Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Writing Wednesday: Cast of Character? Don't Do It!

If you read last week's writing rant, you know I spent two days in a car with my middle child and all his stuff, driving to Chicago to drop him at college. It was a great trip - easy driving, easy conversation switching between anxiety and excitement every hundred miles, for both of us. But he's there now. He's happy and settling in and loving it - so far so good.

Since we rented a car to drive out there, we were able to fly home... so of course I downloaded several new books to keep me busy. Yeah, I tend to panic at noisy landing gear and screaming babies so absorbing myself in fiction is the way I ignore my fear of flying.

The first book I downloaded opened with a CAST OF CHARACTERS page.

On page one.

Before the book even started.

And it wasn't a simple cast of characters, as the story was a convoluted tale of a philandering billionaire father - recently deceased - who had multiple daughters by different women throughout his hotel chain, none of whom knew each other. I mean, the blurb sounded kind of good or I wouldn't have downloaded it.

However.

Instead of working to organically introduce us to the various characters, the author took the easy way out and SPELLED IT OUT FOR US BEFORE THE STORY EVEN STARTED.

Instead of SHOWING us who the women were as the story naturally unfolded, she flat out TOLD the reader "Here are all the secret daughters and who their moms were and what their specialties are."

The very first chapter starts the day after the father's funeral, at the reading of the will, from the POV of the oldest legitimate daughter, as in, she and her sister had a mom who actually married this cheating asshole. But her shock when the others were introduced wasn't nearly as effective as it might have been if the CAST OF CHARACTERS hadn't preceded the first chapter.

In addition to that, giving me that list to read and ponder first thing, right up front kind of predispositioned me to despise the now-deceased father, who slept around while his wife was not only still alive but home with a small baby and then had a second daughter with her while he was busy fathering all these other kids around the country. When I got to the second chapter where she reads the letter he left her explaining his actions and reasoning, and she accepted it all ---- well, yeah, I closed the book. Maybe it got better, but I'll never know.

Are you tempted to add a CAST OF CHARACTERS to the prologue of your novel because you think the reader will get confused by the number of characters you're introducing and who they are and how they fit into the scheme of things? DON'T.

Go back and work on rewrites until you can make each of those characters memorable in their own right, with no need to explain beforehand to the reader who they are or why they are important. It's a hell of a lot more work, but it makes for a much stronger story, a better read, and a more satisfying explanation when the reader can unfold each character organically.

And if you can't keep them all straight in the body of the story, maybe you should consider using fewer characters. The only place a reader should see a CAST OF CHARACTERS is when they read a play.

What's your take on using a "Cast List" at the beginning?

21 comments:

  1. If you need a cast of characters at the beginning for fear your readers will be confused, you have way too many characters. Scrap the descriptions and concentrate on heavy editing instead.

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  2. I'm reading one that didn't have a list of the cast of characters, but spent the first chapter introducing each one individually. Long paragraphs of each character and how they were related to each other. I almost quit reading. I agree that the characters should be introduced as the story evolves.

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    1. I dislike that method of introduction as well. More telling the reader instead of giving the reader clues to piece together that show who the character is and how they relate to the others in the story. Again, more work for the author, but so much more satisfying for the reader.

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  3. The only time you should have a "cast of characters" is in your plotting notes. And it should never be seen by any other eyes! Yikes! If the author has so many characters that a "cast of characters" is required, then the book is not worth reading, in my opinion. Also, even without the cast of characters, if there are THAT MANY people in that book, the reader will never keep them straight to begin with. I once stopped reading a book on page 8 because those first pages were filled with a bunch of characters and short descriptions, which made me think they were all important - there were over 30 - and I was already confused by who was who and what they meant. The book went right into the giveaway bin on the back porch for my next trip to the thrift store...

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    1. Plotting notes! Right! I keep my cast of characters on index cards for handy reference early on in the writing process for continuity too (like, did I say she was 28 or 29?)

      And if your cast of leads goes upwards of 30, you'd better be George R.R. Martin and plan to start killing them off pronto.

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  4. Lol @ start killing them off pronto. I agree with your assessment. It's the writer's job to introduce each organically, as the story unfolds. I can't imagine doing otherwise, quite honestly.

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    1. Thanks, Lori. That's what I thought too when I wrote this post...

      But now, reading the next few opinions, I can see other viewpoints on the subject as well. Maybe there are proper places for cast lists - but I promise that the book I deleted from my Kindle was NOT one of them.

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  5. I completely agree with you as it pertains to contemporary novels. If a story needs a cast of characters to begin it, the writer most likely needs to revise the book. I do think there are some exceptions to this wise rule. One is Russian literature. It's not so much the amount of characters that is confusing here, but how many names each character has (typically 3). Further, it depends on another characters relationship to the first, on which of the three names he used for that person. In this case, I was very glad for the cast! I also think in some big historical or fantasy epics, where lineage is important to gain thrones etc, the cast with the lineage is helpful. At least those are my thoughts. Great topic!

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    1. I agree that Russian epic literature can be confusing. I also agree that in sweeping fantasies like the Lord of the Rings it's highly useful and helpful to have a genealogical chart at the back of the book, and a map or two -- and I think those particular books do have both of those... so I should clarify and say contemporary romance shouldn't require a cast list up front.

      Thanks for making me clarify! And thanks for adding a slightly different perspective...

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    2. Thank you! It's a terrific post and it got me thinking where and when it is appropriate for me. It was a fun exercise.

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  6. I have to play devil's advocate, kind of. :-) When we're talking SERIES as in Julia Quinn's Bridgeton series, then I can see the merit in the cast. In fact, when I actually read her "cast," after having read nearly all of the Bridgeton series, it gave me that aw shucks feeling because I knew and loved all of the characters listed. So I guess I'm saying there are exceptions, or can be.
    Very thought provoking post! Loved reading it.
    Kimberly Keyes
    https://facebook.com/kimberly.keyes.romance

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    1. Okay, but that's a whole series, right? So maybe it makes sense where each book probably focuses more on different character stories and if you're picking it up in the middle of the series - or if it's been a while between books, it's good to have a bit of a refresher.

      Then again, J.K.Rowling had a rather large cast of characters by the end of her series and I don't remember seeing a cast list...

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    2. Kimberly, I didn't mean to sound harsh - oh my god, I'm cranky this afternoon, but the dogs finally stopped barking at the poor HVAC guy, mainly because he finished and left. And yeah, I do appreciate when there's a series and there's some explanation in the later books for those of us who might have missed something. Thanks for adding your thoughts to the conversation! Don't let my crankiness scare you away!

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  7. LOL! You didn't sound cranky at all! In fact I really appreciate your frank discussions. It's a hard thing because we authors don't like to criticize each other, but on the other hand, talking about issues like these helps to hone our craft.
    You rock, Katie!! ((hugs))

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    1. Thanks, Kimberly, and thanks for putting up with me! I totally agree that if we talk about these things (in a fun way) it can be good for all of us. Chrys Fey does something similar on her blog (more often than I do)but she's a little more serious. I'm more of a WTF kind of ranter, lol.

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  8. I agree, Katie. Sounds like a great way to lose a reader right off the bat.

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    1. Certainly in a contemporary romance... thanks for stopping by, Jeannie!

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  9. Wow. Never heard of opening with a cast of characters. Would not occur to me. Movies have a cast so maybe that gave the author the idea?

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    1. I think maybe Susabelle was onto something with the plotting list - maybe the author just got used to it being part of the manuscript and didn't think twice when she published it along with the rest. (Yes, it was a self-pubbed book.)

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  10. I should add, it doesn't sound like something that would work in a book.

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