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Monday, November 16, 2020

One or Ten Characters Too Many

One or Ten Characters Too Many by Debra H. Goldstein

The idea I have for the fifth Sarah Blair book I’m writing is perfect. It’s funny, it’s light, it’s going to be something readers enjoy. That is, if I can write it so it is funny, light, and fast paced.

Here’s the problem I’m having with it: The introduction of too many characters in the first pages is bogging down the telling of the story. The first 5000 words I wrote were good, but not quite there. I threw them out. The next 10,000 words I wrote were really good, but I could see it would be another 10,000 before I got the plot moving. I threw them out.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had a problem with too many characters to introduce. I like having a lot of people in my stories. Usually, by the second chapter, the reader has met eight to ten characters. This time, it is more like twenty-four – and that’s not counting RahRah and Fluffy.

My mind tells me to pare down my characters. Surely one can do the job of three. But this book is being stubborn. It won’t let me substitute one character in place of even two. I need every distinct character for the storyline to work.

Barbara Bradford used to put family trees at the beginning of her books so that when readers became confused, they could simply flip back to remember who was who. I remember hating keeping my finger in one page while I glanced back two hundred pages to find out the heirs of Simon, who being caught in an avalanche had little chance of survival. I don’t want to do that. I want the characters to be memorable.

But with twenty-four introduced at once, I know they won’t be. I think I have a solution to the keep the plot rolling along, but I’d love to hear any ideas you might have – as well as how many characters you enjoy meeting in the first few chapters of a book.  



Jim Jackson said...

I'd call the book "The Full Alphabet Soup" and have each character name a unique letter of the alphabet and double initialed. Like Jim Jackson for the J's and Zelda Zilch for the Z's. Then all you need is to find two more characters.

You're welcome.

Margaret S. Hamilton said...

I like lots of characters, maybe grouped by family surname? "Oh, she's a Spencer cousin."

Susan said...

I have occasionally heard my editor say, "Too many characters, especially at the beginning." I feel your pain.

Kait said...

I don't mind a lot of characters as long as they are distinctive.

I remember Barbara Taylor Bradford's family trees. They were wonderful in print books but I don't feel they work for e-readers. The print gets tiny. Rita Mae Brown includes character lists with brief bios at the beginning of each book. They are helpful and can be bookmarked in e-readers. Maybe that would help?

Shari Randall said...

Oh, I feel your pain! It's so hard when you have all these terrific characters you want your readers to meet!
I've used Jim's alphabet trick - as long as the characters and their names are clearly different (start with different letters, different number of syllables, a name that's just initials) I think you'll be fine. I read a book by a very well known author that didn't have many characters at all, but they all had names that began with "M" - the names were so similar I gave up.
BTW Like Kait, I'm a huge fan of family trees and character lists at the front of books, so maybe your readers won't mind a bit!

Barb Goffman said...

A lot of characters can work, but introducing too many of them in too short a period, especially at the beginning of a book, is the kiss of death. Readers have a hard enough time getting immersed at the start of a book, especially if they happen to be new to the series. You don't want them to be overwhelmed, trying to remember who a lot of people are. Do they all have to appear in the beginning? Or, do they all have to be named in the beginning? Could they all be there, but only some of them speak, so we only learn some of their names? That might be your solution. Because if you have too many names, your editor just might mention it as a problem when she sends her comments back.

Jackie Layton said...


You've made me feel so much better. Too many characters at once can slow the pace of a story. I've been questioning deleting one of my characters, but she provides a good source of information.

Good luck deciding what to do.

Paula Gail Benson said...

I've struggled with the same dilemma. Lately, I've found if I concentrate on the protagonist's journey, in particular the difficulties I throw in her/his path, that helps to avoid a wave of people appearing on the scene. There's no one solution.

Debra H. Goldstein said...

I'm fearful even with my creative solution that my personal editor may send it back with a cryptic note... I'm glad to know I'm not alone. Alphabet soup sounds like a solution, but not this time. Now, what I've done is stretch it out... let you know the characters and a sound bite about the pertinent ones, but then only developing a few at a time in the first three chapters or 30 pages (depends on the day I'm writing)..... which means I'm not getting to the murder as quickly as usual. Ugh!!!!!!!!!!

Jennifer J. Chow said...

I hear you, Debra. To avoid confusion, I try to sprinkle meeting new characters through various chapters. I also like family trees and lists of characters, like how Ellen Byron does in her Cajun Country Mysteries.