What about all those secondary characters?

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.

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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.

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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?

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#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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