Friday, August 28, 2020

Keeping Track

Recently I read a medium length suspense novel that was overloaded with characters. I expect a long historical novel to be packed, but with this mystery novel the number of persons was confusing.

Coupled with a weak plot, the book was a difficult read. 

The main characters and important bit players should be portrayed as memorably and distinctly as possible. Or conversely, if the author is touched by Dickensian genius, so brilliantly stereotypical, that the reader swears he's met them in real life. We already know Ebenezer Scrooge, Uriah Heep, and Madame Defarge in our hearts. They are members of our family, or the folks next door, or the ones running for office this year. 

It's better not to give major characters similar names. It's very irritating when the protagonist is named James--sometimes called Jim--and his worst enemy is called Jim all of the time. More subtle are names that sound too much alike, such as Bill and Will. Or names that people shorten. I know a man named Matthew and I carelessly say "Matt" when in fact, I've never heard his family call him by that name. 

So why do authors stumble into these traps? With a series it's very easy. In book five, for instance, we cook up a name and when this person comes into contact with a person introduced in book one, it's complicated. 

Another complication is using a name that belongs to someone in real life. It can be embarrassing and costly. Once I innocently cast the son of my husband's best customer in an unfavorable light. I did not know the kid and certainly was unaware of his history. It did not go well. Now I Google first to make sure I'm not defaming someone's character. 

I have a Word file that I carry over in the Lottie Albright Series. It's the "Lottie Albright Master Character File." Under the title of each book, I list all the characters introduced in that particular manuscript.  That way, when the family doctor is mentioned in book one, it's the same person in book five. I can go back through this Character Master File and see what I named the County Clerk in book one. If I had to do it over again, I would record a more detailed description of each character. 

Needless to say, too, not every person needs a name or a memorable description. Most days we interact with people we take for granted. I don't know the shifting series of Amazon Prime drivers who come to my door or the man driving the mail delivery truck. 

Fans have incredible memories. If you screw up, they will let you know. 



Ellen said...

Wonderful post! Couldn't agree more! Naming characters is tricky business, to be sure. And keeping track of them all in a series is a separate challenge. Do you use Word for the files you mention to keep track of things? Different software? Or do you use a binder of some sort? I'm so curious because I keep trying to find something that works well for me... I live, write, and travel full-time in a small RV, so space is an issue!

Thanks again for a great post!

Charlotte Hinger said...

Hi Ellen--I use Word because it's standard for the publishing industry. I can't attach that file to this post, but's very simple. Just use a new heading for each book and start listing the new characters you've introduced in that book. That way the head EMT in Book Four is the same person mentioned in Book One. As I said, I wish now I had included more complete physical descriptions.

Good luck on your limited space. I'm trying to cut down generating so much paper.

Thank you.


Donis Casey said...

I have a regular character named Grace in my Alafair series. Late in the series I had Alafair visit a sister in AZ with a son named Chase. Grace was not in that book. Long story short, Chase came to live with Alafair's family, so in subsequent books I have to be careful to differentiate between Grace and Chase, both children, especially when they interact! Now why didn't that occur to me before I named Chase Chase? p.s. that series has innumerable regular characters, so I not only keep a character bible for my own information, I always include a list of characters for the reader at the beginning of each book.