using named characters well.

| Monday, May 16, 2011
Today's Tune: Boys of Summer (cover)

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?

16 comments:

{ Jonathan Auxier } at: May 16, 2011 at 9:00 AM said...

I studied playwriting in graduate school, and we were constantly being taught to conflate minor characters because cast-size was a very real obstacle to production (i.e. each character is an actor the theatre has to pay). When I switched to fiction, I recall the almost giddy realization that I could just add a minor character without impacting someone's budget. Still, by the time I reach revisions, my training gets the best of me, and I end up cutting out that dead weight anyway. As far as giving characters differentiating visual traits: most writers I've known have always referred to those as "eye-patches" ... as in, "You have too many bald white guys in the situation room scene; give the general an eye-patch so we know he's important." Probably less helpful in pirate stories.

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: May 16, 2011 at 9:38 AM said...

What an awesome comment! Thanks, Jonathan :D It's so interesting to hear about the differences in mediums and how we can use one (screenwriting/playwriting) to influence another (novel writing). I like the eye-patch trick!

{ Magan } at: May 16, 2011 at 10:03 AM said...

I just read a YA novel that did what I like to call "Character dumping" and within the first chapter she had named ALL of the characters throughout the novel. I had to keep going back to figure out who the characters were.

I try not to do this by introducing characters little by little so you actually know who each character is instead of dumping.

{ aspiring_x } at: May 16, 2011 at 10:14 AM said...

oooh! and it also helps if you don't have characters with really similar names unless you intentionally want the readers to mix them up. haley, holly, harley, and halley in the same story- please oh please NO!!!! ooh! and this goes doubly for odd, unpronouncable, made-up names zargot, yargot, zoiberg, and yarglepop. ????

{ Sierra McConnell } at: May 16, 2011 at 10:18 AM said...

I'm an epic writer. I wrote out a list of all the characters that I would /need/ and it was so vast I couldn't believe it. I think the basic count was at least twenty.

That's not side characters, and that was only book two.

On one of my first drafts, someone made a comment about how I had too many S names and they couldn't tell the two people apart, and maybe I should cut one of them.

I made the one they thought I should cut much sharper and clearer and I haven't had a comment about it since.

I think if written well, you can juggle a lot of characters without a problem. You just have to know how to do the characterization correctly.

{ Matthew MacNish } at: May 16, 2011 at 10:44 AM said...

This is excellent advice, Steph, and hits particularly well for me, since I have an ensemble cast in my novel. It used to be 11 kids, but I have combined 4 of them into 2, leaving me with 9. It's still a lot for a reader to handle, but it's helps to have each character clearly defined, even if that starts out as a bit of stereotyping.

{ Matthew MacNish } at: May 16, 2011 at 10:46 AM said...

OMG, and I just LOL'ed at John's comment.

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: May 16, 2011 at 10:47 AM said...

@Magan - Oh yes, that's another pet peeve of mine. Introduce characters as they're needed, or else they're just names. Make sure their role's attatched!

@aspiring_x - Ooooh, you're right, I meant to include that one but I forgot! Similar names can get SO confusing.

@Sierra - Tons of characters can definitely work - like I said above, Rowling had over 200 named characters - but it's difficult. Good on you for keeping your characters separate and defined.

{ Margo Lerwill } at: May 16, 2011 at 10:50 AM said...

Yes, yes, yes! Especially to the merging of minor characters. Not only did I find this streamlined my ms's, but it also made for more interesting and distinct characters. I had to figure out why a character was doing this AND this in the story, how she would end up here on page 20 and there on page 50.

And I second aspiring_x's comment on the similar names. Especially in fantasy, we have unusual names coming at the reader. I think maybe we don't realise how often the reader will just shorten the name in their head and only scan 3-4 letters of the name before identifying the character. That's a problem if the names are way too similar.

Embarrassing OCD admission: I keep a matrix of names for the book series I'm working on so I don't use too many similar sounding names. If my heroine has an A name, for instance, no other female names will start with A. Same rule for all major characters - no similar names of the same gender. Other than that I try not to use any letters of the alphabet more than three times for first names and three times for last names. Like I said, OCD. :)

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: May 16, 2011 at 10:55 AM said...

@Matthew - Man, I know, this was something I had to learn myself. I ended up cutting/merging about five characters from my current WIP!

@Margo - I'm finding that it makes them more interesting, too! Where one character was just sort of bland filler before, now he's been merged with another to create a more nuanced personality. So true about the similar names, as well.

{ LV Cabbie } at: May 16, 2011 at 1:23 PM said...

But, there are times when your genre doesn't permit putting certain characters into the background.
It was easy to do in my novel about a soldier with PTSD as there was mainly himself and the Indian healer helping him.
But, in my historical novel, there was no way I could disregard other characters who played a vital role in what happened to the MCs. The trick is to paint each character in such a way that the reader will not become inundated with names!
I tried to read such a story not long ago and the variety of strange names and places simply drove me to put it down.
In any case, as someone pointed out, it's vital to have someone who is not directly interested, to read and critique your work.
Thank goodness for writing forums who let you meet and work out arrangements with beta readers.

{ Alex J. Cavanaugh } at: May 16, 2011 at 3:16 PM said...

I'm working harder on traits, especially on my second book, but I've always kept the names simple and different from one another. Science fiction has a tendency to present names with five or more syllables and beyond anyone's pronunciation skills. I didn't want to add to the problem!

{ Claudie A. } at: May 16, 2011 at 7:47 PM said...

Oh my gosh, character names are such a pain. Finding a name with a certain *zing* to it helps a great deal for him to be remembered. It can't replace keeping characters well-defined and separate, but it sure gives a hand.

Also, I'm 100% behind the merging of minor characters AND of keeping the unimportant ones unnamed. I did this, and reduced the cast a great deal.

{ Andrew Leon } at: May 16, 2011 at 11:54 PM said...

One thing I kind of hate is when there is a 2 or 3 page section at the front of a book with a list of all the characters with a little blurb about who they are. Going in, I -know- I will never look back at that list, so I'm just hoping the author makes them distinct enough that I can remember them.

The next thing I hate is when an author, basically, re-introduces the character every time you come across him/her in order to remind you who that character is. It gets tedious.

It is especially annoying when the author does both of those things: the list and the re-introductions.

{ Steph Sinkhorn } at: May 17, 2011 at 9:49 AM said...

@LV - It's not so much about shunting characters into the background as it is about making sure each named character plays a vital role and is memorable. And yes, writing forums can be way helpful :)

@Alex - Yes, those unwieldy names can get away from a person quickly!

@Claudie A. - I totally agree, names can be SO hard, especially for the protagonist. You want to give them a strong, memorable name, but not something that's too "out there."

@Andrew - Haha, good examples :)

{ Sunayna Prasad's blogs } at: January 11, 2013 at 2:14 PM said...

I need to be more careful with my characters. My book is nearly 49, 000 words long, and I don't know how many characters I have. It's being edited now, though, so at some point, I'll find out what to do with my additional characters.

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