character overload.

| Monday, January 31, 2011
Today's Tune: Horchata

I'm going to tell you guys a STORY!

When I was in college, I had these roommates, right? Their names were Annie, Melissa, Amy, Lexie and Kandice. We all lived together in this great suite apartment. Melissa and I were in the same bedroom. Annie rode a motorcycle and Amy played tennis. Kandice was an amazing knitter, Melissa was obsessed with The Beatles, and Lexie was really good at math. The six of us cooked meals together, had movie nights, and got along pretty famously for college roommates.

Yesterday, Kandice and I went to have sushi and we talked for two hours, because we are still very good friends and see each other on a regular basis. The end.

Okay, now I'd like to ask you guys something. Out of all these names, which was the only name you probably care about? Are you confused by all the names and wondering why I introduced so many characters/names when only one reappears? Do you feel like you had to go back and reread because you weren't sure which one Kandice was?

Granted, this is a very abbreviated "story," so it may not illustrate my point as well as I'd like, but the concept is there. Character overload. Introducing a lot of names in a short amount of time with little context and expecting your reader to remember who the heck you were talking about when you reintroduce someone later.

This can be managed if every character has a functional role to play in the story, but many characters show up to serve some sort of one-off filler function, and then we never hear about them again. That only really serves to fill up space in your reader's memory banks and confuse them later. "Okay, which character is Steve again?"

Character overload isn't unusual during the drafting process. We usually end up with way more characters than we actually need. Usually you can cut several second and third-tier characters and combine their role with another character. The goal is to make sure every named character serves a memorable function in our story.

Think about it. Do you really need to have a random girl named Carol warn everybody that the Monster of the Week is coming, or can you have one of your established characters do that? Do you need to introduce a new guy named Ted to ask your character out on a date, only to never use him again?

Named characters should be memorable. If you're planning on using a Random to serve a function in the story but don't plan on using them again, don't name them. Take a leaf out of J.K. Rowling's book -- even small characters served functional roles within her storyverse. Nearly every character served an integrated role in the story, or they had a distinguishing and memorable characteristic. We know exactly who Colin Creevy, Lavender Brown, the Patil sisters, Aberforth Dumbledore, and Bathilda Bagshot are, even though they serve relatively small roles in the Harry Potter series.

Your reader should never feel confused or like they have to go back and read an earlier passage to remember who a particular character is. Much in the same way every word should count, every character should count. Cutting beloved side characters is hard -- believe me, I know -- but ultimately might be necessary to strengthen your story.


{ Tracy } at: January 31, 2011 at 6:38 AM said...

Such a great point!! I've found that to be a problem when beta reading (and even sometimes in already published books) where authors feel the need to give everyone a name.

If they ultimately won't matter to me, the character or the story...leave them unnamed. And if they don't move the story forward, leave them out altogether.

{ Magan } at: January 31, 2011 at 6:59 AM said...

This IS a great way too look at that! Not to mention Twilight, but I have to in this situation... In Breaking Dawn I had NO idea who all the vampires were and stopped caring. Maybe that's why I disliked the fourth book so much...

{ aspiring_x } at: January 31, 2011 at 7:18 AM said...

great point! and the same goes for naming characters very similar names- especially unusual names that all start with the same letter! or places too! sometimes i wonder if there needs to be so many different settings in some stories- or if some scenes could take place in repeat settings...

{ Brad Jaeger } at: January 31, 2011 at 8:15 AM said...

Great post! I feel less guilty about writing a book with only four or five significant characters in it, now :p

{ Meredith } at: January 31, 2011 at 9:23 AM said...

I'm focusing on character overload this week in my revisions, so this post is perfectly timed for me! I always want to introduce everyone right away, but it's just so confusing. The JK Rowling example is spot on!

{ Old Kitty } at: January 31, 2011 at 2:02 PM said...

The fabulous Agatha Christie does this alot - first sections of her chapters she introduces a million and one characters - but like cluedo they all are distinguishable - the policeman, the butler, the actress, the librarian. I remember them not so much by their names but how distinct she makes each one. Of course they all come together wonderfully at the end - they all have very important roles to play in her fiendishly plotted stories! I think if you are going to introduce a multitude of characters you must do so ala Agatha Christie (and other fab writers whom I can't think of at the moment!!) otherwise they will go the way exactly as you state here in your fab post!! Take care

{ Brooke R. Busse } at: August 19, 2011 at 3:34 PM said...

I was so upset when Colin Creevey died. He was one of my favorites. TT_TT

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