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too many names

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Caged Maiden, Jan 10, 2014.

  1. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

    IN my WiP, I have a big cast. I have five spies, two mcs with families (siblings and parents) and about twenty secondary characters with names.

    The thing is, I've heard from critters that it's hard to follow the names, but I don't see a way out of it. I mean... these are people it would be difficult to not name. At the wedding, their families are there, a brother mentioned a few times in the novel and sisters and a sister in law... but is it reasonable to not give them names?

    I'm trying desperately to fend off reader confusion while still trying to be realistic. What do you guys think?
    skip.knox likes this.
  2. Saigonnus

    Saigonnus Auror

    Perhaps in the style of Robert Jordan or Joel Rosenberg, include a Dramatis Personae at the front or back of the book which lists the players, their relations and their functions within the story. This could at the least lend a hand to confused readers about a person's identity within the story.
    Caged Maiden likes this.
  3. T.Allen.Smith

    T.Allen.Smith Staff Moderator

    Yes, I think it's reasonable to not give names, depending on what their story role is.

    Without reading the piece, my first instinct is to ask if any of these named secondary characters are pulling double duty. Are they similar to any other character, as far as their role in the story is concerned? If so, I'd cut or merge.

    Secondly, I approach these situations similarly to description. If they have actual story importance they get a name. If they are more or less unimportant to story happenings, what's the point in naming them? It's great for you to know all of these background characters & who is related to who, but does the reader need to know or will the story be fine without these names?

    Like description, if I overly detail everything, the important bits (the ones I want to focus reader attention toward) might get lost in the shuffle. I'd rather reserve names for important characters with real roles and relevant dialogue.
    Caged Maiden likes this.
  4. MVV

    MVV Scribe

    I like the idea of including a list. However, the question is: can't it create even more confusion? There are characters that are really important for the story and there are others who don't.

    Try to give the characters remarkable names. This may sound too obvious but keep in mind that a good name is crucial for the reader to remember the character. Also, try to give them names that aren't too similiar to each other.
  5. buyjupiter

    buyjupiter Maester

    I like lots of characters in books. I would get confused if the characters referenced their sisters not by name but by relationship. I do prefer dramatis personae at the front of the book if there are a ton of secondary characters.
  6. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

    thanks, I might have to do that. I agree, it's distracting to name people by relationship, and really, a lot of the characters only appear once, at a wedding. But who wouldn't look at their sister and use her name? That's the parts I've been really upset by... taking out the names. Otherwise, I have to take away the people, and that almost seems worse... missing family members?
  7. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    I don't think a large cast is a problem in fantasy, based on a survey of what is out there in the genre. I think this underscores one problem with beta readers, which is that as compared to the target audience, beta reader feedback is insignificant. If you looked at it purely statistically, they're not a meaningful sample of the audience.

    That doesn't mean they have know value - I think we all have readers we trust and whose opinions we give weight to. But what it does mean is that even if every beta reader you have dislikes something, that doesn't mean the target audience at large will dislike it. So you always have to use your own judgment in assessing comments from such readers, and sometimes you have to resolve to continue on your present path even if more than one of your beta readers says the same thing.

    I certainly wouldn't decrease the cast or stop referring to people by name. If there were multiple names that were so close in appearance on the page, I might change some of them to provide greater distinction.
  8. AnneL

    AnneL Closed Account

    Readers do get pretty confused about names a lot more than it seems like they should. It's really easy to skim over the name of some off-stage minor character and then three chapters later when there's another off-stage minor character thinks it's the same person. I find the character lists helpful for big epics, but it seems like there's always a minor character who didn't make the list that I can't remember their role. If a lot of these people only appear at the wedding, maybe you could have a list just for wedding guests with their relationships to the happy couple? If it's getting confusing because too many people are talking to each other at once, that seems like a different issue.
  9. C Hollis

    C Hollis Troubadour

    To me, it seems almost a staple in fantasy.

    I finished Mistborn the other day and the first "name-confusion" that comes to mind is when Vin goes to the balls and Sanderson fills your head with names of different nobles (many of which never hear from again).
    I've been re-reading Song of Ice and Fire and in book 2 or 3, Martin lists off ships involved in battle in a single paragraph, and for me, the names didn't mean a dang thing after they were turned into driftwood.
    How many sisters did Jordan name in the Wheel of Time that had no bearing on the story?

    I think someone already mentioned oftentimes (especially on critters), our stories get critiqued by someone who is not generally a fantasy fan and things like this have a larger impact than they would on a fantasy reader.

    I wouldn't ignore the feedback, but I wouldn't take it at face value either. Review the wedding and make sure the names you want remembered are presented in a manner where they have a greater chance to stick in the readers mind.

    Like someone said before "Jack this is my sister. Sister this is Jack" just doesn't work.
    Caged Maiden likes this.
  10. TWErvin2

    TWErvin2 Auror

    Much depends on how the characters are introduced--their relationship to other characters (drinking buddy, mortal enemy, relative, mentor) or how they're connected to the plot (thief, braggart, tavern owner, noble, healer, guardsman).

    If the reader learns who they are in context, and are gently reminded who they are if they show up later, that works fine.

    The problem seems to occur when trying to introduce a large cast all at one time, especially when the reader is just getting into the story. That isn't the concern/situation with your novel, Caged Maiden.

    I will add that good names, sometimes ones that help the reader place the character (who they are/what they do), it sometimes helps. Not possible with all characters, but when it can be done...never hurts.
    Caged Maiden and wordwalker like this.
  11. Philip Overby

    Philip Overby Staff Article Team

    I read lots of books with tons of names. I don't personally have a problem with that. For me, it's easier to keep up with characters who stand out in some meaningful way, even if they're a minor character.

    As an example, Ser Dontos is an important character in A Song of Ice and Fire books, but is relatively minor on the TV show. He has a significant scene, but it's rather short. The reason the character is memorable is because he shows up drunk before Joffrey. Angry that Dontos is drunk on his birthday, he forces more wine on him until he throws it up. Then Dontos is escorted away. He's only seen again later in a sort of background role.

    My point is, despite Dontos being relatively minor, his scene stands out clearly in my mind. He serves a purpose in that he shows how cruel Joffery is becoming and also shows that he will not tolerate fools and drunkards as knights in his court. I remember who Dontos is because of what happens to him and how he stands out from other characters. That's one thing that helps keep up with lots of characters: making each character distinct and meaningful. As T. Allen mentioned, merging characters can help if you have characters that are too similar.

    I do find a Dramatis Personae helpful for books like A Song of Ice and Fire, The Wheel of Time, or Steven Erikson's Malazan the Book of the Fallen series. All of these series have huge casts that grow and grow as the series go on.

    I always tell anyone I crit that my opinion is just one opinion and that each writer has to ultimately chose their own path. If a large named cast is that path, then that's what it has to be.
    Last edited: Jan 10, 2014
    Caged Maiden likes this.
  12. wordwalker

    wordwalker Auror

    I'm with TWErvin2: this is one of the things fixed by keeping the moment active-- aka viewpoint. If the VP character (or if there isn't a clear one, at least the mood) emphasizes "this is the key thing we know/notice about this guy right now, that matters," the rest can fall into place behind it. "Random noble 7" can have a name and a token description but if he doesn't appear with an agenda or effect right off, we can treat him as scenery. If he does, we've got what we need to build on.

    Granted, I think characters that don't add a strong attitude or effect to the story are worse than a waste of space, but if the subject insists that you have some "extras" walking around, you can still present them as such. (Especially if you try not to mention them by name after that scene.)

    Also, be careful about names that are similar, even in their initials. "Spider-Man" was deliberately spelled with a hyphen because he's only three letters different from "Superman," but the Dragonlance saga still makes me do the odd double-take because its comic relief is usually written "Tas" while its long-suffering hero is "Tanis." Oooops!
  13. A. E. Lowan

    A. E. Lowan Forum Mom Leadership

    For Faerie Rising so far we have a pretty big cast - 8 POV characters; 7 protagonists, 1 antagonist. That doesn't include the non-POV characters, at least 2 dozen, mostly representing the various preternatural groups of the city, and the main antagonist. That's just the one book. For the whole 12 - 15 book series we're pushing 400 named characters, and growing the further we develop.

    Our beta readers haven't blinked. The reason? We've been lucky in that we were able to chose our 3 beta readers very carefully. They all fit our target audience, which for dark urban fantasy romance is basically women ages 25 - 49 who read fantasy. No one gets to read our WIP's who doesn't read the genre, and by no one I include our parents. They only get to read published works. So, as a result, we haven't had any complaints about anyone getting confused by characters, at least so far.
  14. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    Much depends on how they are introduced, as TWErvin2 says. You say many appear only once, at a wedding. If you are having them introduced in dialog, "Hi, Skip!" then it's just a name. It's dumb to say "Hi, Uncle Skip and Sister Deb and Cousin Melinda." But saying "Hi Skip, Deb and Melinda" is almost worse, for the reader. Instead, I'd pull back and do a survey. This could be omniscient POV or first person.

    He looked over the crowd and recognized relatives first. Name, name, name, maybe a distinguishing characteristic or a quick reminiscence. He smiled to himself. He had so many relatives, he felt sympathy for newcomers to the family, trying to remember all these names and faces.

    If MC happens to talk to Cousin Melinda in a subsequent paragraph, the introduction has been made. You could even make sure the little detail or memory is attached only to the ones who will have a speaking part. You could break the foregoing into subsets, this group of friends here, that group of relatives there, rather than listing all fifty at once.

    But I sort of agree with what others have said. Does the story need that many? Sure, the family units do; they're real families. They have kids and cousins. But all we really need to know about Family G is that Bob the eldest is a drunkard and is insufferably mean to his three little sisters. We don't really need their names, do we?
    Caged Maiden likes this.
  15. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

    I think that is exactly what I have going on. My frustration seems to stem by maybe readers not knowing which names they can forget because they are "scenery" BTW, I love that word. I have a lot of named scenery characters. Is there a simple way to indicate a person is scenery?
  16. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

    I think if I were to trim out characters, I could certainly do without the sisters, but again, it's weird to have this MC as a POV character and not use his sisters' names. Also, I tend to use secondary characters for interesting foreshadowing, so I like them to be named persons, even if appearing only in one or two scenes. I can, however, make them stand out more like Phil's drunk man example.

    I have a scene where a spy tracks down a guy they're looking for. She questions the girlfriend... how could I not give her a name? It's things like that, that are making this troublesome. I have several scenes, where people are socializing in groups, and for the POV to say, "She saw the guy she was looking for, over by the wall, with four other guys... talking" doesn't really work as well as, "She saw Giovanni Massoli over by the wall, speaking with Carlo Dafan and Senatore Parisi. Interesting, a loan shark talking with a senator..."

    Yeah, the names aren't important, what's important is who they are. But how to do it without over-naming people who aren't important...

    This has really been an issue for me. I hear my critters, loud and clear. They want easy names that aren't too similar and they don't want too many thrown at them at any one time. They want each person to be described but not overly much, and they want the important people to stand out.

    I really feel like that's what I'm doing, but for some reason, it seems I haven't found the right way yet. Frustrating. Is there some way I can clearly indicate "THIS guy is scenery... please don't remember his name beyond this scene?" No one feels worse about this than I do. I really want the names to come easily, lend an authenticity to the book without being a chore, and be memorable. Problem is, I know I have too many names, but it just feels weird to do away with all the ones I'd call erroneous, because those people are identified by the POV characters. When my characters enter a building, they don't greet the doorman by name, of course, they say, "Good evening," and slip him coins. It's those people however, who they recognize, that I'm really having a hard time with. This is a mystery novel, so i cant simply do way with all the extras, or there's no mystery.

    Am I overthinking it or is a name index in the front just the logical solution?
  17. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

    oh, and one more question. Is it weird if in a scene, where you haven't seen an "extra" in a while, for me to reintroduce him like: "Giovanni Massoli exited the house, his cousin, Carlo, right behind" Like, its it lame to remind the reader of the relationships between the people who are less important, or should that actually be encouraged? I do it in a few (necessary?) places.
  18. skip.knox

    skip.knox toujours gai, archie Moderator

    Hm. Your critters have the advantage, as they've read the actual MSS. The bit about the sisters caught my eye. You say they are sisters to the MC.

    First question: why have sisters at all, unless they actually have a role to play in the story?
    Second question: if they are strictly scenery, they could all be grown and moved away, couldn't they? Why have them around?

    If they have a role to play, though, then by all means name them. If their role is one-time only, you could pre-introduce them by having your MC think about them. They key there is to let the reader see the name and some associating characteristic before they actually walk into the scene.

    As for your critters and easy names, make them read Dostoevsky or Tolstoy and then dare to complain. Or even just read Henry VI! Critters must criticize, right? They might read Jordan and not blink at all the names, but if they'd got the manuscript for critiquing, they might well have said, along with the Emperor: "too many notes."
  19. Caged Maiden

    Caged Maiden Staff Article Team

    the sisters are only there for the wedding. and a sister in law is really rude to his bride. So she's important to the scene, but the rest are only his family in the background. I think I have to just consider having a name index for the characters people should remember, maybe that's indication enough? Or do you include background characters in that sort of thing, too?
  20. Gryphos

    Gryphos Auror

    If the sisters are only there for the wedding, it might be an idea to cut them out. Or if you don't want to cut both out, you could cut it down to one sister and use her name. It's just an idea.

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