Wednesday, May 29, 2013

How I Manage Large Casts of Characters

One of the most consistent pieces of praise I've received for the Eli books over their run is for my adept handling of a very large cast of characters. This might seem like an odd detail to single out, but hearing people say it still makes me happier than anything, because I worked SO FREAKING HARD on it.

To give you an example of what I'm talking about, my 4th Eli Monpress book, The Spirit War had 33 named characters (and spirits) the reader had to remember for the plot to make sense. Thirty freaking three! That's a stupid amount of people! And keep in mind, all these characters also had their own little plots spinning and intrigues and motivations that the reader was also expected to keep straight. That's a lot of brainpower for something that's supposed to be escape reading (especially since this book was coming out over a year after the third one).

When I sat down to write Spirit War, it didn't take long for me to realize I was looking down the barrel of a shotgun of my own making. This book could so easily have been a disaster, and no one knew that better than I did. So, since I couldn't cut characters or plot points I'd played up in previous books, my only way out was to figure out a way to keep my reader on top of this army I called a cast without ever letting them feel lost or overwhelmed by the crowd. To achieve this, I pulled out every trick I could think of (and invented ones I couldn't) to make sure my reader always knew who was who and what was up in any scene without resorting to telling. It wasn't easy, but in the end I pulled it off with flying colors. I also learned an enormous amount about the art of handling characters in a large world setting, and sense we're all about sharing the knowledge here at Casa de Aaron, I decided it was high time I made a blog post about what I learned.

Below, you'll find a list of the tricks and methods I worked out to make sure my readers remember who's important in my novel without making them feel like they're having to memorize a list. The key here is subtly and respect for both your book and your reader. I use all of these methods in every one of my own novels post Spirit War, and I hope you find them as helpful as I have. 

Ready? Here we go! 

0) Write Interesting Characters
I wanted to get this out of the way right off the bat. This is a post about making sure your reader remembers your characters, including all the minor ones, all the way through the novel, but the hands down easiest way to achieve this is to have a cast worth remembering. I am a huge fan of tricks of the trade, but if your people are boring, flat, tensionless, uninteresting, unmotivated, empty dolls, no amount of fancy handling is going to make them memorable. 

Readers want cool, flawed, interesting people of all kinds--people to hate, people to hang out with, people to fall in love with, people to admire, people who make them laugh. Novelists who can routinely meet these demands are invariably successful. So, before you do anything else, make sure your people are the sort of characters who deserve to be in novels. Otherwise, none of the following is really going to help. 

That settled? Okay, let's move on to the real post.

1) It's Not About Names
Are you bad at remembering names? I am. In my experience, most people in the world are bad with names to some extent, yet we can remember other, seemingly far less important details just fine--what someone was wearing, how a stranger's hair looks, if a store clerk was funny, etc.

Our brains passively remember an enormous range of bits and tidbits about the world around us, and a good writer can harness this to their advantage. When I introduce a character I want my reader to remember, especially a non-major character who will only appear in a few scenes that I don't want to waste time developing, I always make sure to introduce them with a telling detail along with their name. Maybe they have a scar or a weird hairstyle, or maybe their voice is oddly high. Anything memorable will do. 

Now, I don't harp on the detail, but I always mention it at least twice, because this detail has now become a label. Later, when I need the character to come back and do their job in the plot, I use this label in addition to their name to help jog the reader's memory. They might not remember Hans the Lumberjack, but they probably do remember that dude with the huge beard from back at the start of the book. This one recollection triggers others as the scene progresses, allowing you to deftly weave secondary, or even tertiary characters in and out of your narrative without having to resort to clunky "oh, remember Hans? He helped us back in..." type dialogue. Or, even worse, a character list! This might be personal bias, but nothing says "this is going to be a lame ass book" to me like finding a Dramatis Personae list at the front. It's like the author knew you wouldn't care about their characters enough to remember everyone, so they just caved and gave you a cheat sheet at the start.

Ahem, anyway, the point I'm trying to make here is that names are not how we remember people. Names are, in fact, your least helpful tool to make readers remember whom you're talking about. Readers are busy and impatient, which means if you want them to do work, like remembering someone, you need to make it easy. Give them something to grab on to, a label their brain can slap on and forget about until it needs that person again, and they'll generally play along.

For example, my character Slorn from the Eli Monpress series had a bear's head. Like, he was human from the neck down, but his head was that of a black bear. I reinforced this detail by calling him "the bear headed man" in my references to him within the text. His bear head ended up being very important for the larger meta plot, but let me tell you, NO ONE forgot who Slorn was (even though he made only brief appearances in the first few novels), and that was not by accident.

2) Give Them a (Social) Reason to Care
I'll put the obligatory "make sure your character actually needs to be in the story" line here, but come on. We all know that if a character doesn't serve the story, they need to go. Don't fill your book with meaningless garbage is, like, lesson 1 of writing. So we're just going to assume that all the people in your book need to be there for reasons you can easily explain (and if you can't explain exactly why a character needs to be in your book, see the previous sentence) and move on to ways to make sure your reader understands this as well.

So, as with every part of a novel, characters, even little ones, need to have purpose if they're going to earn their page time. But while it may serve you as the writer to have random Character A return at the climax to help the seemingly doomed heroes at a dramatically appropriate time, if you don't play up Character A's importance and give the reader a reason to think "hey, Character A is probably going to be important, I should keep them in mind" early on, then your ending is going to look slapdash at best. 

But how do you play up a minor but plot vital character without putting the novel equivalent of a giant, blinking "THIS GUY IS IMPORTANT LATER" arrow over his head and giving the whole game away? Simple, you just have to make them important in other ways that red herring the reader away from the character's real purpose as plot device. My favorite way to do this is to harness the universal human need to gossip.

Humans are social creatures. We always want to know about relationships, especially juicy, scandalous ones. Using this  nosy fascination is a very easy way to tempt readers into latching on to a character you're either not willing to, or don't have time to, develop at the moment. 

For example, in my Eli novels, I have a scene were two vital but (at the time) relatively minor characters hint through a bit of side dialogue that they are actually secretly the parents of my main character. GASP! This detail, less than 15 words all together, made a huge impact on my readership and elevated an otherwise minor sub-villain to major character status. The sudden elevation meant I was able to use her as the key character in a scene in the next book, turning an otherwise dull plot conversation between minor characters into a tense interchange between power players, which was a definite improvement. (More on key characters in a moment).

Harnessing our natural human need to be all up in other people's business is one of the most powerful ways to get your readers interested and invested in your characters, major or minor. The range of what you can use to hook people in is enormous: romantic entanglements, potential romantic entanglements, old scandals, secrets, feuds, all that reality TV stuff. There's a reason people watch those shows religiously, it's because they push our social buttons, and we as authors can use that same addictive power to make even our minor characters instantly rank as important in a reader's mind without being obvious about it, killing tension with explanation, or wasting words better spent on plot.

J. K. Rowling did an amazing job of this with Harry Potter. Think about how many HP characters you can name. I'll bet you dollars to donuts it's more than the main cast, probably a lot more. This is because J. K. Rowling is a freaking master of making us care about her secondary characters by showing us their places in the enormous social web she wove around her wizarding world. Because of this, when it came time to march out the armies of good and evil for the final battle, an enormous multi-character undertaking that could very well have been a train wreck of names and hex flinging, it all worked out, because Rowling made us care about all those minor characters well in advance, and so we as readers remembered every single one when the time came for them to do their job in (or die for) the plot. 

And this is why making your reader care about the characters is so important. If they care enough to remember who's who, then all you have to do is be clear about who and where everyone is at any given point and the reader will take care of the rest on their own, leaving you free to focus on plot.

3) Single File Introduction and Key Characters
Last year, I wrote a blog post about the art of revealing information in novels called "Teaching Your Reader Magic." The central idea was that a large and unsung part of writing, especially genre writing, is actually teaching. When you reveal your world to a reader who has never experienced it before, you are, in a sense, teaching them the rules you will be playing by for the duration of the novel. Like all teaching, whether you do this well or poorly determines your student/reader's experience with the subject matter. Just as a bad teacher can ruin your interest in a subject for life, bad/clumsy/poorly thought out writing can destroy the coolest of concepts. It doesn't matter how awesome your magic system or world is, if you can't explain it, ain't no one gonna care.

This also applies to characters. Think about when you go to a party and your host introduces you to a large circle of people, rattling off names as they go. Chances are, you will not remember a single one of those people by the time the introductions are done and you're left alone standing awkwardly in front of a bunch of staring strangers. Not good times.

Now, imagine if you go to that same party and instead of throwing you instantly into the crowd, your host introduces you to only one person, but that person has an amazingly interesting job or is doing something incredibly cool. They're also witty and charming, and they want to get to know you, too. You're gonna remember that person. Hell, you might even develop an instant crush on that person. 

This is the interaction I want between my readers and my characters. When I introduce a character, I try to show them being as interesting as possible, and I always give the spotlight to only one person at a time. I don't throw in distractions or other names or even other people (though I will use unnamed throwaway characters/archetypes to provide dialogue or tension, like a faceless guard or, in Eli's case, a door). Basically, I'm angling to recreate that one on one introduction and instant sense of connection/fascination of meeting an amazing person at a party, because once I've got my reader thinking of this fictional character as someone they want to know more about and spend more time with, I've got them hooked and I can safely move on to other characters or plot elements.

This very focused, single file method of introduction works best with main characters, but it can easily be used in a speed up version on minor characters as well by using the main, already introduced character as a bridge, or, as I like to call them, the key character. If we got back to our party analogy, your key character is like the host, they're the person the reader already knows who introduces them to the people they don't. A very good key character can introduce a reader to several minor characters all at once, but of course you have to keep numbers reasonable, stagger the introductions, and make sure everyone has a telling detail to aid in memory if you want to avoid the "oh my god who are these people? NOT GOOD TIMES!" reaction I mentioned above.

A good example of the key character in action is when Gandalf brings Thorin and his dwarves into Bilbo's house in The Hobbit. In this scene, Gandalf and Bilbo, both established characters the reader already cares about, act as key characters to provide context and relevance to what would otherwise be a crazy mess of 13 singing dwarves we don't care about. However, since Tolkein has been kind enough to provide us with hosts for his dwarf party, people we like who can rapidly establish why all this mountain song is important, disaster is averted and the book can move on with relatively little fuss even though I still couldn't name all the dwarves by the end.

By introducing important characters one at a time and then using these characters as anchors for the introduction of other characters, you ensure that your reader never overwhelmed by an onslaught of new information. Just like you teach your reader magic by introducing them to your world step by logical step, so do you have them learn your cast by introducing people either one at a time, or in very specific context to a character they already know. 

Pulling this off in your text can be tricky and requires a deft hand with the story's tension and pacing to make sure things don't get boring, but it's so worth it. By introducing people single file and using established characters to introduce new ones, just as you yourself would introduce your friends to someone new in the real world, you can ease your reader into an enormous cast with almost no strain, or forgotten names, on their part. Trust me, this is a very useful tool.

4) Be Smart With Your Names
I know I said waaaaay back up in #1 that names aren't how people remember characters initially, but that doesn't mean they aren't important. Once you've gotten your characters established, name becomes enormously important, because in a medium largely without pictures, that name is how your reader sees the character. 

Now, I am as guilty as any author of spending far too much time on Behind The Name and Fantasy name generators searching for that perfect name, especially when it comes to name meanings. But unless my reader is also on the web looking up the historical meanings of your character's, most of this fiddling is purely for myself. And that's fine, but when it comes to making sure readers pick up and remember the names of your characters, the criteria of what makes a good name is a little different.

First (and this is vital in genre fiction), the name has to be pronounceable. Most people hear the words they read in their heads as they're reading. This sounding out is vital to memory, and if they can't figure out what a character's name sounds like name, they're going to skip it. This is bad. You don't ever want your reader skipping anything, especially not a name you need them to remember for the story to work. Also, unpronounceable/unspellable names make it really difficult to talk up a book to your friends, and that's never a good thing. So no matter how much I may personally like a name, if my husband can't pronounce it off a sheet of paper, I pick something else. It's just not worth the risk.

Another thing to consider is how your cast's names work together. A big part of this is making sure people from the same culture have believably related names (none of this: "I'm Aiden and this is my brother, Wazakiki!") and just making sure your names fit into your world building in general. This is not to say you can't have someone with a radically different name, or even that you have to provide an explanation for it, but you do need other characters to at least comment on this oddity in the reader's stead to acknowledge the oddity. I didn't do this as much as I should have in the Eli Books and man, did I get flack for it.

In addition to making sure your cast's names fit within the context of the story, it's also good to think about making sure everyone's first letters don't overlap too much. Again, there's no law that says you have to do this, but a book where the main characters were Elton, Eliza, and Ella would get kind of confusing (unless, of course, it's a middle grade novel featuring three plucky siblings where the E names are a joke, in which case it's charming). 

Really, though, repeating first letters isn't a big deal so long as you don't have two characters sharing a first and last letter. For the reason why, see the example below.

Ain't the brain neat? Anyway, because of this phenomenon, character names that share a first and last letter, such as Eliza and Estella, are extremely easy to confuse. These days, my rule is that if I'm transposing the names myself while I'm writing the book, then someone's name needs to change. Because if I'm messing it up, the reader definitely will, and no name is worth that hassle to me.

Wow, this got a lot longer than I expected. I hope you enjoyed this Seven Years In Tibet of a blog post about making sure your reader keeps up with the cast of your book. As always, feel free to leave me a comment with your thoughts on the subject, and if you like my writing posts, I hope you'll follow me here on the blog or on Twitter! Thank you for reading and I hope you find this helpful!

Yours etc.,


ebooksgirl said...

Thank you thank you thank you for writing this post!

Not because I'm a writer myself, mind. But because I really wish I could read ASOIAF, but after three false starts I've given up. Why? Too bloody many people!

And yet, I've had no problem with the first three Monpress books, and am finally starting the fourth.

So if your post keeps even one author from making an amazing story into (to me) an unnavigatible mess, THANK YOU.

Emily said...

I love all your blog posts!! These have helped me more than creative writing ever did to help me with my story telling.

Aurelia B Rowl said...

Fab post; thank you for sharing.

I had a lot of characters to juggle in my current YA book, with more to come in later books in the series, so I suspect I'll be coming back to this post :-)

Unknown said...

Another thought provoking post! Your blogs always make me step back from my writing and look at things in New ways. Thank you. :-)

Rachel Aaron said...

Awww, thanks guys!! Knowing I helped you means a lot. I'm just glad this stuff is useful to someone other than myself! Thank you for the lovely comments :D

Tom said...

Rachel, Thank you for writing advice that is easy for me to follow and doesn't make me feel like I'm in a high school creative writing class! You are great.

Booksrgood4u said...

I just wanted to say - I'm weird when it comes to the names of characters I love, and yes, I actually did look up some of you rcharacters names.....Miranda means "Worthy of Admiration," which, of course, she is, and Nico means "People of Victory," which is totally *perfect* for her.

Just wanted to let you know that your time wasn't spent in vain :)

Rachel Aaron said...

@Booksrgood4u OMG YOU JUST MADE MY DAAAAAY! Thank you!!!!!!!!! <3s FOREVER!

Elinor Gray said...

Thank you for sharing! I'm always afraid of using more than a scant few characters, because I'm worried I'll lose track of them. Do you find that you know how many individuals you'll need when you start out, or do they occasionally come out of nowhere and become important?

arector said...

Good stuff! Thanks for sharing. Only into the first two hundred pages of The Spirit Thief and already loving it. Going to recommend it to my friend who is always looking for a good fantasy series.

Sharon T Rose said...

The best foot-in-seat I've read in a while. I tend to have HUGE casts, many of whom are relevant. I haven't been that good at keeping them organized, so this is what I needed. Thanks!


Anonymous said...

oh THANK HEAVENS somebody pointed out the thing about character names!

i have "nomenisia" and i can't remember names!

i wish a certain person, who had about 500 women characters, whose names ALL began with S... would have been smacked with this rule.

also, i read a book where the main character's best friend (a paladin), the MC's squire/servant, and the bad guy all had the same name, except the letters in the middle were switched around.

you would not believe how much time i spent in that book wondering why the very uptight paladin was plotting evil and bad-mouthing his companion, why the squire was being snooty and acting like his master's equal (or superior), and why the bad guy was running around fetching hay and water for the good guy...!


That Weird Guy Brent said...

This is fantastic and well thought out! Thank you for the insights, just another few tools in the belt!

Jill said...

As a reader, thank you for mentioning the first letter of the names issue. I can't tell you how many times I've been unable to keep the characters straight, and it's because of that very issue - several important character names starting with the same letter. It's such a simple thing, and it makes such a difference to the reader.

Taylor Bara said...

I would like you to review this post. Thanks!

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