3 Ways to Manage a Huge Cast of Characters

Help Readers Keep Your Characters StraightEver read a book in which a huge cast of characters was dumped in your lap in a short amount of time? Confusing, isn’t it? Sometimes it’s even confusing to the point you put the book down and look for something more straightforward. As a writer, you want your book to be the straightforward one readers turn to.

In a historical novel I just finished, the author bombarded readers with one name after another, then expected us to remember all these characters when they were mentioned rather casually in further chapters. This is a no-go. In large books, with huge casts of characters, it can be deeply frustrating for readers to try to keep everyone straight.

3 Ways You Can Manage a Huge Cast of Characters

Here are a few tips for implanting character recognition in your reader’s brain:

1. Space Out Character Introductions

Spacing out character introductions not only prevents character overload, it also allows you the space to let each character show at least a little of his personality when you first bring him on stage. If you can give readers time to visualize each character and attach the proper name to the proper person, they’re much more likely to remember who’s who.

2. Give Characters Defined Personalities

If you absolutely must introduce more than a few characters at once, make sure you give them all defining personalities, so they don’t blend together. This can be accomplished through distinctive dialogue or reference to an interesting physical characteristic.

3. Pay Attention to Character Names

Memorable names make characters memorable (although you certainly don’t want to go overboard with them). Avoid giving characters names that start with the same letter or sound similar to one another.

Characters are the life’s blood of your story. Don’t trip up their effectiveness by making it difficult for readers to connect with them.

Wordplayers, tell me your opinion! Have you ever had to deal with a huge cast of characters in a story? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. Great! Thanks for the info.

    That’s great news about the site!
    I’m so excited to see the progress, and witness great changes.

    I’m also stoked about the consultation and Boooooooks!
    😀

    Thanks so much for being willing to share these nuggets with us fellow writers.

    Everytime I read your posts, I meander all through the site becuase I read several related posts, and the each one is richly packed with useful info.

    Much prayer and wishes for all the changes.
    Don’t get overhwelmed, though!
    You’re doing so much for us and still writing…you are truly appreciated. 😀

  2. Great advice, as always ;o) I’d love to see a newsletter! Some good changes coming up!

  3. Good advice — and I blogged about character names a short time ago, and shared my system for keeping names straight and less likely to confuse a reader. If you’re interested, the post is here

  4. @Kelly and Erica: Thanks so much for the encouragement! I’m really excited about the changes underway, and I hope it’s something everyone else will enjoy as well.

    @Terry: Brilliant idea! I added it as a link above.

  5. Glad to share. Everyone finds something that works — usually by borrowing bits and pieces, so I hope someone else will benefit from what worked for me.

  6. Definitely. The writing community works best when we all share with each other. The more we share, the more we learn, the better we write.

  7. Great tips!

    On the recent rewrite I started, I realized that while most of my characters names were different, I had 6 character names that ended with an ‘N’. Four of them got changed, and I’m much happier with the fact they don’t all rhyme now.

    Interesting changes to come! Looking forward to it.

  8. I inevitably end up having to change character names, usually due to the whole “sound-alike” issue. Thank heavens for Word’s Find feature!

  9. I’m excited to see the changes planned for your site! 😀

  10. Me too! I’m having fun with the planning stages.

  11. Good point. Introducing a big bunch of characters at the beginning can really swamp a reader, especially if they’re trying to load all sorts of other info too. As for similar names, I find it’ not such a problem if the names sound similar – but it is if the words look similar.

    Can’t wait to see your new site!

  12. Once we’ve familiarized ourselves with a word, our minds often look at the word as a whole, rather than the individual letters, so sometimes just similarly shaped words can be a problem!

  13. Great advice, as always. 🙂

    Congrats on the updates…can’t wait to see the new look for your site (not that I didn’t like the old one)!

  14. Thanks, Jamie! I appreciate that very much coming from you.

  15. Wow. I’m so excited about the new changes. That’s very impressive that you’re able to do all that.

  16. Thanks! It should be an exciting year – for everyone, I hope.

  17. These are great points! I’ve had to struggle with myself before on not giving characters names with the same letter or sounding similar as I have a father/daughter pair where one had a feminine name of the other but I worked it out with nicknames.

    I agree that it is very difficult to keep track of a bombardment of characters. I would find it hard enough to keep track of so many when I’m writing so I can only feel how difficult it would be for a reader!

    Thanks so much for this excellent post. =D

  18. Readers sometimes keep my characters straight better than I do. I’ve had people remind me of things I’ve written that I’d completely forgotten about. *facepalm*

  19. Things are looking really great for you it seems 🙂 Thank you too for the great advice 🙂

  20. The best part of my year has been meeting great writing folk such as yourself!

  21. Good tips as always 🙂 Good luck with the changes, can’t wait to see them!

  22. Thanks for commenting!

  23. Great tips! And I have to add, I watched a few of your videos (all useful), and noticed that you’ve been improving details of the production. This one seems to bring it all together and really nails it!

  24. Thanks, Blythe! The videos have been a learning experience, to be sure. I’m glad you think they’re improving!

  25. Hannah Killian says

    I have at least four characters whose names begin with ‘A’ in one story, but they start and end differently both in pronunciation and spelling: Aleksander, Anna (AH-nah), Adelheid, and Andrzej (AHND-zhay). Another character in the same story was originally named Adele, but then I changed it to avoid confusion with Adelheid.

    Also, one of the deceased characters mentioned in that same story is named Augustyn, but he isn’t mentioned by name, just ‘Papa’ or ‘Father’.

    • Not that it’s a total no-no, but I always try to avoid beginning prominent character names with the same letter. And if I start tripping over names myself and confusing them, I know I’m definitely in trouble!

  26. Practically every member of my Savage family characters has a different letter in their first name, except for four of them. Two of the family members names start with A and start with B, but readers shouldn’t get mixed up because those who start with A are different gender (Adrian and Ava), and those who start with B have the same first name, but the eldest son is called BJ by everyone (Ben Junior), while his father is called Ben or Ben Sr. For my other characters, many of them are called by nicknames, or Mr. or Mrs._______ whatever their last name is.

  27. I have more characters than I would prefer in my current WIP, 16 of some significance. But all of the characters need not be in play at all times. Some are first act characters, some second, and some from each of those become third act characters. They all have their time and place, and I think that helps keep them manageable.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Nothing wrong with a large cast. Many characters will be walk-ons and won’t really count anyway.

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