a brief image can suggest a lot about the characters. Erikson I’ve been meaning to try; haven’t had the time yet, though, since it’s such a long series.

    Elias — “a deep backfield” is a good phrase, too. It really helps create a sense of reality; named characters aren’t limited to a tiny handful of people with direct influence on the plot, but expand outward to convey a real society. I mean, think about how many people you know the names of and deal with on a regular basis. For all but the true hermits, the list is quite long.

  9. 9. Elias McClellan

    You’re right, even us true hermits– and JP Sartre admirers– deal with LOTS and LOTS of peeps, voluntarily or otherwise.

    And I love Parker’s old line, “nobody is one thing.”

    It inspires one to write every character with a sense of them moving beyond the sphere of their association with the protag. Especially female romantic interests and characters that are ethnically ‘other’ than the protag. Too often, (as you’re no-doubt familiar) non-protag women and minorities are rendered in underwhelming 2D.

    Sadly, aware as he was, Parker occasionally fell into this trap himself.

  10. 10. Kat

    Elfquest! I almost could finish reading because I was so busy squeeing over the fact that someone else out there knows and loves EQ :)
    One thing I hear a lot from authors is that they started writing because they couldn’t find the book/concept/characters they wanted in existing books. Once I sat down to think about it, it dawned on me that all my stories feature an ensemble cast. I’m definitely a big fan of ensembles, but I can’t think of many I’ve read (other than my WIPs) that fit the bill.
    Changer by Jane Lindskold comes to mind. Also Getting Mother’s Body by Suzan-Lori Parks. Oh, and the Harry Potter novels.

  11. 11. Marie Brennan

    Elias — part of what sparked the above was this post on LJ, which in its latter half talks about how toxic it can get when everybody else in the story is constructed as a device to further the protagonist’s personal development or angst. Given that so many protagonists are white men, yeah, it’s women and minorities who get underdeveloped and even thrown under the bus for somebody else’s narrative sake.

    Kat — EQ is a wonderful series. Really, really gorgeous, on so many levels.

    I actually would have liked the HP books to pay a lot more attention to the secondary characters. The moments when it did so were great; I’m a big fan, for example, of Neville’s growth over time. But if Ron and Hermione had gotten point of view from time to time, I think it would have enriched the story in a really meaningful way.

  12. 12. Elaine T

    Ensemble books…. the title of one that I put down and said “it’s ensemble, not protaganist centered” escapes me , but P. McKillip’s later works tend to be ensemble focused. _In the Forests of Sere_ frex, or her very latest, _Bard of Bone Plain_. Everyone seems to have a journey in the narrative, it’s not just a protaganist’s story.

    Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles and MacBeth singleton. I know others who think the other series is very ensemblish. Mileage varies – *I* think she lost her grip in the last half of the series.

    GG Kay tends to write ensembles, and even throws in a complete life story of minor characters just in a few paragraphs. I like it, not everyone does.

    I’m fond of Valerie Anand’s trilogy of Saxon/Norman England which starts with _Gildenford_. Lots of characters growing and changing in it, from the Saxon warrior Brand, his sister who didn’t want to be a nun, to Godwin’s sons and their loves (see the sister above), William the Conqueror…

    I recently read an early Patricia Briggs duo, _Raven’s Shadow_ and _Raven’s Strike_, that feature a good assortment of characters with their own stories. Or maybe I like it because a lot of it is centered on a family that is actually emotionally healthy for the most part. There isn’t a lot of that in fiction.

    Second the recommendation for Lee and Miller. I started with the Agent of Change sequence. The Scout’s Progress and Local Custom lines are more romance-y and I find them less interesting as well as less broad in characters.

    And, of course, your own Onyx Court.

  13. 13. N. K. Jemisin

    Yay, another EQ fan! And great post — I love ensemble stories for the same reason. (But, um, it was Treestump, not Strongbow.)

  14. 14. Marie Brennan

    Elaine — that’s part of what redeems Lymond from complete Gary Stu-dom; the other characters in that story matter. A lot. And so do their relationships with each other. If the narrative universe completely revolved around Lymond, he would be insufferable.

    Nora — Actually, the bit I’m thinking of is later, in Kings of the Broken Wheel, when Clearbrook and Strongbow go into the palace, and together let go of their trauma with One-Eye and Kureel, respectively. (Though Clearbrook and Treestump coming together is also really good.)

  15. 15. Lee Holum

    “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.”

    I completely agree with you. I can’t bear to read books that have that framework!

  16. 16. Satima Flavell

    You have a gift for this yourself, Marie. Your re-peopling of British folklore is a lovely study in character interaction.

    And, of course, GRRM is brilliant. The continual interplay among the characters in A Song of Ice and Fire and their reactions to the ebb and flow of events are utterly masterful. I’m sure these elements account to a large degree for the series’s popularity.

  17. 17. Marie Brennan

    Satima — awww, thanks! (I guess it’s kind of obvious, looking at my own work, that I like a moderately broad cast.)

Author Information

Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is the author of more than forty short stories and seven novels, the most recent of which is the urban fantasy Lies and Prophecy. Visit site.



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