Boys of Summer (cover)Today's Tune:
When I'm reading a novel, sometimes I'll come across a large number of named characters in a short time and become confused trying to figure out who's who. Usually the author smooths this out and I'm up to speed by the end of the book. Sometimes, however, I'll reach the end of the story and still find myself struggling to remember a certain character's name or why they were important.
This is problematic.
Named characters should be individually recognizable and play a specific role in the story. Even in an epic series like Harry Potter, which has over 200 named characters, I could still tell you what role each named character played. Why is that? It's because J.K. Rowling is incredibly skilled at characterization. She has the ability to quickly infuse each one of her characters with a unique personality and/or memorable trait. She named several characters in her first book that she ended up reusing in her later books rather than letting them go by the wayside never to be heard from again (such as Blaise Zabini, who was mentioned in the first book and not again until the sixth). Nearly every character had a place, a purpose, a history. Even some of the filler characters had elaborate backstories, though they were never used in the books.
How can we make sure our named characters are equally memorable and don't leave our audience going, "Uh, you know, the one that gave them the map. Whatshisface?"
- Don't overload on named characters. Do you really need that many characters? Does each one have both a fully realized personality and a legitimate role to play in the narrative? As Donald Maass recommends in his Writing the Breakout Novel exercises, write out a complete list of your named characters, along with the role they play in the story. Look closely. Which characters perform similar roles? Which are performing almost the same role? Combine them. Yes, seriously. Nix one character and merge it with another. Don't think about how much you love each of your babies, think about whether or not they're taking up unnecessary room in your reader's head. Only keep the characters that enhance the story.
- Have others read your work and ask them about the storyline and characters. Can they remember who everyone is? Are you hearing from multiple sources that they kept confusing one character for another? Is a particular character not leaving any impact? Anyone telling you so-and-so felt flat? Might be time to slash and/or combine.
- Make sure everyone has a memorable personality or trait that will stick in the reader's mind. This is dependent on how detailed you want to get. Rowling had sprawling family trees and complete backstories for nearly every one of her characters, even those mentioned a mere handful of times. Doing so clearly helped her write fully-realized, complete characters with believable personalities. Short of this, you should explore the background of each of your major and secondary characters, at least enough to flesh out their personalities. Notable quirks and physical traits (candy-floss hair, silver eyes, overlarge glasses, always wears orange) are another way to make a character stick in a reader's mind, but don't use these as a crutch and skimp out on real personality.
- If at all possible, make your characters multi-functional. In the first act of your book, you have a teacher, Mr. Smith, give your protagonist a good bit of advice. Then he disappears from the narrative and your readers promptly forget all about him. What if you give him a dual role? Instead of introducing another mentor character later in the novel, what if you made Mr. Smith fill that slot? Reuse him! If a character can fill multiple roles, that's a plus. It both makes the character multidimensional and gives them a more important place in the narrative. Obviously you should only do this when it makes sense (Mr. Smith probably shouldn't be both the teacher AND the teen love interest).
- Not every character needs a name. Sometimes we have one-off characters that really do only serve the function of walking onto the "set" of our novel, performing one action or saying one line, and walking off into the metaphorical sunset. The taxi drivers, pizza guys, acquaintances at school... they don't all need names. You can have them fill their role and move on. That way there are no extra names floating around to potentially confuse readers and make them mistakenly believe a bit character is important.
How do you make sure your characters are both functional and memorable?