Wednesday, March 28, 2012

A Literary Pet Peeve: Too Many Characters

I have a few literary pet peeves. The biggest ones, of course, I've already ranted about in my Take the Anti-Douchebag Challenge post.

But another thing that bothers me is too many characters to keep track of.

Have any of you ever had a moment where you're reading a book, come across a character's name, and for the life of you can't recall who that character is, or why they're important? I have. And it drives me nuts.

It's for this reason that I try to keep my cast of characters compact. My female mc's usually have only one or two close friends, and it's not because no one likes them. It's because I get all sorts of flustered when I have to remember more than a handful of secondary characters in a novel, and I don't want to inflict that torture on anyone else.

Of course, if the characters are all unique, and all serve a purpose, and the author has made them all stand out in my mind, it isn't a problem.

But the sad fact is this: I may write about teenagers, but me and my brain cells aren't getting any younger. If you're going to introduce me to a clique of folks who all act and sound the same, I'm only going to wind up confused and annoyed by the end of the story.

For example, I have a huge Italian family, with 7 female first cousins. And two of those 7 are twins. So if I introduced you to all of them, wouldn't your brain start to glaze over somewhere around the fourth brown-eyed, brown-haired twenty-something girl? Exactly. Which is why if I ever write a story about them, I'm going to pretend there are only 3 or 4.

Would you want to remember all our names? What's that you say?
You have no idea which one is even me? Yeah, that's what I thought.

What about you, peeps? Do you get irritated when you need a roll call to keep track of the characters in a book? Or am I just old and forgetful?


  1. I'm exactly the same! I get really annoyed if I can't remember who someone is, because it tends to make you miss a lot until you realise who they are, and by then it's too late! It just gets confusing and complicated, and ruins the book for me.

  2. Oh, yeah, ESPECIALLY if they all sound the same. I think it *can* be done well - I mean, check out HP, with the kajillion characters we somehow all remember - but that's pretty much the only example I can think of.

    It's a bummer, too, because I'm thinking of at least one character I've had to cut that I loved because at the end of the day, she would have mucked up the waters.

    Oh - and I LOVE the pic of all the cousins. Like, so SO much. I've never seen a prettier group of ladies, actually. YOWZA.

  3. This irritates me too. I think if you really need lots of named minor characters, for whatever reason, you should keep their interactions to a minimum - so if the reader does forget who they are, it doesn't really matter.

  4. I think it's important to keep a manageable cast of characters--and to make sure each and every one of them is key to the plot. Otherwise, they're a waste of the reader's memory capacity!

  5. Just finished a fantasy book that had a glossary in the back to help keep all the characters and factions straight. It should have been placed in the front since I was struggling through the whole novel to keep everyone straight.

  6. I could not agree more! Worst of is when ALL of the characters are introduced in the first few pages of the book; then I really need a notebook to keep track of who is who. We have 250 some odd pages to work with in our manuscripts; no need to dump seven, ten, fifteen characters on me in the first five pages :)

  7. I agree. You don't want to many characters. Make them unique.

  8. I'm so glad so many people agree with me on this! When you need a flow chart and spreadsheets and glossaries just to keep names straight, how can you even enjoy the book?!

    And Leigh Ann- You're so right about HP. But it's because they were all so unique and vivid that it wasn't an issue. And that photo isn't even all of my cousins (3 are missing and the one holding the flowers is actually my aunt) but I think it got the point across :)

  9. It depends. There were more than twelve important characters in LJ Smith's the Secret Circle but she managed to make them all important and memorable. I definitely don't like 'click' or 'family' introductions, especially if we don't see the characters again or, what's worse, we see them way down the line and have to ask ourselves 'who are these people again?'

  10. It depends for me, too. When it's done well, it's not that hard to remember all the names (I second CQG's Secret Circle reference and Leigh Ann's Harry Potter, and add Game of Thrones to the list) and sometimes it makes the story come alive (eg, every time Stephen King introduces a character just to kill them off within that chapter or to share a funny, probably irrelevant, anecdote about the town in his story).

    But does the mailman need a name if he is never going to appear again in the story? Does the girl with the locker across the hall? Probably not.

  11. Ugh, I hate that! I feel that if a character gets a name, they should be essential to the story. Otherwise, stop confusing me. :)

  12. I agree! One of the most annoying things in trying to read what might be an otherwise good story.

    That being said, I think Leigh Ann made a great point: we remember the gajillion characters in Harry Potter just fine. I think it's all in how you do it. It's fine to have a gajillion characters, even if they all have brown eyes and hair, but there needs to be something unique that pulls you to each one. And, in the case of HP, you got to know each of these characters through constant, extended contact.

    My two cents.

    Visions of Other Worlds