Thursday, August 8, 2013

Drowning in Characters

Over the weekend 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 to be able to refer to a legend in the back of the book.

There have been books that totally lose me. If I can't differentiate the characters, I usually quit reading.

Does this happen to you? Do you keep reading? What about your own book? Are you careful to make each character a unique person, not to be confused with some other character?

Helen Ginger
is an author, blogger, and the Coordinator of Story Circle Network's Editorial Services and writing coach. She teaches public speaking as well as writing and marketing workshops. You can follow Helen on Twitter or connect with her on Facebook and LinkedIn. Helen is the author of 3 books in TSTC Publishing’s TechCareers series, Angel Sometimes, and two of her short stories can be found in the anthology, The Corner Cafe. Her next book, Dismembering the Past, is due out in 2013.


  1. Yes, I agree, when reading a novel I get frustrated if I lose the thread of who belongs to who...this seems to be a problem in historical novels for me.

    As a writer, I try hard to keep names very different, and give each character something unique, a mannerism, habit or item of clothing or something to distinguish them.

    Thank you for sharing.

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    2. Those ideas, Maria, are both great ways to differentiate characters.

  2. If I have to take notes, I quit reading. My current limit is three new things. Beyond that I have to write it down. A lot of people are bad with names and are lost at parties or meetings where no one has a name tag. I write for them. I'm jealous of those amazing people who can remember every name after the first mention.

  3. Many of us have way too much going on in our lives, and we read to escape that chaos. If our books of choice continue our stress with a confusing plethora of characters, where's our relief?

    Giving characters distinctive names and unique traits does help. Also, a moderate to slow introduction of those characters allows us to get acquainted with just a few before more are thrown into the mix. Did you ever go into a room of strangers to be inundated with introductions and left later without a single name committed to memory? Too many too soon in a book creates this same scenario.

  4. I think many writers forget that although *they* aren't confused by their myriad of characters, a reader might be. The writer created all the characters, so of course she's not confused, but that reader is meeting them all for the first time. Sometimes that can be overwhelming! Think about it. If you met a crowd of people in a short period of time, how many of their names, histories, etc. would *you* remember?

  5. Yes, yes, yes. I get totally lost if there are too many characters introduced in a short period of time and I am sometimes wondering who is the protagonist to whom I am supposed to get attached?

    In an interesting counter-point, author Stephen Woodfin posted a blog piece asking if a story really needs a central character. He went on to say that large ensemble casts all sharing the spotlight are becoming more popular. Here is a link to his post.

  6. I opened a book not long ago, and there were about 5 pages of a "cast of characters"--trouble was (for me) there were so many members of each family, and so many categories, I was so overwhelmed at the idea of having to keep them straight that I never read the book.

    For me, it's hardest when writing a sequel because you feel obligated to let readers see all the characters from the previous book. You have to remember that if they read the previous book(s), they'll know, and if they haven't, you'll confuse them. Trickle them in the same way--slowly--no matter how many books into the series you are.


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