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Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Keeping Characters Straight #RB4U by Michele Zurlo

When there are a lot of characters, how do you keep them straight? A peek into Michele Zurlo's brain and writer's notebook.

Have you ever read a novel with a lot of characters and had a hard time keeping them straight? Writers have the same kind of problem, especially when writing a series. The first few books aren’t that hard. We’re focusing in on the main couple, and so is the reader. By the third book, readers want to see cameos from the couples they love. When we’ve spent 100K words with someone, we know them, so keeping them straight isn’t a problem.
It’s the new characters who throw us off. Not only do they have small roles, but they’re usually not integral to the plot. We’re all focused on the main couple. Will they outsmart the villain? Will they get together?

But then those minor characters show up in the next novel—as the main character.
Discerning readers look for inaccuracies, anything that doesn’t follow from previous books. Oblivious ones (like me) will not even remember them. In Re/Defined (DFBI 4), I introduced some minor characters in order to move the plot forward. When Brandy Lockmeyer suspected that the villain was someone in the FBI, she needed outside help, and they had to be people she trusted. Enter Jesse and Frankie—security specialists.

They were minor characters, but they gave me ideas. They forced me to fill in their backstory so that I could write Re/Leased (DFBI 5).

As a teacher, you’d think I would be good with names, but you’d be wrong. I keep calling my 7-year-old cat by the wrong name because he looks like a cat I had growing up. I once went an entire school year calling a girl by the wrong name, even though it was spelled correctly in my electronic attendance program. (In my defense, she never corrected me; I found out 5 years later when a friend of hers told me.)

In my writer’s notebook, I keep lists of names and attributes. The picture I took for this post shows the page I started when I thought up Frankie and Jesse, and you can see (black, and then purple, ink) where I added on when I came up with David and Dean. You can tell from the cross-outs that I change my mind a lot. You can also tell that David’s name was originally Wes. I used that name as a temporary placeholder because naming David and Autumn was a contest I ran when I was writing the story. I am using that page a lot now as I’m brainstorming the first book in the new series, which follows the adventures of the SAFE Security team.

And here I editorialize: Readers shouldn’t need a notebook to keep track of characters. Authors should develop the characters, even the minor ones, enough so that a reader can keep track of them. Using a system like mine (or even one that’s typed up or even written legibly) is a valuable tool that enables authors to plant those small clues that allows readers to identify and differentiate one minor character from another. You never know when someone with a small part is going to get a starring role.

Midwestern Book Lovers Unite:


Cara Marsi said...

Thanks, Michele. I've been confused at times by all the characters in a book I'm reading. I, too, have some problems keeping track of my own characters. I once used the same name for a villain in two unrelated stories. My editor who'd edited the first story with that villain's name, picked it up. I didn't.

Jane Leopold Quinn said...

Great post, Michele. Keeping track of characters and their backgrounds can be challenging for the author, especially if the book is multiple partners. You have to be really creative to write scenes and not over-use their names. Writing is hard work! ;-)

vicki batman said...

Very good post. I have a spread sheet filled with names because I was afraid of name repetition and yes, it has happened. In two very short stories, I used Ben. And put the works in a small collection. Two readers said they were confused about the two Bens. Sigh. Never saw that coming.

Melissa Keir said...

Great and helpful advice. :)

Judy Baker said...

Good post. I keep a spread sheet with all the characters' names, personality, all the little things that matter, like their height, eye color, color of hair, facial expresses, habits, etc. (also how they relate to the main characters). I can't tell you how many times I've referred back to the chart. Big help.

jean hart stewart said...

You definitely need a chart if you're writing sequels. Who married who and how many children they had can get very confusing. Good post, thanks.

Janice Seagraves said...

I have a similar note book about a yet to be published series, but I wrote in pencil. There are a lot of erased parts and I've moved some of the titles around. A couple of pages further in are my character lists.

Good luck with your series and I wish you many sales.


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