Monday, 31 January 2011

Should writers list their characters?

A very welcome arrival to the blogosphere is J.F. Norris, whose Pretty Sinister blog I’ve added to my blogroll. He covers some modern fiction – such as that very entertaining writer L.C.Tyler – but his main focus is on books from the past, and already he’s come up with some fascinating bits of information.

In commenting here, he also raised a very interesting question about lists of characters at the start of books, to help readers pick their way through. This used to be common in detective stories, but these days I’ve heard publishers argue that it is off-putting, and implies that the story is not clear enough to stand on its own merits.

I can understand this argument, and that some readers will draw an adverse inference if they see a character list at the front of the book. But I do tend to like them – for instance in the old books that Rue Morgue reprint. And some authors, like Christianna Brand, used to use them as part of the overall means of entertaining the reader.

I’ve been thinking about the other bits and pieces that can add to a reader’s pleasure in the last few days as I’ve been working with my American publishers on a map for The Hanging Wood. It’s fun to see my dubious draughtsmanship transformed into a rather nice piece of work by an artist. Maps seem to be coming back into vogue generally at present, not least in Scandinavian novels. A good thing!

So what will be the next device to be exhumed from the Golden Age? More family trees? Challenges to the readers? Clue-finders? None of them seem likely, I must admit. But you never know...


Anonymous said...

Martin - Interesting point about lists of characters. I actually like them, particularly if there are a number of characters in a story. Agatha Christie used character lists at times and I think it worked quite well for her.

J F Norris said...

Thanks for the welcome, Martin. Can I be considered a muse now that a post grew out of one of my comments? :^D

I love maps, too! I am a hopeless anachronistic wonder. They come in very handy especially in those books you mentioned by Scandinavian writers. I remember reading Johan Theorin's first book and flipping back to the map repeatedly to see the distance between locations mentioned.

On a similar topic: I wish there had been currency converters & glossaries in mystery books when I was a young man first acquainting myself with British mysteries. I couldn't keep any of it straight and it really bothered me. Not to mention those nicknames for your coins and paper money made my head spin. I think I finally memorized the old method of 20 shillings to a pound, 12 pence to a shilling (along with all the rest of it) just in time for it to be abolished.

Maxine Clarke said...

I often think a map would be useful - you do still see them in books occasionally (oddly, often when not needed!) but not that often. When a plot depends on very intricate aspects of location, distance, etc, it can be very useful.
Family trees - well, these can be confusing in themselves, possibly deliberately on the part of the author. In The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo there is a family tree of the complicated Vanger family but it misses out one whole aspect of the family, which is the crux of the solution. I don't want to give away spoilers, but I was not sure at the time whether this was a deliberate red herring or if not, what it was.

One thing I'd like but which has never happened, is a "short synopsis of earlier books in a series", just for people who have read earlier books but can't remember the exact outcome. Of course you can't find this from a review because of spoilers.

A series of books that shows very well what can be done with thought from the publisher is the Harper Perennial edition of the Martin Beck novels (Sjowall/Wahloo). Not only are there introductions to most of them from modern writers, but there is analysis, further reading suggestions, etc at the back of the novels. I found several new-to-me authors in this way.
best wishes

Martin Edwards said...

Margot, yes, the way Christie does it in Three Act Tragedy is rather clever, I think.

Martin Edwards said...

John, a muse, yes, why not!
Glossaries also could be useful in some cases, I agree.

Martin Edwards said...

Maxine, the idea of a 'story of the series so far' is very intriguing.
Maybe I should add something to the Lakes page of my website.
I agree about the Martin Beck reprints - this added material gives added value, I think, and I hope it becomes more common.

Eric Mayer said...

The books Mary and I have written have all had glossaries, and they have all had maps. We're hoping for the trifecta with the next book by including a list of characters as well. The main purpose would be to quickly sort out the wholly fictional characters from those based on real historical figures. If we keep adding more extras eventually we can dispense with the actual story part of the books!

Dorte H said...

I think lists of characters - and maps - are relevant in some books, but not all.

I think they may be useful in my cosy mysteries because I use so many peculiar names, and they may also be useful in translations. It is so much easier to mix up names from another culture than your own.

So if the author wants to include a list or a map, I suppose it is there for some reason - and if you don´t need it, you can just skip it, after all.

Juxtabook said...

I like lists of characters. It gives the writer the freedom to use larger casts without fear of loosing the reader. And a larger cast makes the plot can thicken!

A village map, a house plan and a family tree would be great too!

Martin Edwards said...

Eric, I like the trifecta!

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Dorte and Juxtabook, we have a consensus!

Anonymous said...

I am a new children writer. I thought about using my name or not. Then I realized that I would begin selling my book locally...and so..I wanted people to see my name on the book. Also..on line..anyone who knows me or goggles me will always find my book. If I used a different name..I think my initial launching would have not been so well received.