When you walk into a large party or business meeting with dozens of people in attendance you never met before, do you have trouble remembering the names that go with the faces as everyone is introduced? I sure do! Thank goodness for BIG name tags is all I can say.
Beginning to read a new book can be the same experience for readers, with the added complication that they’re looking for the hero, the heroine and the bad guy (if there is one). There’s a certain amount of ‘entertainment conditioning’ in our culture that if something or someone is mentioned, especially in the early part of a story, they must be significant and the reader or viewer needs to pay special attention to them. This famous quote from playwright Anton Chekhov makes the point: “Remove everything that has no relevance to the story. If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”
If a TV show or a movie spends precious screen time on someone or something, we expect that to become important later.
My argument today is that this guideline applies to characters as well. Resist the temptation to introduce every character in the first few pages, no matter how important they may be. Doubly resist the temptation to introduce every minor character at all!
As is often the case, I’m pulling from my experiences judging contest entries, including many that involve unpublished authors but of course I won’t share actual examples.
To illustrate, here’s the kind of thing I sometimes see: Higgins the butler opened the door to Lord Somerset, while Alex the footman took his hat and Sally the maid stepped out of his path. Aunt Mabel clutched her pearls. Georgina waited in the library.
Do we really need to know the names of the servants? Are we ever going to see them again in this book? Now you’ve given your reader six people to keep track of and probably only two of them actually figure in the plot. We assume Lord Somerset and Georgina are the hero and heroine but we can’t be sure. What if the book is really about Sally and Alex? Wait, was Sally the maid or was Georgina? Is Aunt Mabel going to make a scene? Or is Somerset there to carry her off? (Reader flips pages, rereads book blurb…is taken out of the story in the process of trying to sort out all the people the author threw at her…) I think sometimes authors may feel that providing names for every minor or fleeting character is helpful in building the details or making the world feel more real, but in my opinion too often confusion results. Less is more in the early pages. The author can introduce additional characters slowly, as the book builds, and if they’re necessary to the plot, as we the readers become secure in the knowledge of who we’re supposed to really care about and remember.
Another confusing and/or annoying page filler I’ve seen on occasions is placing the main characters at a large family gathering. One egregious example sticks in my memory still, so let me put it in terms of my own real life. My late husband was one of seven kids. They all had children. The extended family included aunts, uncles, second cousins, significant others, close family friends and the pets. At my first Thanksgiving dinner with this clan, I met them ALL. If someone was writing the book of my romance with my late spouse, would you want to wade through paragraphs like this: At the door Veronica was greeted by Suzy, Cindy and Sally, the daughters of Narnie and Paul, loudly arguing over whose turn it was to play with Ruff the family dog and appealed to the new arrival to mediate. Uncle Jasper and Cousin Timmy were debating county politics in the corner and next to the TV, Shane begged his father Mike to buy him the latest virtual reality console. “We’ll have to ask Lavinia, your mother,” Mike said before turning to greet Veronica.
(Veronica waves to the reader. Remember me? Heroine here, lost in a jumble of relatives you will never hear about again in the course of this book.)
It would be far simpler to write: Veronica edged past three adorable children playing with the family dog, avoided being drawn into a political discussion going on in the corner and smiled as Hero introduced her to Uncle Mike, the one man she’d been warned to avoid. You’ve managed to establish there’s a big family gathering going on and that the reader needs to pay attention to that dastardly Uncle Mike. The rest is background.
Another, related issue is when characters don’t have ordinary names. It can be quite head spinning when on the first page, a reader is introduced to three or four characters in a fashion along these lines: Xaltreana Maarloc drew her pulse pistol and checked that Sumiann Dev, Rapor Wikh and Letomm Jaky were right behind her. Okay wow, are you going to remember all those unusual names? Let alone unusual first and last names? Let’s try: Xaltreana drew her pulse pistol and checked that her three troopers were right behind her. If one of the troopers has a special significance to the plot or is the hero perhaps, you can add something now to single that one person out for the reader. Eyes, narrowed, Rapor nodded to show he had her back as always.
And while we’re on the subject, in a crowd scene there’s no necessity to name every single person. For example, if twelve good friends went to a rock concert and rushed the stage en masse at the end in their wild enthusiasm, there’s no need to list all twelve names. Your readers’ eyes will glaze over.
Now there is an exception to this general principle I’ve been putting forth. Isn’t there always an exception? If the book or story is part of an established series, the readers may very much relish and be happy to see a scene or an epilog where you do mention all the key characters, even those from previous books. It can be a nice moment for everyone, heartwarming. For example, Nalini Singh’s recent Psy-Changeling book Allegiance of Honor did a nice job of catching us up on many of the significant people we’d met throughout the previous fourteen books. We didn’t meet them all at once in any earlier book – the characters were introduced into the larger narrative as the story developed and usually each couple had their own volume to be front and center. Most played solid supporting roles in other books as well. We were ready to enjoy seeing them all gathered in one spot for a celebration, now that we knew them.
I promise you, the characters won’t feel slighted if you don’t mention every one of them by name, until or unless their moment to take center stage has truly arrived.
Do you have any pet likes or dislikes about large casts of characters?
Best Selling Science Fiction & Paranormal Romance author and “SciFi Encounters” columnist for the USA Today Happily Ever After blog, Veronica Scott grew up in a house with a library as its heart. Dad loved science fiction, Mom loved ancient history and Veronica thought there needed to be more romance in everything. When she ran out of books to read, she started writing her own stories.
Veronica’s latest effort is Pets In Space, an anthology with eight other science fiction romance authors.
Even an alien needs a pet…
Join the adventure as nine pet loving sci-fi romance authors take you out of this world and pull you into their action-packed stories filled with suspense, laughter, and romance. The alien pets have an agenda that will capture the hearts of those they touch. Follow along as they work side by side to help stop a genetically-engineered creature from destroying the Earth to finding a lost dragon; life is never the same after their pets decide to get involved. Can the animals win the day or will the stars shine just a little less brightly?
New York Times, USA TODAY, Award Winning, and Best selling authors have eight original, never-released stories and one expanded story giving readers nine amazing adventures that will capture your imagination and help a worthy charity. Come join us as we take you on nine amazing adventures that will change the way you look at your pet!
10% of the first month’s profits go to Hero-Dogs.org. Hero Dogs raises and trains service dogs and places them free of charge with US Veterans to improve quality of life and restore independence.
Veronica Scott’s story in the volume: Star Cruise: Stowaway
Cargo Master Owen Embersson is shocked when the Nebula Zephyr’s ship’s cat and her alien sidekick, Midorri, alert him to the presence of a stowaway. He has no idea of the dangerous complications to come – nor does he anticipate falling hard for the woman whose life he now holds in his hands. Life aboard the Nebula Zephyr has just become more interesting – and deadly.
- Veronica Scott presents: Where Does Your Story Actually Begin?
- Adding Stage Business to Your Story by Veronica Scott
- Strategic Planning by Veronica Scott
- Creative Research by Veronica Scott
- Secondary Characters in Romance – Yay or Nay by Summerita Rhayne