Character lists in Novels – An Opinion – Guest Post by, Jaq D Hawkins…

Usually, when starting to read a novel, I don’t expect to come across a character list. This is the stuff of plays, the pages in the programme that tell you who’s who and how they fit into the story because you only have a short time during the performance to work it all out.

Occasionally, there is an exception. I open a new novel, ready to jump right into the story, and find myself confronted with a list of characters, pages long, sometimes even accompanied with maps.

The problem is, before I start to read the story, these lists of names and how they relate to each other are virtually meaningless. Whether the author expects the reader to memorise them or to refer back to the list several times while reading the story I do not know, but to me, it’s the mark of an amateur and of lazy writing, often a sin committed by someone who is in the habit of making character descriptions for gaming purposes and is using one of their game campaigns as a story plot.

I started thinking about this when I started to read a book by a very well known author and was immediately confronted with such a character list. My reaction was to bypass it and start reading the story, assuming the relevance of each character would fall into place as the story unfolded.

Nope. The story was written in a way that assumed pre-knowledge of the characters’ relevance and made no attempt to work the information into the narrative. I found myself wondering why that author, and that specific book, were so popular when to me, it read like something put out by a rank beginner who never paid attention in English class.

This method of not-storytelling has now joined present tense writing as something that will make me discard a book sample and move on to something else. What I now find myself wondering is whether it is just me or do other readers see this as lazy storytelling. Are there readers out there who actually prefer it perhaps? Having a reference to look back at if some part of the story becomes confusing?

I wouldn’t mind the list if the story were told in a way that assumes the reader hasn’t studied a list and that makes the effort to show the relevance of each character in context, but so far I haven’t found this to be the case in the examples I’ve seen. The information is offered only in an aside, like using footnotes in fiction, which I generally find irritatingly distracting (though I make an exception for Terry Pratchett because he gets some good jokes in that way).

What I would say to writers who are inclined to make a character list as part of a novel is that good storytelling works the relevance of each character into the story. If you have a large cast and wish to have a list as a reference, put it in the back and mention it in the table of contents. Readers who get lost can then refer to it, but keep in mind that the best stories usually focus on a small group of characters that the reader can care about and want to see what happens to them.

Note that J.R.R. Tolkien, master of storytelling that he was, separated his larger group into small factions that you could easily follow. The Fellowship of the ring had to break apart so that the readers could alternately follow Frodo and Sam finding their way into Mordor, or Faramir trying to save his people, or Aragorn seeking help from Rohan.

These characters all stand out in memory because each of them had their own story within the context of the larger tale. There are a lot of characters in The Lord of the Rings, but nobody ever needed a list to keep up with who was who. That is the sign of a story well told.

My Goblin Trilogy is on sale this weekend!

The Goblin Trilogy, complete!


Jaq D Hawkins

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  1. A character list might make sense in historical fiction or non-fiction, but not in a novel. The novelist is tasked with presenting characters along with all other aspects of the narrative. However, if there are lots of characters they could be at the beginning of sections that deal with them, or as a last resort, placed at the back of the book (where they will do little good unless the reader is informed of this at the preface).

    Liked by 1 person

    • Maps can be attractive. I haven’t used them myself because my Fantasy stories so far have real world locations. I will admit though, that before I start to read a story, a map doesn’t have context to me so those I will glance at later in the story when places have come up and taken on relevance.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Thanks for this. I started using character lists in my middle grade books to help readers keep track of who was who in which castle (especially if they’d moved since the last book). I hope I use the same dry humour that I loved in those by one of my favourite authors, Lindsey Davis. I think it helps in a series, but can be totally off-putting otherwise. But you’re right, having them at the start could be a turn-off – maybe I’ll put them at the back, or return to just linking to my webpage for them.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I can see how younger readers might benefit from having the reference available. The key is to write the story as if it weren’t there, so that the story tells them who the character is and how they fit in. Then if they forget, there’s no harm in having the list to refer to. Generally I would keep the major cast limited though, so they have no more than a small group to follow. Look at the popularity of Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew.

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Like you, a “character list” at the beginning or end is a daunting read – one I seldom take the time to scan. That said, Melanie Rawn placed a character list in the back of one of her “Dragon Prince” series books which I found interesting AFTER reading the book. I gave it a glance and noticed one or two names that caught my attention and read the information which basically was a geneaology. I’m currently working on an Amish series (about 4 or 5 books) that will span approximately 4 generations and am considering placing a copy of the “family tree” in the back of those books. Books 1 and 2 are about my main character and relationships are not really needed; but when I get to the children and grandchildren and their stories, I feel somebody might enjoy seeing how it all comes together in a family lineage scheme. Only those who are into genealogy would probably want to read it and it is not necessary to read to understand the stories. Otherwise, I agree, leave out the list of characters and tell me who they are in the story from great-grandpa Earl to second-cousin Jake and his flea-bitten mule, Emily.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes, something with a family tree could definitely benefit from a reference page. As I said to another comment, if you write as if it isn’t there so that your reader is learning about the characters from the story, then it’s good storytelling. A series as you describe could easily start with a few characters and develop with their descendants for subsequent books in the series.

      I actually do that with my Goblin series. The books take place about 10 years apart and new generations come in with each story, but with enough crossover from established characters to keep that familiarity and continuity.

      Liked by 1 person


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