Not long ago, I had a surprise visit from my brother-in-law who lives in another state. He was in town to spend a few days with his brother. Since I hadn’t seen him in about a year, we did a lot of talking over coffee. I told him about my family and he told me about his. There was more to talk about with his family since he’s not only a father, he’s a grandfather and a great-grandfather! Gracious, I’m not even a grandmother yet.
Problem is – and I hate to admit this – I got lost in all the kids and kids of kids. I couldn’t tell which kids belonged to which kids, let alone where everyone lives nowadays. Seemed to me, his grandkids should be adolescents, not having practically grown kids of their own. What I needed was a written family tree to look at and take notes on as he talked.
I feel that way about some books I read. There are so many characters I get totally lost. I scan back through the book, trying to remember exactly who they are and how they’re “related” to the protagonist. I read a name and I can’t remember whether Winston was the plumber or if that was Wendell. Was Elizabeth the third in line to the throne or the lady in waiting?
I’m a big believer in limiting characters or at least introducing them slowly so the reader has time to adjust. I also believe in giving characters distinctive names – unless there’s some particular reason to do otherwise.
Basically, I want to be able to read a book without having to wonder who’s who. Otherwise, I want a legend in the back to refer to.
When I’m editing a book, I create a legend of characters with names, page on which they first appear, and their connection to the other characters. I’m doing this not just so I can keep the characters straight but also so I can see that the author has kept them straight. This is something each author can do for themselves. It’s helpful as you write and as you edit. It’s also a must if you’re planning on writing a series. You’d be surprised at how many authors who haven’t created this kind of legend get into books 3 or 4 in the series and have to thumb back through the previous books to check on the middle name of a particular character. Or have to pay an editor to create it for them.
If you’re writing a series, you’ll want to keep more than just a legend of character names and relationships. You’ll want to create a Book Bible. But that’s a subject for another post on another day.
Helen Ginger is a freelance editor and book consultant, with an informational and interactive blog for writers and a free weekly e-newsletter that goes out to subscribers around the globe. She coaches writers on the publishing industry, finding an agent, and polishing their work for publication. You can also follow her on Twitter.