Updated: Jun 10, 2018
"Writers, good ones, don't tell stories. Characters show stories. "
-Fiction is Folks-Robert Newton Peck.
Is your manuscript's cast of thousands is growing? This post idea developed from my own cast in my Love Inspired, September 2014 release, Stranded with the Rancher!
I write about communities and families (usually large families). That translates to lots of characters.
Of course it hadn't occurred to me that my most recent work of genius could possibly have too many characters, that is, until one of my Beta readers pointed out that he couldn't keep up the growing list of names AND the fact that half of this list was mentioned in chapter one.
What's a writer to do? Let's talk about the tools I used to manage crowd control, so you can apply them, as needed, to your manuscripts to keep your cast manageable.
1. Chapter One Casting Call
The first chapter is the most important part of your book. So if, like me, you have a large cast be very careful to make them distinct and meaningful.
An easy technique to cut down on the numbers is to combine characters. Your secondary character Mabel can run the general store and be the postmaster.
In my case, I deleted the two unnamed sisters and combined Elsie and Bea into one character. Three people gone.
Secondary characters are very important in our stories, but we don't just create a cast of thousands to fill the pages. Each character must have an identified role.
Linda Seger (Creating Unforgettable Characters) defines it this way: "A supporting character can serve several functions in a story. These include helping to define the protagonist's role, conveying the theme of the story, and helping to move the story forward."
And Dwight Swain (Techniques of the Selling Writer) says:. "Every person should contribute something: action or information that helps or harms, advances or holds back."
Give that some thought as you consider each character on your casting call list.
2. Will the Real Hero Please Stand Up?
It should go without saying that in a romance novel, your reader should be able to tell who the hero and heroine is. Traditional romances aren't about waiting to the end to say SURPRISE, she picked bachelor number three. It's all about the developing romance.
Be careful if one of the first characters introduced in your book is a strong character who is not the hero or heroine. Don't lead your reader astray!
Readers assign importance to your characters according to how much detail, dialogue and stage time you give them. Decide who's important and who is not and tone them down as necessary. If a secondary character is stealing the show, cut back on their time in each scene.
3. I'm Sorry. What Was Your Name?
When you name your character has a very unusual and/or formal name, the repetition can tedious.
For that reason I try to pick names that allow me to shorten the names and apply nick names for variety. I also use titles to vary names.
Dr. Susanna Branch becomes Sus, Suz, Suzie, Susan. There is also the option to identify those closest to the main characters according to how they address her. Susanna is what her mother and father call her. Dr. Branch by a colleague. She's Doc Branch or Dr. Susanna to her patients. Susanna by an acquaintance. Suz, to her friends. Suzie-Q to her boyfriend.
Cheryl St. John (Writing with Emotion, Tension &; Conflict) shares the importance of naming your characters that goes beyond picking your favorite name from the baby book on your desk.
"Choose a name worthy of this character, and make the character worthy of the name."
4. Seussing Up Your Characters
Once your reader is in your story, your goal is to pull them out as few times as possible. In fact, your ultimate goal is for them to stay up all night, losing sleep reading your book.
One of the easiest ways to pull a reader out of a book is character name confusion.
Consider these characters:
Billy, the hero, and his BFF Freddy and the heroine Cassie and her little girl Suzy.
Or the bride Ann and the groom Dan and his best man Stan.
How about a cast consisting of Mary, Michael, Maureen and Mitch.
Then there is Anna-Marie Trifiligetti and her college roommate, Gina Spaganogellani.
Or the villians, Al, Phil and Gil.
Unless you're Dr. Seuss, don't do it.
5. I Remember You
Characterization consists of the qualities and traits that make up an individual character.
Dwight Swain (Creating Characters) breaks down characterization into the following.
"Appearance, ability, speech, mannerisms and attitude"
But when most of us are first learning the craft, we tend to rely on dialogue (speech) and a clichéd description of appearance to impart characterization.
It's only when we learn how to peel the onion that our characters become three dimensional, and MEMORABLE.
Thoughts on characterization:
"Don't tell us who your characters are. Show us."-Self-editing for Fiction Writers-Brown and King.
"Bring your character onto the stage and let the reader see who she is and how she feels by how she acts when alone and with others, not by what she says or thinks." (How to tell a Story-Rubie and Provost.)
Think about one of your favorite characters from a book who is brought to life in a movie. We know those characters inside in out. We identified with them. Gary Provost (Make Your Words Work) says "identification is why we read." That shared identity.
When we read books where the author skillfully enables us to become those characters, we know their appearance, abilities, speech, and attitude. We also know their motivations.
Lawrence Block puts it this way "Characters are most effective when they are so drawn that the author can identify with them, sympathize with them, care about them, and enjoy their company." (Writing the Novel)
Consider Stephanie Plum,the protagonist of Janet Evanovich's twenty-some books. Her readers know Stephanie inside and out, thanks to the author's great job of characterization. Additionally, readers relate to Stephanie Plum because the shared identity is an underdog-she's divorced from a jerk and down-on-her-luck. Don't you want to do lunch with Stephanie and Grandma Mazur? I do.
“In spite of all the sparring that went on between us, I sort of liked Morelli. Good judgment told me to stand clear of him, but then I've never been a slave to good judgment.” ― Janet Evanovich (Two for the Dough ).
6. Cast Party!
A few words of caution about group scenes. (Especially with families where everyone has the same last name and there is a Joe Sr. and Joe Jr. and Little Joe.)
Decide who really needs to be in the scene. Then then kick I mean, remove, as many people as you can out of the kitchen before you begin the group discussion. If they all must stay, then decide who will contribute dialogue that will move the plot forward. The rest of the characters can fade into other activities, like washing the dishes.
Use dialogue tags often, but don't create 'he said/she said' ping-pong conversations. Vary how you start your sentences.
Additionally, use but don't abuse interruptions (Em-dash and not hyphen. See Chicago Manual of Style usage here) and trailing sentences/thoughts (ellipses).
They too irritate the reader!