Limiting the Number of Characters

by Elizabeth S. Craig, @elizabethscraig 

This is the second post in a short series about making our lives easier as writers. One thing that I’ve tried to be more conscious of as the years have gone by is limiting the number of characters I introduce in a story or series.

With a cozy mystery series, for example, the field of characters is already going to be pretty crowded. You have a sleuth and a sidekick and around five suspects. And then you have recurring characters: friends and family of the sleuth and  some sort of police presence.

The more characters we add, the harder it is for readers to keep up.  And we run the risk of not having the space to make the characters more than one-dimensional.

One bit of advice is not to name every single character in your book.  The waitress at the diner can just be the waitress.  If we name her, we may be making her role in the story seem more important than it is…and leave readers trying to remember another name.

Another tip is to evaluate the number of characters you’re introducing. For my new series, I took a look to see if it was possible to combine roles.  In one instance I could, which just meant that a character needed to help out with a cat rescue at the beginning of the book.

More reading about combining character roles can be found here:

Clare Langley-Hawthorne’s “A Cast of Thousands

If you do have a large cast of characters even after combining roles, there are ways to help readers keep track of them. It’s a good idea to make characters distinguishable from each other by using quirks, diction, and recurring details about their physical appearance as reminders.

You can also tag supporting characters who haven’t been on stage for a while (Jane’s hairdresser, Sheri, opened the door). Or: Sheri walked in. “Long day at the beauty parlor, y’all. Three customers didn’t show up!”

More information on working with large casts of characters can be found here:

September C. Fawkes’ “Working With a Large Cast of Characters

As a reader, do you ever have trouble keeping up with a lot of characters?  As a writer, how do you try to help readers keep up (I’ve seen some books with a ‘cast of characters’ list at the front)?

Source: elizabethspanncraig.com

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