Monday, June 2, 2014

How Many Characters Is Too Many? #amreading

I'm about halfway through Believing the Lie, one of Elizabeth George's Inspector Lynley novels, and just realized how many characters she's woven into this story. There are the same half dozen primary characters that run through the series, but this book has a host of others that are key to the plot - at least a dozen who had motive, means, and / or opportunity to commit the murder Lynley and team are investigating, plus a few other supporting characters with important roles.

What surprised me is that I am halfway through the novel and only now realizing how many characters she's created. That tells me George has done a seamless job of building these characters in my mind, to the point that I have no problem remembering who is who and how they fit into the mystery and each other's lives.

I realize that some books have many more characters than this - particularly if they span generations or move into other worlds. But mysteries are usually pretty compact when it comes to characters that are central to the story. There are always those characters necessary to move the plot along - detectives, lab technicians, folks who knew the victim but aren't actual suspects - but the core characters essential to the mystery remain limited.

I wondered how George had done it. How she managed to pull me into this world that's so busy with people, yet help me keep them all straight. And here's what I think:

1.  She introduces the characters at a reasonable pace over the first third of the book, giving me some history about them and their place in the story. Just like in a crowd at a party, I have a better chance of remembering people when we get to know each other a little when we're introduced.

2.  George gives me touchstones for each character, a way to remember them. Sometimes it's a physical characteristic, like the journalist who's nearly seven feet tall and has blazing red hair. Other times, it's a personality tick, like the kid who tears at the back of his hands when anger overwhelms him. With another character, George uses the woman's constant scheming to bring her role in the story back to me.

3.  She uses those touchstones in each scene where that character appears. Sometimes by mentioning the hair or the journalist's size. For the scheming character, George references the woman's Zimmer frame (walker). Those two words remind me that she's the character who's lying to her parents about her health, and blackmailing her father over an infidelity.

4.  George gives her characters distinct names and there's very little room for confusion. Bernard is the dead man's (Ian's) uncle and isn't sure Ian's death was accidental; Kevah is Ian's gay lover (or maybe he isn't gay, and only wanted Ian's property); Mignon is Ian's scheming cousin; Manette is her twin and opposite in personality; Zed is the bumbling journalist; Vivienne was (and might still be?) Bernard's secret mistress.

5.  The last thing George does is build a compelling story. One that absorbs me. That fact alone keeps me interested in the characters, regardless of how many there are. This is a mystery and so far, there's only one murder. I usually prefer a few more, but in this case, I need to know who killed Ian, or if his death was just an accident as the coroner ruled.

Is it possible to have too many characters in one book? Oh yes. But a talented author finds ways to anchor her characters in her reader's minds, helping them come to know these characters as if they were real.

How do your favorite authors help you remember their characters? If you write, how do you help readers keep track of your characters?

photo credit: Alexis Gravel via photopin cc
photo credit: x-ray delta one via photopin cc

photo credit: Gae-Lynn Woods, 2013