It’s easy to remember the protagonist, the love interest, the antagonist, the sidekick. But how to keep track of a multitude of supporting characters? We don’t want our readers to start asking themselves, Which one is Zoe anyway? Was she the high school dropout or the nurse on the evening shift?
- Naming characters memorably can help readers keep track of your characters, but it can feel a bit Dickensian. Charity Pecksniff, Abel Magwich, or Cleopatra Skewton may or may not suit your style and genre. Nonetheless, characters like JK Rowlings’s Hagrid, Dumbledore, and Severus are certainly easier to track than Tom, Dick or Harry.
- Homer tops all in the use of the dynamic character tag. He uses powerful descriptors and repeats them throughout his tales : “white-armed Andromache” (also Hera, another wifely character), “swift-footed Achilles”, “grey-eyed Athena”. And my favourite, arguably a character, “the wine-dark sea.”
- If ours is an epic tale such as Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series, we’ve got appendices of names sorted by family or birthplace that readers may consult.
- But it’s worth looking past the cast list, far more closely at Jordan (and at Brandon Sanderson, who brilliantly finished the series when Jordan died). Jordan is too much of a master to leave it at lists. He tags his characters cleverly with actions or repeated thoughts that remind us of their conflicts – Nynaeve, short-tempered, gifted in the One Power, and beautiful, is always tugging hard at her long braid, while Mat, the attractive reluctant hero, always has a new way of feeling sorry for himself where women are concerned.
Our readers look to us to keep them firmly centred in the time, place, and cast of the story while they enjoy the ride we’ve invented for them. The stronger the centre, the more fantastic the story can be.