Thursday, September 18, 2008


Not long ago, I picked out a book to take on a trip. I always take at least one book, sometimes more, depending on the length of the trip. The one that I planned to take, I had, in fact, already started. Then came the problem. When it came time to leave, I couldn't find it anywhere.

So, I picked one up at the airport. Well-known author. Mystery/suspense.

In a recent interview, I was asked if I can separate the editor in me from the reader. I said, yes. I probably should have said, most of the time. With this book, I couldn’t.

I had a little trouble getting into it, primarily because there were so many characters introduced in the first few chapters that I couldn't keep them straight. As the book went along, I realized that the majority of them were important to the book. They needed to be remembered. They also needed to be kept straight. Who was who. Who did what. Who was related to whom.

One character appeared briefly -- only a few sentences to introduce him -- then he gets killed. A throw-away character, right? Sort of. Except his name was important since he gets referred to throughout the book. Yet, since he was alive only briefly, and there were so many other characters, it wasn't easy to keep his name in mind.

And, speaking of names, a great many of them sounded similar. Two syllables. Generic. In fact, I finished the book on the flight home, and I'd have to go look in the book to tell you the protagonist's name.

But finish the book I did. And it wasn't bad – a rather interesting plot involving an unusual threat to the country. I would have preferred more explanation of the way the threat would have been carried out. That part was rather vague.

If I were reviewing the book, I probably would give it a thumbs-up. But it would have been a lot more enjoyable if I'd been able to keep the characters straight.

Clearly, my advice as an editor would be pointless to this author – the book is already in print. Besides, he didn’t ask me.

But if this had been a book a client had given to me for a consult, I would tell that author:
Introduce two to four characters and let your readers get to know them before you introduce more.

Distinguish the character names. You want the readers to remember your characters.

Don’t give a character a name in any way similar to the protagonist – unless there’s a purpose in doing that.

If a character is introduced, then not mentioned again for 50 pages, remind the readers who that character is, so they don’t have to thumb back trying to find him or her.

Helen Ginger is a freelance editor and writer. You can visit her website and blog, follow her on Twitter, or join her newsletter, Doing It Write.


  1. Helen,
    Having to go back and figure out who a character is or which character with similar-sounding names is the one in a certain scene can really pull the reader out of the story. Following your advice will help authors keep their readers glued to the story instead of confused and frustrated.

  2. I'm reading a book now that has a character I can't get a grasp on... he just seems like a prop for the other characters. Not a real person, if you know what I mean. And even though he has an unusual name, I can't ever remember it. He makes me think of Dan Quayle for some reason. LOL.


  3. I read a book a while back where the main character has a large family - unfortunately, the author felt it necessary to name every one of the character's siblings, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, etc. And since it was a fantasy book, the names were all "made up". It was impossible to remember who was important in this story. I couldn't even remember the name of the villain while I was writing up a review a couple of days after finishing it.


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