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.
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The Goblin Trilogy, complete!
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