Time for Chaucer’s famous Canterbury Tales! And who can forget that lengthy General Prologue in which Chaucer catalogues the company going on pilgrimage? It must be maddening trying to keep up with 29 individual personalities–so much so that it must lead to what I like to call “Multiple Character Dis-order”, right?
What exactly is Multiple Character Dis-order (MCD)? To make a short story long:
It’s exactly what it sounds like. When a writer tries to take on the points of view of several characters –some who you could care less about(*cough*George R Martin what were you thinking when you included the Iron Islands in the narrative?*cough*)–and things fall out of order (hence, “dis-order”) in one of the following ways:
(1) Characters get mixed. In the Heroes of Olympus Series (which I adore, but that’s for another time), multiple main characters lead to a single personality with subtle deviations. For those who don’t know the series, the take home point is that there are seven protagonists in this plot, each who gets a fraction of the story told through their eyes. The problem here is that each of them is a sarcastic teenager with a tragic backstory. Their thoughts follow similar patterns, with similar snarky commentaries attached. Sometimes, if the words “Jason said” or “Hazel sighed” didn’t come after dialogue, I wouldn’t be able to discern who said what.
(2) One character is preferred. This actually happened to me when I tried writing in multiple points of view. I found that I really liked the voice of one of my characters, but because of that the story got really one sided in terms of narration, and frankly that completely negates the purpose of having multiple points of view.
(3) Characters get lost. George R Martin, I’m talking about you. Not only does the large dramatis personae confuse the reader (which happened MULTIPLE times to me, thank goodness there’s an appendix at the back with the family trees), but their personalities begin to fade. (And killing off the good characters does NOT compensate for the ever growing cast.)
Despite the possibilities, I firmly believe that Chaucer is immune to MCD. And I think part of the reason is due to the catalogue he begins his Tales with.
Unlike the catalogue in the Illiad (which is literally a list of names with their fathers and forefathers), Chaucer takes the time to develop the majority of the travelling party–particularly those he finds interesting, therefore making them interesting to the reader.
For example, the description of the Wife of Bath is what imagery should be. Chaucer gets to all the little details: how many scarves she wears, her wimple, the gap in her teeth, her red stockings and spurs. He goes on about her personality, how she knows the “ways of love”, her openness about her sexuality, how she’s been married five times, how she’s partially deaf. (I personally think she would become FAST friends with the Miller.) Quite often during the descriptions, Chaucer gives the character a hometown, a brief history (usually regarding their profession), and even a description of their horse. In one particular instance he claims a pilgrim has a wheel of bread strapped to his horse like a shield.
Furthermore, I think the entirety of the Tales is considered a catalogue. Whether or not its historically accurate is for another time, but the Tales truly is an anthology of stories that represent the characters, whether it be sincerely, like the Knight’s righteous tale, or satirically, like the Pardoner’s parable. The Tales are so focused on the characters individually, there is no way for them to get lost.
Granted, some characters do get glossed over, like the Prioress’s priests and the Plowman gets a relatively short section. As I said before, Chaucer expands on what is most interesting, and thankfully, that’s a majority of the pilgrims. I don’t even think it’s because they’re boring righteous people (note that a majority of the really fleshed out characters are a sneaky, promiscuous tainted group of individuals), because he spends quite a bit of time describing the Parson and the Oxford Clerk–a goody-two-shoes and a book worm, respectively. I think those characters aren’t fleshed out more because they are simply self-explanatory, and despite their short/verging-on-non-existent introductions, they too tell their own tales, so something can be inferred from that.
So does Chaucer suffer from Multiple Character Dis-order? Apparently, Chaucer’s catalogue is the cure.“Me thinketh it acordaunt to resoun To telle yow al the condicioun Of ech of hem, so as it semed me, And whiche they weren, and of what degree, And eek in what array that they were inne” -Chaucer, Canterbury Tales: The General Prologue