Papa Nature's picture
Papa Nature August 14, 2016 - 6:14am

My wife posited an interesting question to me this morning. She wants to write a novel where the storyline is the subject. Something to the effect of, "I am going to tell you a story, but, I am the story and I am telling you the story." but it is all situational and there is no protagonist or antagonist, just charactors to provide examples of what is trying to be expressed. No one is clearly right, no one is clearly wrong. After much discussion, I told her that if it uses stories but none of the charactors are central to the theme of the book, it really isn't a novel, but rather a self-help or instructional book. She still feels like she can write a tome that isn't structured as a self-help story or something to that end, but rather she wants it to be a story that in the end helps people. Does that make sense to you? I am not sure if it is possible to write such a thing, or whether it has been done before and I am just not aware of the existence of this type of writing. So, my questions are, is this in the end just a self-help book? Has something like this been done in novel form? And, if it is possible, how would you classify it?

Thanks for your help,


jyh's picture
jyh from VA is reading whatever he feels like August 14, 2016 - 8:56am

Does that make sense to you?

No, sorry, it doesn't.

bethwenn's picture
bethwenn from Milwaukee is reading The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann August 14, 2016 - 9:57am

Sounds like complex literature. If it has one theme (one sort of over-arching conflict that unifies it), and the presentation of the characters is working towards the goal of developing/communicating that one theme or central message, I'd say it's possible. It sounds very complicated though. It would be hard to use characters as a vehicle for a story without the reader identifying some of them as central to the story. I feel like you'd need to gradually phase them all out, and not bring them back or have their stories meet any sort of resolution. Even then, if the characters are all changing but the setting remains static, readers might see the story as about the location, so it's possible that you'd have to change that as well. If it's not done right, readers might just see it as a collection of stories. I would have to know more about the plot, the structure of it, and what it is that she wants to express with it. Hypothetically speaking, it sounds possible. I'm not sure how it would turn into a self-help book if it's prose fiction.

T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland could be one example of something similar. It's one poem, but its sections have different characters, different locations, different languages, different imagery and symbols. It's nothing if not disjointed.

edit: Right now, I'm reading The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. It's cohesive and definitely about the Devil and Russia, but it's difficult to identify any character as the protagonist. There are main characters, but I don't think there's a protagonist. A lot of the main characters also keep dying or falling out of the story in other unpleasant ways. It's certainly possible to write cohesively without a protagonist. Not sure about not having any central characters at all though.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal August 14, 2016 - 9:43am

It sounds like she's going for a game of thrones type thing and doesn't realize it... or... has an idea that won't pan out well for fiction because fiction needs conflict for it not to suck. Literally, "needs."

Actually, this reminds me of the worst textbook I ever, ever, EVER saw. It was for some programming class I dropped... and it was a number of paragraphs (page and a half of very large pages) about some asshole getting on his bike... something about expecting rain, I don't remember... going to his friends house... absolutely dreadful shit (made Sarah Plain and Tall seem riveting by comparison)




THEN They have a quick conversation about FORTRAN (the obsolete programming langauge, I guess), to teach a few things that the fucking textbook could have made in literally 4 or less bullet points.

So just in case that's what she's going for, I advise her to run in the opposite direction like Usain Bolt.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal August 14, 2016 - 12:34pm

I just realized I read the word "protagonist" and switched it with "antagonist" in my head.


Sounds even less feasible to me when I think about it... Even short stories, which are generally where you can get away with weak characters more than any other place, require one to be there, right?

@Bethwenn- I wonder how you can say any of the "main characters" are not protagonists? Maybe not the good guys, per se... but you know how they say everyone is the hero of their own story? Aren't those main characters all the protagonists of their own lives?

Papa Nature's picture
Papa Nature August 15, 2016 - 5:07am

Thanks for all of your comments. My thoughts have been along the same lines as what I read from all of you. I told her it is almost like she is describing the view from a bunch of different security cameras in non-descript places and they just keep cycling through every few seconds and never coming back to the same one. I kind of get what she is going for, because I understand her way of thinking, but don't know if it is even possible to write without it just being a collection of words. Another analogy that I told her it sounded like is as if she were trying to see what a God or maybe a satellilte views and describe everything within that field of vision. There has to be a theme and a point.Thuggish, remind me to not read that text book. Sounds like something they would give a CIA prisoner to drive them insane. "OK, I will tell you whatever you want. just don't make me read anymore of that book!"

Bethwenn, thanks for the careful analysis. I will have her look into those books.

Oh, I just had a thought. Can there a be a story where the same person is both the protagonist and the antagonist? My thinking is to make them have multiple personalities. Of course I realize that one of the personalities would be the pro and one the ant. But that would be a fun one to write.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal August 15, 2016 - 8:18pm

^ Fight Club?

Or, I'll go back to Game of Thrones. Protagonist and antagonist depend on who's POV the chapter is.

bethwenn's picture
bethwenn from Milwaukee is reading The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann August 16, 2016 - 7:06am

Thuggish, My instinct is that you're joking. :p It's a difficult novel to describe. The Rolling Stones based their song "Sympathy for the Devil" on it. You sort of follow the Devil around space and time, but he's always in the background so far, never prominent in the scenes. Sometimes he pops up and talks to people, and sometimes he's not mentioned at all. It's a satire, and the characters mentioned are like symbols/archetypes who function more as objects of critique than as subjects of the story. Most of them are remarkably stupid, and the writer does more to spark your judgment of the characters than to get you to sympathize with them.

SPOILERS: Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz, the character who seems like he'd be the protagonist, is decapitated a couple chapters in. We keep cutting back in time to Judaea and Pontius Pilate, who wants to crucify Yeshua Ha-Nozri. The character who was with Berlioz in the first few scenes who seems like he'll then become the protagonist, Ivan Nikolayevich Ponyryov, just got committed to an insane asylum. Now a new character has been introduced, Stephan Bogdanovich Likhodeyev. I don't know if we'll go back to Ivan again, and I'm not sure what's going to happen to Stephan. I suspect not good things, as he seems to be getting teleported somewhere by the Devil. This novel is hilarious.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal August 16, 2016 - 7:55am

No, Figh Club had multiple personalities that were antagonistic in the end. 

Well, I guess GoT isn't the right example because he said same person... so I'll go back to Fight Club. Can't think of anything else with multiple personalities right now... You'd think there'd be a Vonnegut novel...

That does sound like one wacky (in a good way) book, indeed.

bethwenn's picture
bethwenn from Milwaukee is reading The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann August 16, 2016 - 12:25pm

I meant the joking part about saying that characters are all the protagonists of their own lives, not the Fight Club thing.

CS's picture
CS from Biloxi, MS is reading Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity August 17, 2016 - 6:24am

If I tried to write a story that was without a protagonist/antagonist, I would most likely end up writing page upon page about the weather and how it affects the setting. I would imagine after page 3 of "And lo, the rains once more came upon the land..." I would be relegated to the lands of Amazon self publishing, from whence I shall be banished until the end times.

Thuggish's picture
Thuggish from Vegas is reading Day of the Jackal August 17, 2016 - 9:37am

@ Bethwenn

Well, my point was that anyone can be a protagonist depending on POV, so I made a sort of play on the saying that everyone's the hero of their own story.