Several characters in search of a plot
November 14, 2013 10:10 AM   Subscribe

I'm looking for an example novel(s) that features several separate third person viewpoint characters with seemingly different plot strands at the beginning but whose plots converge as they go on and they end up meeting further on in the novel (if only briefly). I want to see how the author handles these meetings and the meta narrative of several stories merging into one. I would prefer mainstream rather than literary as I'd like to seem something straight forward rather than overly tricky and would prefer sf but please don't let that constrict you as I'm more interested in the mechanics rather than the background and any genre would do.
posted by fearfulsymmetry to Media & Arts (50 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
The first book that comes to mind is Ghostwritten by David Mitchell, though the structure is not exactly as you described. Each story is told separately, and links appear and compound as more stories are told.

ETA: And each story is told by a first-person narrator, so perhaps not a useful suggestion after all.
posted by esoterrica at 10:16 AM on November 14, 2013

Pandora's Star and Judas Unchained by Peter Hamilton
The Void Trilogy does this as well, but to a lesser extent.
posted by defcom1 at 10:18 AM on November 14, 2013

Kate Elliot's Crown of Stars series, which follows 4ish major viewpoint characters and several minor ones across seven books, with all the plot lines converging at the end (some converge before then, and some converge and diverge again). To be honest I found it rather tiresome, like I was reading a textbook about the French Revolution rather than a novel, but it's a pretty epic feat in a well-realized world with realistic political goings-on.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 10:20 AM on November 14, 2013

Douglas Coupland has done this in varying arrangements. I'd suggest Miss Wyoming and Generation A as the most representative of your request.

For SF, I find Connie Willis and Kage Baker frequently do this as well. Kage Baker is best read in her entirety, and the first couple of books appear as stand-alone novels, but later in the series it turns into a glorious mess of different people and plotlines merging and separating over centuries of time (the same characters, I should add, as they're cyborgs).

You could also think of this as a more general form of the trope Working The Same Case, in case that's helpful as a way to think about it.
posted by pie ninja at 10:20 AM on November 14, 2013

If I'm understanding your question correctly, MOST of Louise Erdrich's books do this. Tracks, Love Medicine, The Master Butchers Singing Club, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse - all have multiple third person viewpoints.
posted by peep at 10:20 AM on November 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 10:22 AM on November 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

Cat's Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut doesn't bring everyone together until the denouement in the final pages.
posted by Devils Rancher at 10:22 AM on November 14, 2013

A Song of Ice and Fire (aka "Game of Thrones") utilizes this across each novel, with a different set of "Point of View" characters in each.
posted by mkultra at 10:23 AM on November 14, 2013 [3 favorites]

Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon
posted by mochapickle at 10:23 AM on November 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Cryptonomicon basically does this (it's long) as does William Gibson's Zero History (I honestly cant' remember if the earlier books in the trilogy do that as well)
posted by jessamyn at 10:23 AM on November 14, 2013

Guy Gavriel Kay does this a bunch.
posted by Comrade_robot at 10:33 AM on November 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Obviously, Marathon Man (by William Goldman).
posted by Mr. Justice at 10:38 AM on November 14, 2013

Most William Gibson books are like that, if I remember correctly. For example, the Wikipedia page for Count Zero describes the three plot threads.
posted by kidbritish at 10:47 AM on November 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Not SF, but A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.
posted by hungrybruno at 10:49 AM on November 14, 2013

Iain Banks's Walking On Glass does this very well. It's not as sci-fi as his Iain M Banks books, but it does has sci-fi components for sure.
posted by cincinnatus c at 10:51 AM on November 14, 2013

Much of Richard Powers writing does this, notably

Three Farmers On Their Way to a Dance (one of my favorite books of all time)


Plowing the Dark -- I think this is a good one to start with. In it, you have a couple of different plot threads that come together somewhat surprisingly -- computer technicians creating virtual reality and an American held hostage in the middle east.
posted by janey47 at 11:03 AM on November 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

By "I would prefer mainstream rather than literary," do you mean necessarily something that's been written recently? Would you consider a book that was a popular, mainstream novel when it was published 100 years ago, with no pretensions of being high literature?
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:04 AM on November 14, 2013

Tim Dorsey's books, starring Serge A. Storms, does this. Specifically, IIRC, Hammerhead Ranch Hotel, but I think a lot of them do this. (Fun reads, too!)
posted by China Grover at 11:05 AM on November 14, 2013

I just finished reading Nikolski by Nicolas Dickner last night, which does a nice job of this. Not sci-fi, but I highly recommend it.
posted by fimbulvetr at 11:16 AM on November 14, 2013

Dean Koontz's Strangers is basically the definition of this.
posted by celtalitha at 11:38 AM on November 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

SF: Ian McDonald does this very well in River of Gods and The Dervish House.
posted by creepygirl at 11:41 AM on November 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
posted by alphanerd at 11:55 AM on November 14, 2013

It's been so many years since I read it that I don't remember the (complex) details of narrative voice, yet I did expect it to be the first answer: The Bridge of San Luis Rey.
posted by jamjam at 11:57 AM on November 14, 2013

Seconding Connie Willis, specifically Blackout and All Clear.
posted by MeghanC at 11:57 AM on November 14, 2013

I recommend this all the time for various reasons, but Donald Ray Pollock's The Devil All The Time does just this (not sci-fi, kind of modern literary gothic/horror).
posted by jabes at 12:26 PM on November 14, 2013

It might be worth taking a look at World War Z by Max Brooks. It's not a perfect example of what you're looking for, but the conceit is a series of interviews with different people; as you read through it, you end up getting "touchpoints" where one character contextualizes the story provided by another. However, the characters generally don't meet each other and there isn't really a unifying event in which they participate together. The mechanics of it are well executed, but it's a looser configuration than you seem to be looking for.
posted by athenasbanquet at 12:40 PM on November 14, 2013

Are you looking for novels where the characters converge near the end, or are novels where their plots overlap for periods of time, then diverge again ok?

If the latter is ok:

George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series does this well, I think. Lots of far-flung characters who meet briefly or come together over longer periods of time.

In general, historical epics do this a lot. Ken Follet's epics always do this. Pillars of the Earth brings a bunch of different medieval English characters together. Fall of Giants (and, to a lesser extent, the sequel Winter of the World) follow characters in wildly different situations and geographical locations, who somehow manage to cross paths.

My favorite for this, however, is Gone to Soldiers is a great novel about WWII that follows 10 very different characters from the US and Europe as they experience the war. She manages to bring them together in a way that feels organic and satisfying, as opposed to forced. She has a few contemporary (well, from the 70s and 80s) novels that do the same thing, but the names are escaping me now.
posted by lunasol at 12:55 PM on November 14, 2013

Thanks for all these... I'll check them out in more detail in due course

I'll add that I've read Game Of Thrones earlier this year and it's not quite the thing I'm after... possibly it's the fact there's too many viewpoints etc there.

I also re-read Walking on Glass earlier this year too and whilst the three plots do kind of touch on each other the main characters don't really fully interact with each others.

I did have vague memories that Count Zero did this but it's years since I read it so wasn't sure. Gives me an excuse to finally get around to re-reading the Sprawl Trilogy

Asked some friends this and one said River of Gods so I'll def look at that one in more detail
posted by fearfulsymmetry at 1:31 PM on November 14, 2013

If you're open to graphic novels, American Born Chinese by Gene Yang does this. His more recent Boxers and Saints books also do this. (As a bonus, they're also all excellent, and quick reads.)
posted by johnofjack at 1:41 PM on November 14, 2013 [2 favorites]

Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon

I came in here to post this, it's exactly what you're looking for.

Jo Nesbo's The Redbreast also does this, using a separate third person narrative to the main mystery in order to slowly reveal information about the killer.
posted by codacorolla at 1:48 PM on November 14, 2013

Also, it's "literary", but As I Lay Dying is a masterful example, where a family of misfits experiences the same set of events concurrently in their own chapters narrated in distinctive voices. Something happens in a Jewel chapter, and Darl sees it a second conflicting way in the next.

Gone Girl, though I've not read it personally, uses this conceit to tell two sides of a husband/wife murder mystery. It's also insanely popular right now, and has a film in the works.

Haruki Murakami's Hardboiled Wondeland and the End of the World is a Sci-Fi novel that takes two seemingly unrelated narratives (crime and fantasy), and ties them together.

The Prestige (what the film was based on) does this through letters and diary entries of multiple characters across multiple timelines.
posted by codacorolla at 2:04 PM on November 14, 2013

Not SF, but "Bonfire of the Vanities" by Tom Wolfe does this throughout the whole book. One of the first chapters is told in the third person but from the viewpoint of a mayor at a televised speech which is then viewed and remarked upon from the viewpoint of several other characters.
posted by permiechickie at 2:20 PM on November 14, 2013

Let the Great World Spin
posted by Lutoslawski at 2:29 PM on November 14, 2013

White Teeth
posted by Lutoslawski at 2:29 PM on November 14, 2013

Alex Garland's "The Tesseract" is basically all about this.
posted by pompomtom at 2:30 PM on November 14, 2013

A book I read recently immediately comes to mind; for the early part of the story, I was honestly wondering how on earth the author was going to convincingly tie the seemingly arbitrary, totally different threads. I'd never heard of the author previously, but a random blurb caught my eye and made me curious, and it was a pretty good book. Liane Moriarty - The Husband's Secret
posted by stormyteal at 3:29 PM on November 14, 2013

The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber
posted by milk white peacock at 3:56 PM on November 14, 2013

Hour of the Cat by Peter Quinn.

Bonfire of the Vanities, of course

Bunches of Dickens.
posted by IndigoJones at 5:00 PM on November 14, 2013

Oscar and Lucinda by Peter Carey does this. The book follows their lives separately (in, I think, alternate chapters, though I may be misremembering) and they don't even meet each other until about two hundred pages in (to a five hundred or so page novel).
posted by EXISTENZ IS PAUSED at 5:27 PM on November 14, 2013

It's, er, not the best of fiction, but Winds of Fate by Mercedes Lackey does this. She has two characters in wildly different places with alternating chapters and you assume they will meet eventually, but take their time with it (to the best of my recollection).
posted by Margalo Epps at 6:19 PM on November 14, 2013

Falling for Johnny by Alison McLennan. It's more of a crime or mystery novel, but it's really good.
posted by TooFewShoes at 6:23 PM on November 14, 2013

It may not be exactly what you had in mind, but I think The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing fits your criteria. The multiple characters in that book are different reflections of a single personality which are ultimately integrated in the final chapters. A truly excellent book, both as a novel and as an historical and cultural time capsule from the 1950s.
posted by alms at 6:37 PM on November 14, 2013 [1 favorite]

Stephen King's The Stand.
posted by NoraCharles at 7:26 PM on November 14, 2013

Several mystery novels I've read by Kate Atkinson do this. Case Histories, One Good Turn, and When Will There Be Good News? are examples. These are definitely mainstream and not literary.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 7:57 PM on November 14, 2013

Zendegi by Greg Egan does this.
posted by Gorgik at 9:57 PM on November 14, 2013

Earth by David Brin.
posted by sigmagalator at 11:07 PM on November 14, 2013

Definitely not high literature but the second book in the The Clan of the Cave Bear series, "The Valley of Horses,' is a good example of this (plus you get to hear all about Jondalar's enormous member!)
posted by h00py at 4:23 AM on November 15, 2013

An Instance of the Fingerpost is more historical, is very readable and combines four versions of the same events from different viewpoints - the sort of metanarrative you mentioned.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 5:15 AM on November 15, 2013

Seconding An Instance of the Fingerpost. It really is an excellent book with each strand very well developed.
posted by apcmwh at 6:14 AM on November 15, 2013

Middlemarch is one of the greatest novels ever written, and it "features several separate third person viewpoint characters with seemingly different plot strands at the beginning but whose plots converge as they go on and they end up meeting further on in the novel (if only briefly)". It's a book about a small town in 1830, and follows a dozen or so characters through two years of their lives. These lives intersect in various ways, but not as part of a grand master-narrative. What you get is a whole bunch of the kind of different interactions that you would get when a bunch of people in a small town are all trying to pursue their own goals while living amongst each other. It's not at all 'literary' in the tricky sense but is quite old so the prose *might* seem a little dusty at first if it's not the sort of thing you're used to reading.

If you're writing fiction yourself (which is what I'm inferring from your question's reference to 'the mechanics') then you absolutely must read this book. Very few novels better convey every individual's humanity, and more charitably explore how they bump up against each other while showing how all humans are caught in the tide of history. In fact, very few novels do *anything* better than this one does. It's crazily good.

And hey, it's free on Gutenberg: Middlemarch by George Eliot
posted by Cantdosleepy at 7:33 AM on November 15, 2013

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