Excuse me? What’s your name again?

As many of you know, my Dear Hubby recently purchased a hunting dog. Her name was Sage which the entire family hated. In fact, New Dog didn’t even know her own name, she despised it so much.

We opted for Bailey. It has a nice ring while I’m standing on the driveway shouting her name across the neighborhood. “Baaaaay-leeeee! Come home, you stupid little….”

Yeah, she has other names besides Bailey.

Dumb dog.
Pain in the rear.
I-hate-you-stupid-animal.
Socks.
Sock-eater.

But only after she does something stupid. Like feed her sock addiction. Seriously, socks are like crack to her. She ferrets them out and can’t swallow them fast enough. I won’t mention what we call her when said socks pass through the digestive system onto our lawn.

Somedays we refer to both our hunting dogs as a unit.

Blanco. Because her coat contrasts nicely to our geriatric lab’s who has since earned the Spanish name el Negro after the color of her fur.

And if we’re really giddy, we lump them together as Schwarz und Weiss. DH and I both took German in highschool. Ebony and Ivory.

And then there’s Kallie. Kallie Cakes. Tubby. Chubby. Tootsie (when she lays down her legs stick out like toothpicks shoved into a tootsie roll) and Grandma Kallie. Did I mention she’s old?

Anyone listening to our family on a given day would think we have 207 dogs. Way too many to squeeze into our home. Both for sanity’s sake and space.

Novels can be that way too. When too many characters wander the pages readers get confused and can lose interest.

As writers, we must assess who we introduce to our audience, when we do so and why. If we can combine characters to make our manuscripts less crowded, readers will notice when characters piddle on the floor. Otherwise, important details may simply get lost in the chaos of having too many dogs in the house.

How many characters are essential to a good story? At what point do readers get character-overload? How do you combine and/or eliminate minor or peripheral roles in your manuscript? What’s the trick to knowing who actually needs to reside within your novel?

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12 responses to “Excuse me? What’s your name again?

  1. This was so difficult for me with the last ms! It’s a war book and based off of a war with literally millions of people involved. I couldn’t do a believable job telling the story with a small cast, but even a median number of people with Chinese names can be overwhelming to a western audience! I hope I’ve managed to do exactly as you suggest here and still maintain a place where people will believe in what’s happening, but it can get tough!

    BTW, we have two dogs. At times they are: Beowulf and Ducky, Smooshy Boy and Princess Waddle Duck, Idjit and Sweetheart, Dumbass and Cokecan (she looked like a walking one when we got her), Future Roadkill and Goodgirl. Have I managed to convey something of their personalities, too? LOL

  2. Too many characters are hard to do well. I remember reading Agatha Christie novels as a kid – she always had a slew of characters. I liked it when the novel included a list at the beginning of each character and a brief bio. Made life easier! 🙂

    • Ooooh, I haven’t seen a list of characters in a loooong time. Sci-fi mostly, which is always a good thing because I get lost sometimes.

      The other thing I love are maps. When the end pages show your character’s world…love that! Then I’m not so lost.

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  5. I don’t tend to have an overabundance of characters in my manuscripts.

    However, in real life, I, too, am overrun with nicknames.

    Our cat Bridget is also called “The Squog” “The Fuzzinator” and “The Filthy Kitty”.

    Our cat China Cat Sunflower is also called “Satan’s Little Helper” (she was evil in her youth) and “Old Lady”.

    And our cat Kismet is also called “Tweak”, “Barfy”, “Skulky McSkulerson” and “Old Man”.

    And finally, I feel your pain on the sock swallowing thing. Our cats are too small to swallow socks, but Mr. “Tweak”? He likes to eat string. Loooooooong pieces of string. Which results in the disturbing phenomenon we like to call “poop on a rope.”

    Needless to say, we are REALLY obsessive about NOT leaving string or thread where he can get at them.

    • Oh you know, I just had another thought on this. You CAN have a big cast of characters–if they all have distinct personalities. I think Cassandra Clare’s Mortal Instruments Series as a good example. She has a lot of characters, but they are fully realized. Sarcastic, arrogant (and secretly tender-hearted Jace) sounds nothing like geeky Simon or flamboyant glitter-wearing warlock Magnus Bane or glamorous, impulsive, cocky Isabelle . . . you remember who everyone is because they all make an impression on you, they all have different ways of speaking and moving.

      So I’d say, if you want to have a lot of characters, you would do well to really know all of them.

      • So I’d say, if you want to have a lot of characters, you would do well to really know all of them.

        Very true. Also true for a small cast. If we can’t flesh out our characters so they mean something to our readers, we have no business writiing them in the first place.

        Which reminds me…this is my biggest weakness!

    • I could not stop laughing over this, Michelle. My dear daughter thought I was having a heart attack. When I tried to explain…well…then she just thought I was crazy!

      Maybe I could use your string to tie our socks together.

  6. As a reader, I appreciate this concern. Nothing makes me feel dumb faster than having to page back through a book to try to remember who the characters are! I agree with Jemi- the list at the beginning with a short bio is a godsend!

    Nicknames are just who we are, part of how we express ourselves. Our dumb dog has many names, most commonly Dingle or Dingle-berry. There are many, many others; most of which aren’t fit to write in a public forum.

    • Becca,

      I love getting your reader input. It’s so helpful to better understand the audience we are writing for. Writers can live in their own bubbles sometimes and believe things we’ve heard–or simply want to believe–without paying attention to how those things really do impact our audience!

      Thanks for your comment.

      And how is Dingle-berry doing these days?

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