Monday, 18 January 2010

Casts of Characters


I was away in Oxfordshire over the weekend and we stayed with someone who mentioned that he can find it frustrating if books contain plenty of characters. This is an observation I’ve heard on a number of occasions, often from very busy people who only have time to read books in short segments, and who therefore can easily lose track of who is who. I find the same problem myself from time to time.

When I returned home, I had the pleasure of finding a very generous review of The Arsenic Labyrinth on that splendid blog Crime Scraps (blog supreme Uriah occasionally sets a fiendish crime quiz – well worth looking out for.) Uriah made a comparable point about the complexity of the character relationships, and it made me wonder – yet again – whether it would be a good idea to include character lists at the start of my books.

This device was used quite often in the past (Christianna Brand and Ngaio Marsh both employed it, for instance.) In the classic reprints published by that excellent small American press, Rue Morgue Press, there are generally character lists. I find these rather helpful, but I do know that some readers are instinctively sceptical about books which start off with a cast of characters. Someone once told me that they wouldn’t read such a book, because they would infer that the writer hadn’t taken enough care to delineate the characters in a memorable fashion. A comment that deterred me from including a cast list, I must admit.

Incidentally, I should mention a clever mystery by Francis Beeding, The Norwich Victims. This went further by including photographs of the main characters – with accompanying red herring! Most ingenious, and it did make me wonder if there have been cast lists which contain clues or red herrings.

Anyway, I would be interested in the views of readers of this blog on casts of characters. Is there a revival of interest in having a cast list, would you say? Or is it to be seen as an admission of failure on the part of the author?

27 comments:

Margot Kinberg said...

Martin - I actually find character lists quite helpful. Even in novels such as yours, which are so well-written and where the plots are "tight," character lists are helpful. Now you're getting me to think that perhaps I should consider that...

Ann Elle Altman said...

I remember reading mysteries where they listed the cast. I enjoyed that. Often, I write the cast of characters myself when I read a book, just so I can keep tract of the people. I think it's a great idea.

ann

seana said...

Steig Larsson included not exactly a cast of characters but a family tree in his first book and it hasn't hurt his sales any. I found it quite helpful, actually.

I also like maps and floor plans though, too, so I suppose I'm on the side of reading aids in general.

I'm not someone who's put off by a large cast of characters though. Worst case scenario? I can always flip back and figure it out.

Bernadette in Australia said...

I've never thought of a character list as making a book less worthy - sometimes there is a need for it and I would never make a judgement on a book just because it has one. I have read a few books recently with one but apart from the Larsson I can't quite remember which ones. Especially where there is a large number of people from the same one or two families (therefore surnames are similar) it is helpful

Fiona said...

When I become absorbed in a book I tend to race through it and quite often have difficulty remembering all the characters. I find a cast list very useful.

But my husband says it's not the speed reading that's my problem, it's having the memory span of a goldfish.

Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

I loved the "cast of characters" idea, but like you I was hesitant to try it.

Instead, I have ALL my suspects in one chapter that a reader could flip back to. Christie did that frequently, too--a vignette about the suspect stewing over the soon-to-be-victim.

Elizabeth
Mystery Writing is Murder
Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen

C. N. Nevets said...

There are times I love character lists, but usually they are historical fiction where the following is true:

1) The names employed are contemporarily uncommon and too often too similar.

2) The narrative can unfold for several chapters between appearances of a key character.

3) The author assumes a certain prior familiarity with some of the characters, allowing the list to make up the difference for those of us who don't know King Henry VIII's chief wine tester.

It's a fortunately limited set of works that so require. I tend to feel like they're a cheat in a mystery, either for authors who aren't good enough writers to make individual characters personally memorable -- or for readers who are too lazy to put in the mental work of keeping track of characters and clues, which I find part of the entertainment of the genre.

That said, I also acknowledge that's a broad and almost certainly unfair brush, and I can't think of a time when I've actually refused a novel *because* it has the list. (I often give the author the benefit of the doubt and assume an editor prompted its inclusion, anyway.)

Uriah Robinson said...

Thanks for the mention, Martin. You joined a list of authors for whose books I frequently do a relationship diagram; Christie, Robinson [Peter not Iris], Dexter, PD James and Rendell.
I do have to make notes, or else I forget which characters are sleeping togethe,r and which characters have slept together. It is a bit like organizing the staff in a multi-surgery dental practice.

Hodmandod said...

My first novel had lots of characters, and the one I am writing at the moment has even more. Hope they are all very much themselves and don't need a cast list (although I put one on the firs novel's website www.oneappletasted.co.uk) I am looking forward to reading your work, now I have read the review tweeted by @crimeficreader.

Nicole_Hadaway said...

Thanks for including this as I'm working on my second novel and have toyed with the idea of a character list, especially since I had to make one up for myself the other day! I'm still on the fence, as I think that most of the characters are delineated in the novel clearly and the wedding scene containing several guests is only a chapter, but it's good to know that they are not frowned upon and many people find them quite useful!

Rob Kitchin said...

I make a cast list whilst writing so I don't have to go searching through to remember what name I gave a character, but I'm hoping that the finished book works okay without a character list - and I tend to have a lot of characters as I want the investigation to be realistic (major crimes are not investigated by an inspector and his trusty sergeant but by a massive number of officers). Perhaps this is something to think about, but it does also potentially signal what might happen later in the book or at least who is going to appear - I wonder when Dr Smith, the local doctor, the main protagonist's brother, is going to appear, etc.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks very much for these very useful comments, which make me think that I might just get away with including a cast list in future. One or two specific further thoughts to follow...

Martin Edwards said...

C. N. Nevets - yes, I think it is true that nowadays one is most likely t find a cast list in a history mystery, and for the reasons you mention.

Martin Edwards said...

Seana, possibly my all time favourite reading aid is the 'clue finder' used by C. Daly King in his Obelist books. Great fun.

Martin Edwards said...

Uriah - your reference to the unfortunate Iris Robinson counts as the wittiest I've read so far!

Martin Edwards said...

Hodmandod - thank you!

Martin Edwards said...

Rob - the signalling point is important. What is said about the characters in a cast list needs to be very carefully worded, I think.

seana said...

Uriah, I had no idea there was such a need for organization of the sleeping together at your typical multi-surgery dental practice. I'm wondering how the anesthesia plays into all this.

Fiona, the next time your husband makes such a slur against your memory, you might want to refer him to this post.

Martin, on a more serious note, I hadn't heard of C. Daly King before, but will certainly check him or her out if I can find anything over here in the U.S.

Minnie said...

Definite 'yes' to character lists where the dramatis personae amounts to more than, say, a dozen. I wish there had been one such in A S Byatt's 'The Children's Hour'. It might have prevented me from searching for real-life parallels from the novel's period setting (which DID distract me whenever I found myself doing it!).
Family trees are helpful in certain circs (historical fiction notably).
But photos of the characters? NO. Nononono! The reader must be able to picture those: it's a vital part of the process of engaging with a novel.

Simon John Cox said...

I'm currently reading Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel, and there is a cast list at the front. I skipped it entirely, until about a third of the way through when she started referring to characters by their titles as well as their names (e.g. Duke of Norfolk), and two characters had been Lord Chancellor at different times.

To be honest, including a cast list can't hurt but I suspect that if you need to include one to help people follow the narrative then it's a sign that you haven't planned your narrative well enough.

Although I suppose "true history" fiction - in which real-life characters feature - can be a bit of a grey area (as C. N. Nevets says).

I don't remember needing to refer to the family tree at the start of One Hundred Years Of Solitude when I was reading that, and the characterisation in that was devious (everyone called Aurelio or Aureliano or Jose or Arcadio or Jose Arcadio!).

Fiona said...

:) :) :)

Thank you!

Martin Edwards said...

Seana/Fiona - excellent link!
C. Daly King was an American Golden Age writer whose books are now very expensive in first edition, but there are some cheaper reprints around. Obelists Fly High is an amazing mystery.

Martin Edwards said...

Hi Simon. I haven't read Wolf Hall,but I'm intrigued to hear about the cast list.

seana said...

I agree that Children's Hour could use a character list, especially since I've stopped midway for the time being and it will be hard to put it together again. However,there is a party early on where most of the characters arrive and are identified, so maybe I can just go back to that.

I think character lists mostly come in handy after you've gotten a good way through the book an realize you're starting to bog down. But you have to put them up front so people will know they exist. One thing that's happened to me a few times is that I read through a novel with exotic terms of some sort in it, only to realize at the very last that a glossary has been provided in back. Too late!

Fiona and Martin--glad you liked the link.

I'll see what the library may have of C. Daly King, and keep an eye out in the used bookstores for less pricey copies. Fun to have something to search for.

Len Tyler said...

R S Downie begins Ruso and the Disappearing Dancing Girls with a cast list that is both useful and, in its descriptions of characters and how they interact with Ruso, entertaining in its own right. (I wish I'd thought of doing that myself.)

Nicola Slade said...

Both my Victorian cosy mysteries have a Dramatis Personae because it suits the type of book, plus I find it useful for sorting out who's who myself, let alone the reader! My reasoning is that if it's good enough for the likes of Lindsey Davis and Jilly Cooper, it's good enough for me! (It also gives me a chance to slip in a hint that there's humour in the book, and readers have so far been very much in favour of this device.)

Martin Edwards said...

Seana - good points, thanks.
Len - I bet you could do a highly entertaining cast list!
Nicola - greetings, the point about humour is well made!