22 February 2016

Too Many Cooks...er,Uh...Characters

by Jan Grape

I love to read good books with characters I can care about, root for or at last give them a chance to grow on me enough to keep turning pages and finish the book. Sometimes I think an author gets carried away or else so many characters keep talking that he has to write them all down before they quit talking and he doesn't know what to do.

There are many, many books that have characters that I like so much I'll keep buying that authors books forever. Even in hardback because I can't wait for the next installment. Lee Child's books starring Jack Reacher is one. Child starts off many times giving you a bit of background, a bit of scenery or immediately telling you the problem that Reacher is facing. You may read twenty or thirty pages with only three or four characters introduced. There might be two or three other names mentioned but they probably aren't going to be major...like a sheriff who picks up the walking Jack Reacher or Navy lieutenant who will escort Reacher to a private jet. Before long you've read the aforementioned twenty or so pages and you are right there into the story and know what is going on.

I looked at a half a dozen books on my shelf and discovered that was more or less exactly what Harlan Coben, Sara Paretsky, Michael Collins, Marcia Muller, James Lee Burke and Bill Pronzini do. In the first twenty or thirty pages they will introduce their main character and perhaps two or four other characters that may have something major to contribute to the story. They may even mention three or four other characters who probably only have a walk-in part but are necessary.

Recently, I read a book by an author I admire very much but had not read in years. Everything was fine in the first twenty-five or thirty pages but suddenly a new scene opened up with two new characters. Okay, I guess these two were necessary. Turned out they were what I might call minor/major characters.

They showed up every so often and were important to the story but before I could turn around twice another major/minor showed up and then three more major/minor folks and this happened in the first fifty pages. And the real major character was lost in the shuffle in my opinion.

Honestly, it seemed to me as if the major character should be the one introducing in these other characters and not handling them all out at once. I more or less got so lost that I lost interest in the book. It took me weeks to finish it. And in between I read three other books.

No, I can't say I enjoyed that book as much and I doubt I'll ever purchase another by that particular author. The author did connect all the dots at the end but I mostly didn't care one way or the other. I may be the only one who feels this way but I don't think so. After thinking about it this week, I remembered when we owned our bookstore there were a few customers who complained about too many characters dumped on you immediately. I don't mind if you wind up with 79 characters but please don't dump them on me in the first forty or so pages. I confuse easily.

Which in turn led to my title...too many cooks spoil...er...uh too many characters spoil the book.

Let me know what you think. See you on down the road.


  1. I wholeheartedly agree and doubly so if the names can be confused.

    Once upon a time, novels provided a cast of characters, a practice I like. As I’ve mentioned, I’m (re)reading S.S. Van Dyne, and he provides such a chart of cast members. Unfortunately American and some British novelists have dropped that useful table. Lindsey Davis is one popular author who continues to provide them, often with humorous asides.

    Cast of Characters

    * Susan Cooper, Texas cowgirl packs a .44
    * Jan Grape, knows how to ride ’em
    * Bonnie Stevens, known only by her initials
    * Melissa Yi, an injection could prove fatal
    * Paul Marks, in a city without angels
    * David Edgerley Gates, remembers the past
    * Rob Lopresti, librarian with a catalogue
    * Eve Fisher, prairie gothic gunmoll
    * Brian Thornton, inculcates young minds
    * Art Taylor, writer of our discontent
    * Dixon Hill, one cigar, one stick of TNT
    * Melodie Campbell, mafiosa on a mission
    * Barb Goffman, she’ll ruin your holiday
    * John Floyd, hit man in a woman’s world
    * Dale Andrews, queen’s consort
    * Janice Law, lawless gal, legal tender
    * Leigh Lundin, rotten scalawag

    Nothing like a cast of characters.

  2. Very helpful post to me, Jan! I have just been thinking about this issue and trying to figure out how to deal with it when there really are a lot of characters involved but I don't want to be confusing. The notion of how and when you introduce them is VERY helpful! Thank you! And Leigh: you hit a home run with that cast of characters there! :-)

  3. Good stuff, Jan! It helps to see how other people view various aspects of writing. Sometimes it might make us change our minds about one thing or another.

    And love your cast list, Leigh! You pegged us all.


  4. Oh, Leigh - "prairie gothic gunmoll" - I'm putting that on Facebook right now!

    Back to characters - I don't mind a lot of characters, but then I love Victorian novels, and there are always more characters coming on stage in those.

  5. That is a hoot, Leigh! From now on, will use your tagline on my byline. Love Barb's too.

    Jan, problem is this: if you are writing an Agatha Christie style classic mystery, you need at least five good suspects, not including the two (usually) amateur detectives. I think for a thriller, you can have fewer character. But the delight of a mystery is having several believable suspects, such that the ending is hard to come by. Too few suspects (as I find in most current genre cozies) and the killer is often obvious. No challenge for me.

    I guess the challenge is to achieve that balance.

  6. A lot can go on after lunch (when I read) and it's hard to remember too many walk-ons. Sometimes I have to go back pages trying to find who Antonia de la Ferne is only to rediscover she was only the store clerk who sold chewing gum to the 7th suspect.

    Leigh has got a point. My tiny brain likes a list of people who appear.

    The wording is clever. From what I know, Melodie's, Melissa's, Paul's and John's are on the mark. Dale's the Ellery Queen guy? Writer of our discontent… I have to remember that. You have a great group.

  7. Leigh you really are a scalawag. But a clever one.

    I don't think 5 or 6 suspects in a cozy are not too many especially if you can make each one different and distinct. And hope there names are not too similar. Like 3 or 4 that all start with the same letter, like Marcus, Mary, Mellie, or Larry, Harry, Carrie, Jerry, Terry. That's when I can get very confused. But if you need five or more suspects, make their voices different too. Just take a couple of read throughs to see if a person reading might know each one is different. I'm guilty of having similar names and once I caught myself and had to search and replace.

  8. Good questions and good answers. Funny how those little throwaways give insight.


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