Thursday, June 12, 2014

Protagonist Bait and Switch

How do you feel about a book that starts by immersing the reader in the viewpoint of a sympathetic character who looks as if he or she might be the protagonist—and then killing the character at the end of the first scene? This device happens often enough in horror and thriller novels that maybe a reader should be prepared for the shock. Stephen King does it in his new novel, MR. MERCEDES. The first scene introduces a throng of unemployed people waiting in line for a job fair to open. A stolen Mercedes plows into the crowd, killing (among others) the viewpoint character we’ve quickly come to sympathize with. No spoilers here, the cover blurb reveals all this information (which serves as backstory for the main plot, set over a year later). So the character’s death didn’t outrage me, because I expected it. And of course King wants the reader to feel sorry for these victims, so we’ll root all the more enthusiastically for the hero to catch the perp in the body of the novel.

But what about similar opening incidents where the reader doesn’t have advance warning? When an author uses this device, do you ever feel cheated or unfairly manipulated? I’ve read novels in which the set-up for the introductory viewpoint character’s death (a reviewer for the Innsmouth Free Press website calls this kind of person on a TV show “Doomed Teaser Guy”) extends for so many pages that the reader really can plausibly think he’s going to be the protagonist. Or sometimes a similar character in the first scene doesn’t die but just turns out to be a minor player or not even a participant in the main story at all. In such cases, I often feel annoyed at the author for getting me emotionally involved with one character, then forcing me to switch mental gears and make a fresh emotional investment in someone entirely different. It’s like starting the book twice.

And what about books or series with ensemble casts, where we’re expected to shift our attention and emotional involvement among several characters of equal importance? With even three or four of them, it’s sometimes hard to get re-immersed in a different character’s thread. If there are many more than that—well, I’m thinking of George R. R. Martin’s “Song of Ice and Fire” series. As monumental an achievement as that epic saga is, I, personally, would find it even more enthralling if it had a clear protagonist. I freely admit that after the first book I started skimming the chapters written from the viewpoints of characters who interested me less than others.

A clear ensemble-cast story, of course, is a different matter from an opening-scene bait-and-switch. However, both can present a similar risk of losing the reader by forcing him or her to shift mental and emotional gears.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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