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


  1. I googled you after reading your tweet. Warned me that your account may have been hacked. FYI only

    Jerry Herlihy Also a recovering banker and CFO

    1. Thanks so much, Jerry. Hacked site is now down and a safe site is up and running. I appreciate you!

  2. Yes. Definitely. Absolutely.

    From your article it sounds like Elizabeth George is handling her characters masterfully, but, in answer to your question, here's what goes through my head every time I'm tempted to introduce a new character.

    1: The number of characters introduced (even if handled deftly) has a direct impact on pace, just like anything else. Will this new character slow things down?

    2: Each new character introduced means I'm risking pulling the reader away from a character they may already feel invested with -- or time away from the characters they love. Will this new character add to the narrative, or simply frustrate the reader?

    3: And, of course, the introduction of a new character might mean a lost opportunity to more fully develop an older, existing character. This happens to me all the time. I'm constantly swapping out new characters for old favourites. In my last book, I can't believe one of my most beloved characters almost never saw any page time. What was I thinking?

    1. Fabulous observations, Cary, and solid ideas for consideration before allowing a new character to come on board. I really like number three - sometimes those old characters are what keep readers (and the author) coming back!

  3. Characters... I've learned a lot as a script writer and editor. I do believe it is possible to have too many. How many people can you dress, give unique qualities and a unique voice? (how much room is there on the stage? aka your reader's mind)

    1. Good comment about the stage, and linking it to your reader's mind. You're right, we've only got so much headspace to fill!

  4. I often find that I enjoy the panoramic in fiction much more than the stifling intimacy of only a small number of characters.

  5. If a novel deals in huge themes, I'm usually only really satisfied if there is a reasonably large cast of characters.
    Most recently, even though I loved Matt Haig's The Humans (funniest thing since sliced bread) I did feel it was a tad too domestic in its focus. After all, it is about an alien sent, intergalactically, to alter the course of human history. And yet, it only contains a very limited number of characters!

    1. I think you're right - there is a balance. If a novel is sweeping in scope, across geographies or generations, we'll need more characters to keep the story moving. If the author is talented, a reader won't realize how many characters they 'know' through that story.

  6. These are great tips to remember when I get to my editing stage. I am writing a multiple POV and of course, the multitude of characters is key to my story. It remains vital not to confuse the reader and create a relationship between them and every character I introduce. Twice the work, twice the pleasure of creating a character!
    When I read Colum McCann's Let The Great World Spin a few years ago, I was amazed at the subtlety with which the author introduced his characters (over a dozen, by the way). I would say that, as long as the characters serve a purpose, there can be as many as needed.

  7. In Book #1 of a series I'm writing, I literally had one main character and 6 side characters removed by my Book Editor. She felt that there were simply too many characters and that these were throwaways. That they didn't bring anything really to the story. I did, but she didn't. I took her advice and concentrated on the ones I still had (which to me were sizeable). I think if the author is able to have a clear visual for the reader to remember that character and a reason for them being there, then yes, it's great to have a lot of characters in a novel. It's when there are too many, with too long names and not a clear description that I flounder remembering who they are.