Novels without protagonists
October 16, 2013 11:00 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for examples of novels without protagonists. See inside for details.

I was telling a friend my idea for a novel, and we ended up getting into a debate about what constitutes "a novel." He insisted that a work without a protagonist isn't a novel - it's fine, it's its own thing, but it's not a novel. His argument was that a chief actor who does things and feels things is necessary to the artform. I thought that was a strange stance to make, and that hardly anything constrains what we can call "a novel" other than length and some fictitious element. He disagreed and said that I'm choosing to render the word "novel" essentially meaningless, and that if I wanted to write a non-novel or anti-novel that was okay, but I shouldn't call it a novel.

Anyway, that's all interesting and I'm a bit curious on who's in the right, but more germane to Ask MeFi, I had trouble coming up with examples of novels where there is no protagonist, or no clear protagonist anyway. Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities seems to fit the bill, but there's the loose protagonist of Marco Polo narrating. David Markson (This Is Not A Novel) also has narrators hiding behind his lists of facts and such. The examples I could think of are Dictionary of the Khazars, and Oulipian techniques (Georges Perec?)

So what are some other examples? And if you're able to weigh in on this "definition of a novel" thing, feel free.
posted by naju to Writing & Language (31 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
The only long-form novel length works of fiction I'm familiar with which don't have protagonists also don't tend to have characters. Things like Dictionary of the Khazars, or, in a more genre context Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them, are written as fictionalized takes on other forms, often utilitarian things like dictionaries, encyclopedias, textbooks (a la America: The Book), etc.

I think it could be kind of cool to write, say, a fictionalized cookbook or guidebook. But I don't know that it would be considered a novel. And people who have written novel-ish takes on those forms have written Like Water For Chocolate and The Hitchhiker's Guide To The Galaxy, which have protagonists, narrative arcs, etc.

I guess my answer is that the type of book you're talking about is not commonly referred to as a novel. Novels usually have characters and plots.

One thought I had was Singular Pleasures by Harry Mathews, but I think you could see that as a collection of short stories, each with its own protagonist.
posted by Sara C. at 11:11 AM on October 16, 2013

I kind of agree with your friend. Even if the protagonist is the setting (as it often was in medical dramas, where the hospital remains the same, but the cast changes, for example,) you still need a protagonist. Otherwise, you're writing word art or thought experiments, but a novel needs a protagonist needs a conflict.
posted by headspace at 11:12 AM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: It's been years since I read it (and I need to read it again), but I think Jim Crace's Being Dead might apply here. It's the story of an older married couple who are murdered and left undiscovered, their history interwoven with what's happening to their earthly bodies in the seconds, minutes, hours, and days it takes to find them.

The husband and wife (Joseph and Celine) aren't the protagonists, as the story starts in their last moments and they have no true arc -- they just are, just were, and just have been. The murderer isn't the protagonist, just a catalyst. And their daughter is just a tangential player.

It's an unusual book & worth reading.
posted by mochapickle at 11:17 AM on October 16, 2013 [4 favorites]

Best answer: I don't think a novel needs a protagonist, and, I don't think the presence of a narrator -- or the presensce of various characters -- indicates the presence of a protagonist.

Example: James Kelman's Translated Accounts, in which it is impossible to know who is speaking when; if what is being said is a coerced confession or an actual first-hand account of events; if what is being said is faithful to what a subject said or if it is a bad translation of something a subject said. Sure, there are characters, but none of them have a fixed set of attributes (name, appearance, voice, anything).

Same with Dennis Cooper's Period.

M. M. Bakhtin says "the novel can be anything." That's a vague summary of his viewpoint -- but it's one I agree with.
posted by munyeca at 11:18 AM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

A History of the World in 10½ chapters. I suppose you could argue that many of the chapters have protagonists, but you couldn't call any of them the protagonist of the novel. You could also argue that it's not a novel, just a collection of short stories and essays, but it has a strong unity of theme and structure and is generally regarded as a novel.
posted by pont at 11:22 AM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

I mean, I guess on a semantic level, you can define "protagonist" in a huge number of ways, making the assertion that a "novel requires a protagonist" true but trivial. Like if you want to say an idea or whatever could be a protagonist.

But certainly a central character arch or journey type thing, as we normally understand 'protagonist' is not remotely necessary for a novel. Consider yes, the Oulipians (including Calvino), Goon Squad, Cloud Atlas, To The Lighthouse, Canticle for Liebowitz...I mean the list is long.
posted by Lutoslawski at 11:30 AM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: 253 by Geoff Ryman is a book-length work of fiction consisting (mostly) of descriptions of the 252 passengers on, and the driver of, a train undertaking a short journey. The descriptions aren't entirely independent of each other, as some of the characters have connections with each other, but there is certainly no character who appears on anything more than a few pages. Whether this book is a novel or not is unclear.
posted by Jabberwocky at 11:33 AM on October 16, 2013 [6 favorites]

So what are some other examples?

I haven't read very much of them, but my understanding is that the books in the Song of Ice and Fire series do not have a particular protagonist. There are multiple narrators but there is no individual around which the plot is centered.

And if you're able to weigh in on this "definition of a novel" thing, feel free.

You and your friend have different definitions of what constitutes a novel. There isn't really a hard-and-fast definition of what a novel is. Most sources can agree on this: It is a long, fictional prose narration. Even the question of what "long" means is a subjective one, though. This is something that gets puzzled over a lot. For example, I've never considered Dictionary of the Khazars a novel, but most sources do, so there you are.

I don't suppose I've ever considered a protagonist necessary to a novel's existence, but if your work has characters, a protagonist will usually emerge sooner or later, though not necessarily.

So you can call your work a novel and your friend can call it not a novel and you will both be right.
posted by FAMOUS MONSTER at 11:33 AM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

For the usage of 'protagonist' that means 'good guy' there are lots and lots of examples. But for the usage that means 'main character' I'm having trouble thinking of any.

To not have a main character (animate or inanimate) you would have to have zero characters. This seems impossible, as I feel the narrator would then be the main character.

Another way to not have a main character is to have characters but not focus on any of them.
posted by TheRedArmy at 11:37 AM on October 16, 2013

Response by poster: Hmm, I haven't read it, but World War Z doesn't have a protagonist / chief actor, right? There's a narrator but it sounds like he doesn't rise to the level of being a protagonist in the events of the novel.
posted by naju at 11:37 AM on October 16, 2013

One Hundred Years of Solitude is a mess of similarly-named characters doing similar things, with no clear protagonist in sight. (It's been nearly a decade since I read it so I might be wrong.)
posted by fix at 11:37 AM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Evolution by Stephen Baxter doesn't really have a protagonist. I think in theory evolution itself is the protagonist, but I didn't really buy that reading it. I also didn't really like the book though so I may be biased.

I agree with @fix about One Hundred Years of Solitude.
posted by OrangeDisk at 11:40 AM on October 16, 2013

If I recall correctly, A Visit from the Goon Squad (which I LOVED) is another one with overlapping stories but no one protagonist in particular.
posted by hungrybruno at 11:40 AM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Pretty sure Colonel Aureliano Buendia is meant to be the protagonist of 100 Years.
posted by Sara C. at 11:43 AM on October 16, 2013 [5 favorites]

Maybe The Virgin Suicides.
posted by gentian at 11:50 AM on October 16, 2013

Most of the counter-examples seem to be good proof of the need for the protagonist in a novel, though, since most of them are made of smaller intertwining stories, many with their own protagonists. The smaller a single story is, the less the need for a primary viewpoint character for the reader to latch onto; but there is something about the length of a story that begins to require some solidity of character, something for you to watch as a reference point as the events of the story unfold, that is less required from short fiction, thus less required from long books made of lots of woven-in short fiction. There isn't really a straight line in the evolution of the novel; it begins with multiple stories and multiple characters, experiments with single characters with multiple stories (Quixote, say), with single characters with single stories but wildly-populated subplots, and on and on. The novel we're most comfortable with even now looks like a single protagonist with a single lengthy plot, but even that is hard to hold down without some tight genre rules.
posted by mittens at 11:54 AM on October 16, 2013

I also think your friend is right.

Full Definition of NOVEL

1: an invented prose narrative that is usually long and complex and deals especially with human experience through a usually connected sequence of events

(Also, imo, some of the examples above are novels with multiple protagonists, not "none.")
posted by MoxieProxy at 12:02 PM on October 16, 2013

Best answer: Bolaño's Nazi Literature in the Americas. What is that book? Linked stories? A fake encyclopedia? A ""novel""? Definitely no protagonist, though.
posted by mattbucher at 12:03 PM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Would Virginia Woolf's The Waves count? There are named characters but it's not like they do anything (or like the book is at all enjoyable to read).
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:05 PM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris is an interesting variant. It is written in the first person plural; so the narrator is 'we': namely, everyone who works in the same fictitious office. So, the narrator is only as reliable as any typical group of co-workers: what is 'known' by 'us' is an amalgam of things we have collectively witnessed, hearsay, rumors, and wild speculation. Interesting stuff.

Now, there are individual characters who each have their own story arcs, so in many ways it still resembles a more typical novel. But the collective narrator is not quite a protagonist (or even a 'main character' to be more general about it) in the usual sense of the word. And yet, that collective 'we' does, in spite of that, seem to be a character of its own, something different from just the sum of its parts.

(I really liked this book, fwiw.)
posted by fikri at 12:05 PM on October 16, 2013

Let's leave aside the fact that the history of the novel, and the theory of the genre's definition, are subjects of endless debate among scholars who've devoted their lives to the question. Your friend's definition still doesn't make a lot of sense in another direction, one that hasn't been addressed fully in this thread — tons of the most famous and historically central novels whose existence defines the genre have more than one equally important protagonist. It's beyond clear that a work with an ensemble of central characters, of whom no one is of singular importance, is part of the genre. Tons of this kind of text will be included even by the most narrow, historically delimited, anti-modernist definitions of the genre, the ones that exclude experimentalism and semi-effaced narrator-characters whose voice rather than whose actions hold the book together.
posted by RogerB at 12:19 PM on October 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: I'm assuming we're ruling out novels that have multiple POVs instead of one central character (a la Song of Ice & Fire) and novels that have multiple contradictory narrators working at cross-purposes (a la Alasdair Gray's Poor Things or Nabokov's Pale Fire). That leaves experimental fiction in the vein of William Burroughs or Thomas Pynchon, that rarely have central characters, three dimensional characters or traditional narratives, and things like World War Z that are about events more than people or stories. It seems like there should be a lot of these, but I can't think of many off hand. Would A Canticle for Leibowitz count? None of the POV characters ever serve much beyond giving us witnesses to the book's events. I might say the same of Raymond Roussel's Locus Solus (thanks, MetaFilter!).

Doris Lessing's super-dry, slender and somehow fascinating The Making of a Representative for Planet 8 is the best thing I can think of. It has only a few named characters, no narrator beyond a "we," and is at heart about an isolated region constructing a collective social identity for itself, in order to preserve a culture and ethnicity before it disappears.

It seems like fictional histories or stuff like Dictionary of the Khazars is where you'd find these things, but taking that too far leaves behind any useful definition of "novel." Hm. This is a really good, interesting question!
posted by byanyothername at 1:33 PM on October 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: La Jalousie/Jealousy, by Alain Robbe-Grillet, takes the perspective of a jealous husband, but he never uses first-person pronouns, resulting in a novel that appears not to have a protagonist or a point unless the reader pays attention to the number of places at the table (for instance). There are only four or five characters, tops, though, so you may want something slightly different.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 1:36 PM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I thought of "The Interrogative Mood: A Novel?" by Padgett Powell. It's a series of questions. I suppose the asker is the protagonist, but it's not clear there is only one asker. Guardian interview.
posted by rainbaby at 1:38 PM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

Best answer: How about The Bridge On The Drina?
posted by bq at 1:52 PM on October 16, 2013 [1 favorite]

I may be mis-remembering because I read it in 5th grade, but how about Tolkien's, The Silmarillion?
posted by WalkerWestridge at 2:51 PM on October 16, 2013

The Hundred Brothers by Donald Antrim.

Excerpt here.
posted by alms at 6:10 PM on October 16, 2013

This might be toeing the line, but I think Selah Saterstrom's The Pink Institution definitely experiments with the traditional idea of a novel. While it does follow the story of several generations of women from a supremely fucked up family, we (the readers) are not meant to identify with any of them. The POV moves between 3rd, 2nd, and 1st person. Photographs, lists, and fragments of other books all intertwine with the narrative which shifts between prose and poetry.
posted by book 'em dano at 1:09 PM on October 17, 2013

Best answer: New York: a Novel.

Depending on how you feel about Johnny Truant's meta-narration, arguably House of Leaves. It's Truant commenting on Zampano's manuscript (and his deteriorating life), while above/inside, Zampano writes about the Navidson family; and inside that, is the creation of the Navidson Record, a film in which Navidson is the protagonist (or at least the POV), but the film (and Navidson) don't really exist (perhaps not even within the world of House of Leaves). So that's why everything hinges on how you perceive Truant, especially given how often his personal life is discussed. But even he seems to see himself as secondary.

Unfortunately, the WWZ link--epistolary novels--is mostly a dead end. A lot of them are named for their protagonist (Clarissa, Pamela, Young Werther) or have a clear protagonist (Dracula is named for Seward's antagonist). Even the one takes place on 9/11 (eleven) is "set" in one person's e-mail inbox.

An unusual example of conflicting narrators that actually might count is An Instance of the Fingerpost. Many narrators, all conflicting--but more importantly, frequently denying that the other narrators are at all important to the story (unlike, say, Poor Things, where they at least admit that they were important to each other). The postscript after the final narrator tries to, I think, emphasize this point. I may be overthinking this out of love for this book.
posted by flibbertigibbet at 7:45 AM on October 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities has two characters, Kublai Khan and Marco Polo, neither of which I'd characterize as a protagonist. The vast majority of the book consists of descriptions of 55 cities.
posted by chocolatepeanutbuttercup at 10:05 AM on October 18, 2013

Coming back to this way late, but in reading a little snippet by Borges on citing and discussing imaginary works, he mentions Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus, a satirical work criticizing an invented German transcendentalist's book Clothes, Their Origin and Influence, as an inspiration. There is a central character (Diogenes Teufelsdröckh, the fictional author of the fictional Clothes), but the book itself is a long review of a particular (fictional) work and the overall life and output of its (fictional) author. So.

It seemed to belong here.
posted by byanyothername at 3:11 PM on October 23, 2013 [1 favorite]

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