Saturday, March 28, 2009

Character Dump

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.

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  1. Excellent post and I agree. I'm also a reader who does not want to be "dumped on" with everything there is to know about a character all at once. It stops the story dead when the author takes a whole paragraph or more to inform you of everything from hair and eye color to religious persuasion to how much money in the bank and how many bad relationships he or she has had in the past. I plan on doing a post on that soon

  2. True, Marvin. And having the author or the character himself tell us these details doesn't mean much, anyway. We as people and as readers make our own decisions. Just as in real life, we judge people by their actions and by how others act toward them, not by what they say about themselves.

  3. Wholeheartedly agree!

    And since I wrote a series of five books with overlapping characters (and scenes) I created a very detailed & complex legend for consistency.

    L. Diane Wolfe

  4. I believe in character reveals on a need-to-know basis. But, I'm struggling with a crowd scene of sorts, because the individuals have identities, but are only relevant to the story in a scene or two.

    Great reminders!!

  5. Amy Sue, sounds like a tricky situation there. Let us know how you resolve it!

    Brooke, I know of an author friend who was lucky enough to have an agent who had what I call a Book Bible created for her about the time she published her third in the series.

  6. Words of wisdom, Helen. As an author, I thought I would never forget my characters, HA! Self preservation had me using my Dump file and adding files within that, with caharacters and relationships within my book. When it became the first in a trilogy, having those characters listed helped--a lot.

    I would be interested in seeing what idea of a book bible is.

  7. Sia, that is so true. We spend so much time writing the book, living with those characters on the page and in our heads, we think we know them inside out and we'll never forget a thing about them. Ha!

  8. It's very easy for me to get confused about characters, especially if their first letter is the same. Too many do get me confused.

    In one of my books I'm working on, I've got different characters living in different states. I made a cheat sheet so I could keep track of them, including physical descriptions, family members, where they lived and other pertinent facts I needed to remember.

    Morgan Mandel

  9. What is that old saying, "too many cooks spoil the soup?" Definitely true for characters and stories. If you have to write down a bible to keep track of them all, you could have serious problems. Great post, Helen!


  10. It's okay for the writer to keep a list of characters and details about them. It' not okay if the reader has to do that!

  11. To illustrate what can happen with too many names early on: I just read a manuscript with mother and daughter characters (not to mention half a dozen other names) on the first few pages. On page 1, the author accidently switched names between mother and daughter. This, of course, is a great way to confuse your reader. Also a great way to get rejected by an acquisitions editor. It pays to be very meticulous about names.

    Good post, Helen.


  12. Helen you are so right about keeping names distinctive. In my second book in my detective series I have two characters with similar names. I wish so much I would have changed those names as I get them confused all of the time. For my readers who speak Setswana it would be difficult to confuse the names but anyone else will have a problem. Luckily the characters don't continue to other books.

  13. I love huge novels with a cast of thousands, but I do sometimes really dislike the character dump feeling where I cannot recall who, exactly, a character is. if it is only the bit players who don't support a major plot development, fine. But if it's one of the more important people and I can't keep them straight in my head--that's irritating.

  14. For the epic series I've been plotting out, I use a free relational database called Literary Machine. Makes it really easy to keep track of characters and plot information.

  15. Anonymous, I've never heard of Literary Machine. Thanks for the tip.

    Lauri, you bring up a good point. Sometimes you have to consider how the names will "read" to others not familiar with the culture.

    Writtenwyrdd, I like the big sagas, too. But I'm with you... only if I have to keep up with a manageable number of names.

    This is true, Dani. With too many names or names that sound too much alike, it's possible even for the author to mix them up. So what chance does a reader have of keeping them straight?


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