Una McCormack is a New York Times bestselling author and creative writing lecturer. Her latest novels are Star Trek: Deep Space Nine – The Missing and, with Eric Brown, The Baba Yaga, the third book in the Weird Space series.
I’ve always loved shows and books that use ensemble casts. Blake’s 7, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, Firefly, and – of course – that superlative utopian series The West Wing. While I would usually have a ‘favourite’ character, whose narrative formed the heart of the series for me (and was not always main cast, in the case of Garak or Ainsley Hayes), what gives these shows complexity are the narrative options available from having multiple characters who could be arranged and rearranged in many combinations.
Television, of course, specifically long-running series, lends itself to this kind of narrative, although sometimes the show doesn’t push these options as far as they can go. In Blake’s 7, for example, the writers clearly found that writing Blake and Avon together, or Avon and Vila together, could pretty much drive the whole series. But that was OK by me – I had my own ideas for the characters, and the chutzpah to think I could put them down on the page and that people would be interested in reading them. My first attempts at writing something of substantial length were explorations of the Blake’s 7 ensemble: long fanfictions that progressed a narrative through multiple first-person perspectives. Bits of them were bad, bits of them weren’t that bad, and what I learned was how I could use multiple characters to sustain lengthier narrative; that opening up more and more characters opened up the world I was writing, and allowed me to write in greater depth. I ended up with long, detailed backstories – headcanon – for underwritten or minor characters such as Cally, Anna Grant, and Arlen, that I developed across numerous stories.
I’ve loved this technique of multiple first-person point of view in novels that I’ve read subsequently. Christos Tsiolkas’ novel The Slap, for example, is set in suburban Melbourne, where the action of the book is triggered when a man slaps someone else’s child, whom he believes is playing up at a barbecue. The novel follows the fallout from this, presenting all the characters’ views on what happened. Beryl Bainbridge’s The Birthday Boys tells the story of Scott’s disastrous journey to the South Pole through the eyes of the men who died on the way. I love this device, which generously gives agency to all the characters, even those who are most obviously villainous, and puts equal weight on their narratives. You, the reader, are asked to participate actively in the unfolding story and to form your own conclusions about who and what are right and wrong. I like this in a novel: it seems that the author is paying me the courtesy of being an equal party in the reading that is about to happen.
Third person limited doesn’t always invite the same kind of intimacy as first person, but using new character combinations to illuminate a well-known world is a tried and tested technique that I come back to when writing. My Star Trek: Deep Space Nine novel Hollow Men pairs off Bashir and Odo. We’re more used to seeing Bashir with Garak or O’Brien, and Odo with Kira or Quark, but this was not a combination that had been given much space in the TV series. It brought together two types of narrative too: the spy caper and the police procedural. I enjoyed writing their subplot, and it was good to think I’d done something fresh within this universe.
My new novel, The Baba Yaga, explores the Weird Space universe created by Eric Brown in his novels The Devil’s Nebula and Satan’s Reach. As I wrote the novel, I found that I needed to add more viewpoint characters to be able to explore that universe more thoroughly. And at one point, there are two ensemble crews, aboard two different ships, with their own internal hierarchies and disputes and problems, and which, by implicit comparison illuminate and reflect upon each other. Exploring character opens up the world in which one’s story is taking place, permitting the complexity, variety, and opportunities for variations on a theme that is the particular strength of novels as a form.