Most of us don’t go through life totally on our own. We encounter the letter carrier, grocery store and bank clerks, family members, relatives and neighbours, and our child’s coach or math teacher. We have conversations with people that may be anything from a trivial pleasantry to a life-altering exchange.
If we were to write our life story, would we include all of them in it? Not likely. Neither could we ignore everyone except ourselves. (It’s hard to keep even a memoir interesting when it’s all about us!) A large segment of life involves relationships, but if we include them in our storytelling, and give them names, they need to be significant to the plot.
Secondary and tertiary characters support our key players, the protagonist and antagonist, but mentioning them by name will signal readers that they are important to the story and must be remembered. Too many names, especially difficult-to-remember (i.e., Angaidh and Donnchadh) or too-similar ones, (Carmen and Carolyn, Bradley and Brandon) get challenging to keep straight. After a while they all blend together. We don’t want our readers focused on a Who’s Who guessing game instead of on the storyline.
Only main characters need to be memorable. Characters playing bit parts can be given minor identifying tags – features that make them temporarily visible – or very common names that easily slip from memory when the character disappears back into the wings.
As I see it (to borrow a phrase from my hubby), our main characters should be clearly identified as such early in the story. The few others who need to be remembered for their supporting roles should be named only if necessary and when they appear… and all the rest should end up as a blur of unremarkable nonentities.
Am I wrong? Do you enjoy books with ‘a cast of thousands’ and if you do, what’s your system for keeping everyone sorted out?
#10 on Elmore Leonard’s List of Ten Rules of Writing:
“Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.”
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3 thoughts on “What about all those secondary characters?”
Personally, as long as it’s a well-written book, I don’t care how many names I have to juggle in my memory. (Although it gets difficult in those long Russian novels where every characters has about 3-4 names.)
On a related topic, I recently read that War and Peace has 559 characters. Imagine being Tolstoy and having to keep everyone straight while writing the book!
Hi, Laura. I don’t do well with more than a handful of characters. Tolstoy must have kept a good notebook!
If there is a large cast of characters, I prefer written rather than digital so I can easily go back and review the character and how he/she fits into the story. I’ll persevere and keep reading if the writing grips me and hints at am interesting topic or theme. I also find that characters work better in my overtaxed memory bank if there are no repeats in first letters of their names, and quite a difference in them. Distinctive characteristics also help lock in the particulars. Maybe it is an age thing. Thanks for making us think!