O: Oliva Faraday, or, writing a main character who isn’t the main character.

The main character of my novel is…

Well, that’s a actually a hard statement to finish.

There are two main characters in my novel. The mild-mannered and soft-spoken  proper gentleman, Christopher Buckley, and his employer, Olivia Faraday, who is mercurial, eccentric, manic, and brilliant. But there’s only one narrator, Chris, and The Deathsniffer’s Assistant spends a lot of time exploring his family life, backstory, and connections, while very little personal time is given to Olivia.

So why is it that I find it hard to say who the main character actually is?

I’ve always been fascinated by characters like Olivia. Characters with minds too curvy and mazelike to make for very good narrators. She was the jumping off point, the keystone right from the start: a lady detective who was coy, clever, energetic, and ever so slightly askew. The world according to the twisted mind of Olivia Faraday isn’t really something a reader can identify much with. Her way of thinking is so alien and offputting that telling the story from her perspective would certainly be compelling, but it would also be repulsive. So what to do about the problem of Miss Faraday?

The fact is that Olivia’s assistant just made for a better storyteller. His backstory and personal problems start affecting the plot much, much earlier than Olivia’s, and he’s a simple, good-hearted, put-upon sort of fellow. Much more approachable to readers. I decided early on that to curb my natural tendancy to inflate my stories, The Deathsniffer’s Assistant and its sequels were going to have one and only one narrator. So that left me with only one real option: Christopher Buckley would be the window through which my readers accessed the world of Darrington and its routine wonders.

But where did that leave Olivia?

I worried about it as I wrote, but as it turns out, I didn’t need to. Every single person who’s read the book has said the same thing — Olivia Faraday makes an impression. Not only that, but Olivia from the perspective of a normal person leaves all of her strangeness and mystery intact. She’s very private, and as Chris learns about her bit by bit, so does the reader. Despite the fact that she only appears in two thirds of the book’s scenes, Olivia shines through exactly as I’d imagined.

It’s not really conventional to have your main character be separate from your narrator, but I think that sometimes it works. Some characters are considerably more interesting when seen from a safe distance. Keeping them at arm’s length preserves their mystic nature.  The most famous example is, of course, one of my inspirations: Sherlock Holmes. While John Watson is the one telling the story, no one would ever think he was the protagonist. But he’s not the only one! Ishmael tells Ahab’s story, the quest for the white whale, and Nick Carraway is the means by which the reader gets to know the larger than life Jay Gatsby. So I’m walking in very comfortable shoes! (Though these shoes look a little hard to fill, don’t they? Eek!)

I hope everyone who reads my book once it’s out there in the world this July appreciates what I’ve done with Miss Olivia Faraday. I think she’s quite a character, and I’m looking forward to all the people who love her — or hate her!

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One thought on “O: Oliva Faraday, or, writing a main character who isn’t the main character.

  1. Sonia Lal April 24, 2015 / 11:50 pm

    I have seen it done sometimes. It can done very well, I think it just sort of depends on the situation and the character.

    Like

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