Ensemble Voices

A novel told through a wide assortment of characters allows the author greater scope to explore where the novel’s plot lines take him. Yet invariably I as a reader end up feeling less involved with the proceedings. I just can’t put my emotional stock in so many characters. To clarify, I am discussing a continuous narrative, not broken into Roshomon-like parts wherein each character discusses the same events from different points of view. 

I will point out several basic problems with the ensemble approach. First and foremost, it virtually guarantees that the story will be slighter in impact. How could it not? As a reader, rather than immersing yourself in one point of view, allowing that person to take over your own thought processes, you are jumping from one person’s head to another. I can make that switch with maybe one or two other characters, but even then I’m hoping that the protagonist will govern most of the scenes. Like any reader, I form a loyalty to the person who dominates the proceedings.

Second, an ensemble cast demands strong plotting. If character and plot are regarded as two ends on a balance scale, the more you feed into one, the less will be allotted for the other. If you are using a variety of characters to tell a story, that means that you are paying more attention to plot. The reader won’t delve as deeply into the characters, so the concomitant result is that more plot events are needed to entertain us. 

Third, setting up an ensemble cast will likely confuse readers during the opening segment of the book. We are looking for a story thread to follow, and if we keep on meeting new people, that thread is obscured by all the bustling about. Once a reader feels her emotions are being pulled in too many directions, she may put the book down.

The inherent emotional slightness of a tale told by an ensemble cast needs to be factored into your calculations when devising the initial outline. You need compelling plot events that consume your multiple characters. Further, you should avoid assigning really good material to a character the reader doesn't know well enough to care about. Otherwise, the book may be relegated to the label: busy but not good.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with a single character’s name in your global search window. Find which scenes he inhabits and write down what he does in a list of single-sentence entries. If he governs any scenes early on, the reader is given a signal to regard him as more important. Yet what happens to him later? If he is crowded aside by later developments to other characters, haven’t you left the reader hanging? Why did they spend so much time with that guy if he’s just going to drop out of the book?


Challenged from Without

The first-person observer voice seems like a wonderful choice for many writers first starting off. Writing in the I-voice allows instant access inside the narrator’s mind. The position of observer is a natural one for souls more given to reflection than argument. It seems like an ideal marriage of strengths.

Of the three main narrative voices (also first-person active and omniscient), this one is the most difficult to master. The implication is that the author need only find an interesting story, populated with colorful characters, to observe. The author adds in a heady brew of personal opinions, giving the narrative an individual flavor, and out comes a distinctive goulash.

Along the way, though, the narrator’s comfort in his armchair may become readily apparent. The font of witty opinions, expressing such a pointed view of the world, may be reduced to repetition after a while. Worse, the constant barrage may start to resemble nattering about a world that has become depressingly familiar. The parade of events and characters continues to be entertaining. So why do I feel the onset of ennui?

An impeccable novel, The Door by Hungarian writer Magda Szab√≥, provides an illuminating answer. Briefly, the story features Emerence, a cantankerous old maid, hired by a younger woman writer. The maid rips into the writer’s comfortable bourgeois lifestyle, continually levying pronouncements on what is just. You would think that the relationship of a woman and her maid is not exactly riveting material, but in fact it is the very relationship that makes all the difference.

That’s because the world being observed is relentlessly impinging on the comfort of the observer. The positions of mistress and maid are turned upside down. The observer is outraged, humiliated, baffled by turns. That armchair? The dog has already gnawed off one of its lion feet, and the seat is leaning precariously. There is no question who is driving the tension of the novel: it’s Emerence. Yet the observer remains interesting to the reader because her opinions have become deeply colored by the action.

Even better, the observer continues to not only probe the secrets of Emerence, but to evolve herself. This master-servant clash pits two people, with their panoply of emotions, on a collision course. Of course I want to keep reading. I want to stay inside the lives of these two women as they become inextricably bound. 

Exercise: When you are selecting the characters who will be observed, see if at least one of them can develop an intimate hold over the narrator. The more that character challenges the narrator, the more likely that the witty opinions will achieve a satisfying depth over the course of the book. As in any character arc, familiarity can breed knowledge of the human condition.


I Am Ordinary

Coupled with the need for interesting events in a first-person narration is the never-changing imperative of inhabiting an interesting protagonist. The reason the first-person narrative voice is so hard to do well is because the main character is not you. You can go ahead and tell us about your partners in your office suite, and what time each gets into work in the morning, but you should be prepared for the unsettling reality that your book may grow lonely on Amazon. Nobody cares about ordinary life. That’s why we pick up books, to escape our boring lives.

The same imperatives that govern the other narrative voices go double for the first-person. You need to exaggerate your characters, the situations they find themselves in, their reactions to plot turns. The extreme draws our interest, because we want to put ourselves in circumstances we would never dare navigate in real life.

As the first-person narrator, that means you have to write hyper from the inside out. The casual remark dropped to the reader might very well be deranged. You need to explain how you entered the apartment of a virtual stranger and found yourself smoking weed at eleven o’clock in the morning, as in Jonathan Lethem’s Chronic City. Your main character may be notable precisely because she never seems to show up at her job. She’s too busy telling you about all the peculiar things that are happening to her. She doesn’t talk about gay people: she meets one dolled up in studs who is beating the crap out of a street preacher.

That’s the type of person you need to inhabit, and that’s hard work. You have to really stretch yourself to fill out, by way of analogy, your Macy’s parade balloon-sized character. Not just an underdog, but Underdog. Go all the way outside yourself. That way you can bring to us a tale that seems so familiar, it’s written in the first-person.

Exercise: Review your manuscript and be honest with yourself. Have you read this sort of material before? Do you find yourself yawning a little at that political commentary because you’ve heard it before on a TV news station? Instead, why don’t you let your character spike up his hair, add some blue? Now, take that guy out for a stroll.

Copyright © 2020 John Paine. All rights reserved.