by Anne R. Allen
One of my personal writing issues is I tend to pack my books and stories with way too many characters. If a fascinating person walks into one of my stories, I feel it would be rude not to let them join the party. I suppose my inner Manners Doctor takes over. 🙂
This drives my editors batty. They think confusing the reader is worse than being rude to fictional people. And of course they’re right. They usually tell me I need to consolidate minor characters or eliminate them altogether. Someone even told me there’s a “rule” that a novel should have seven characters or less.
I’ve always been annoyed by all this. But this week I saw a thread in a readers’ Facebook group that helped me see the reader’s point of view.
Someone had put up a post saying they hate “when there are a million characters in books and it’s hard to keep track.”
A long thread ensued. Seems a whole lot of readers agreed with her. Many said they have to take notes to tell characters apart. Others brought up a number of books that have “too many” characters. George R.R. Martin got several mentions, and big sagas like The Thorn Birds and Peyton Place. British mysteries and 19th century novels were the biggest culprits. Especially the Russians, who not only have too many characters, but each character has too many names.
1) Make Characters Vivid When You Introduce Them
Let us see characters when you introduce them. (And don’t introduce them all at once!)
Two men arrived to take Lulu to the mysterious meeting
The taller man offered her his hand, which was adorned with a large spider tattoo.“I’m Stanislaus,” he said. His handshake was firm, but not too squeezy.
“And I’m Hamish.” The other man offered his hand too. Hamish couldn’t have been more than 5’5” and had a head of unruly red hair that would make Bozo the clown jealous.
2) Don’t Name “Spear Carriers”
Incidental characters don’t need names. If Stanislaus and Hamish drive Lucy to the mysterious meeting and never reappear, they only need to be called “the driver and his henchperson.” They don’t need names, and we don’t need to know anything about them.
8) And Yes, Cut Unnecessary Characters When You Can
I hate doing this. I feel every character I’ve written to be essential to the story. But I usually can find some to eliminate or consolidate if I’m pressured. If the character is really wonderful, I may take out her whole subplot and write her a story (or book) of her own. I did that with Regina, the fat princess in Food of Love. She was originally a character in The Lady of the Lakewood Diner.
I know it’s hard, but if you’re hearing from beta readers or critiquers that your cast of characters is getting unwieldy, go through the manuscript asking yourself: could somebody else serve this function?