Remind Me Again: Who Is That Character?

Dickens' Characters

Recently, a mystery-writing friend and I have been reading and commenting on each other’s manuscripts–a very helpful thing to do. And we’ve found ourselves making some of the same comments: “I’m getting confused about who’s who here.” “Had to go back and remind myself of who that character is.” “Getting the names mixed up again.”

Authors know their characters inside and out. They know things about them that will never appear on the printed page. They know their personalities, motivations, character flaws, and vulnerabilities. They know what will happen to each character in the future. They have given them their very names. During the writing of a novel, an author’s characters often become more real to her—certainly more transparent—than the actual human beings with whom she lives and works.

Because of this God-like omniscience, it is often difficult to see in your own work where a reader might need a little help keeping the characters straight. Authors have handled this problem in various ways:

1. Before the first chapter, include a “cast of characters” with a short blurb on each one, to which readers can refer as needed. This was a method employed frequently in the past, notably by Charles Dickens, whose novel Bleak House featured no fewer than sixty characters, 21 major and 39 minor. Some modern writers use this method too, like Agatha-award-winning mystery writer G. M. Malliet (Death of a Cozy Writer, Wicked Autumn).

2. Introduce the characters slowly. This is a good idea, but sometimes the plot requires that a number of characters appear in a fairly short period of time. And mysteries today tend to start “in medias res,” i.e. in the middle of the action, without the luxury of a leisurely build-up.

3. Keep reminding the reader who the characters are, at least in the beginning. The downside to this method is the “soap opera syndrome” where a character is mentioned and someone says, “Oh, you mean our former Mayor who was married to the District Attorney but got that messy divorce and then spent a month in prison for a murder he didn’t commit until the real murderer was found but by then was so stressed out that he had a nervous breakdown and ended up in a mental institution for six months?” Yes, that one.

4. Give each character a colorful name and an unusual character trait (physical or otherwise) that will imprint that character forever on the reader’s mind. Charles Dickens was the master. Who can forget such characters as Wopsie, Sweedlepipe, Bumble, Purnblechook, M’Choakumchild, and (of course) Scrooge?

Right now I’m thinking about how to make my characters memorable enough to keep the reader on track and reading. But I also know that a reader must exercise a certain amount of concentration, especially at the beginning of a novel. I just started reading Catriona McPherson’s second Dandy Gilver mystery, The Burry Man’s Day. I’m loving it, but I’m having a little trouble keeping the characters straight. I really don’t mind. But a smart author doesn’t make the reader work too hard or he might just put the book down and never pick it up again.

I’d like to hear from you. How much trouble do you have remembering the characters in the books you read? Do some books do a better job of this than others; and if so, what makes the difference? And oh yes, remind me who you are, will you?

3 thoughts on “Remind Me Again: Who Is That Character?”

  1. I need to start work on an idea I have and was just thinking that I need to read up on building characters before I start. Thank you for the pointers 🙂

    1. Nice to hear from you again! There’s a lot out there on developing characters but not too much on structuring things to help the
      reader remember who they are. Good luck!

  2. I love quirky characters – or even characters that are defined by those they play off. It’s funny, because I’ve been trying to get a handle on the female character of the Vermont novel I’m working on. She went too serious too fast. Now she’s a delightful little thing, with spectacles that are forever slipping down her nose. She’s a writer most comfortable in her pretend world. I love playing off her quirkiness with the male’s seriousness. Sometimes it’s the interaction between characters that sets them apart and brings them to life.
    Nice post – wish I could’ve got here sooner to say hello.

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