Saturday, 12 January 2008

How many characters?

One question that any writer has to answer is this: how many characters (excluding the walk-on parts) shall I create for this book? For a writer of detective stories where plot is important, there is a particular challenge. Too few credible suspects, and the mystery suffers. Too many, and it’s hard for the reader to get a handle on who is who; it may also be difficult for the author to draw the people in sufficient depth.

A traditional stand-by in the Golden Age was the ‘cast of characters’ which helped readers to keep all the suspects straight in their mind. Ngaio Marsh and Christianna Brand were among those who made use of this device. So did the eccentric, but interesting, American C.Daly King, author of the ‘Obelist’ books. (I'll post more fully about King another day.)

Cast lists have fallen out of fashion to some extent in modern times. Some readers positively object to them, arguing that if a cast list is required, it’s a sign that something is wrong with the book. I understand this argument, but don't think it's necessarily correct. Cast lists are still to be found in some books, notably history-mysteries. Good examples are to be found in a couple of highly successful, high quality series set in the past: Lindsey Davis’s Falco books and the 1950s Lydmouth series by Andrew Taylor.

I tend to like reading and writing books with reasonably large casts of characters. From a writer’s perspective, perhaps large casts are easier to handle within a series, where the core cast is already established. Existing relationships can be nudged forward, while space is given to developing the characters who haven’t appeared before.

But the right answer to the question posed by the title of this post is probably that there isn’t a right answer. It all depends on the book in question, and on what the writer is trying to achieve.


Anonymous said...

I think it's a particular problem of the crime genre, actually, as the writer tries to suprise the reader by bringing out as many 'suspects' as possible. I read a Tess Gerritson book recently...I could not keep track of who was who, or what was doing what to whom, as each of the numerous characters melded into one.

Maxine Clarke said...

I agree with the post and the comment. A "standard" police procedural seems to have an average of six to twelve main suspects, plus a handful of the good guys (policemen, etc). Good writing, and the reader can hold that many in the mind without recourse to a family tree diagram!

But some of the more "psychological" novels don't have anything like that many. The Thirteenth Tale, for example, which I've read recently, only really had two characters.

So maybe "whydunnits" need fewer characters than "whodunnits"?

Martin Edwards said...

I agree. Only the very best whodunits work well with a tiny pool of suspects. Agatha Christie tested herself in 'Cards on the Table' with a mere four suspects, and did a great job, but it's not an easy trick to pull off. With 'whydunits', it's very different. As to family trees - I did include one in The Arsenic Labyrinth, but mainly because it was a fun thing I'd always wanted to do! A kind of homage to the Golden Age.

Kerrie said...

Perhaps you can have too many characters, and there have been authors who have solved this by killing some off as the book progresses - helps eliminate them from the lineup of suspects.
But one thing that does get up my snout is when the names of characters are too similar, and that adds to my confusion. I don't know why authors, editors and proofreaders can't pick this up before publication. Sometimes I think it is a deliberate ploy to get the reader's little grey cells working overtime.