Well, I’m pretty sure I’m ready. This is not my element, but I’m intelligent, capable. I can do this. I grip my drink tighter, just to steady my hand. My brain is racing. My palms are sweating. Other people seem to have no problem. How hard can it be to remember a few names? I’m armed with mnemonics. I search the crowd for little distinguishing traits: Cliff’s cleft chin, Blue-eyed Bridgette, something, anything to help me remember, but there are just too many of them. A few introductions quickly turn into a dozen. The faces swirl together forming an indistinct mass. These characters are no longer people, they are a crowd. They close in around me, and I begin to scream.
I’m not at a party. I’m reading a book, and the author has just committed character soup, the heinous act of introducing too many characters, too fast. I’m the first to admit that I suck at remembering names. I’m even worse at faces. I can meet no more than three people at a time and have any chance of remembering them, and if I’m being totally honest that only means that I will remember meeting them. A name with a face? Not a chance. If you want me to remember someone, I have to meet them one at a time, and then spend some time with that person, swap a few antidotes, a promise to friend them online, and then I can move on to the next person. The most terrifying experience of my life was the receiving line at my wedding. One hundred of my new husband’s relatives flew past like an assembly line. Fifteen years later, I still don’t know half their names, and now it’s too late to ask.
Writers don’t do this to your readers. Don’t introduce your entire cast in the first chapter. I won’t remember them, and I probably will close the book. I took my last literature class years ago, I don’t want to make index cards when I start a novel.
How bad is this problem really? I recently read a published book that intruduced seven characters on the first five pages. Only three of them were necessary. The others could have easily been pushed back to later. Because I was doused in character soup, I had no idea who was more important. I also had no opportunity to get to know any of these characters and make any connections with them. These are critical in the first few pages.
In another novel, unpublished draft for a CP, he introduced thirteen characters in the first chapter. Some of them had different names in the prose and dialogue. I had to reread these passages several times to even know who was speaking to whom.
In full disclosure, I’m not immune, either. In my first draft of my current MS, I named all 11 of my MC’s teammates in one paragraph! Then, later down the page when an argument broke out I, like any good elementary school teacher, passed the dialogue out equally among all the characters. *facepalm* Needless to say, I made a few changes.
So why is this so important? Readers want a story. they don’t care how big the cast is, they want to feel a connection. Running through a roster like its the starting lineup is boring. It delays the story.
It also doesn’t mimic real life. Conversations rarely happen like an open forum. Even in groups, exchanges happen primarily between two people. Pay attention next time you are at a party. There might be dozens of people around, but conversations occur in small groups of two, or possibly three.
What to do instead?
1. Plan your opening scenes carefully. Introduce characters individually and let readers spend sometime with them before introducing others.
2. Treat coupled characters as a single entity. Characters who always appear together, your MC’s parents, for example, or the twins (who in real life hate being called “the twins”) should be introduced together. Treating paired characters as a single entity in the initial introduction can also help clarify an important relationship, particularly if they are secondary characters. In my MS I have a couple who never appears separately throughout the story.
3. It’s ok to use subtle name clues to help your readers remember characters. This can easily be done without relying on overused tropes and stereotypes. I doubt there were few people who didn’t change Luna Lovegood into Loony Lovegood as they read. This is a great trick for managing large groups of secondary characters.
4. Find a distinct trait to identify your character and refer to this trademark trait after a long absence. Does the character’s habit of chewing his nails annoy your MC? Remind your readers. They will be far more likely to remember the character.
5. Refer to a character by their occupation, rather than name them. If your character needs to get stitched up, just call the woman with the needle “the doctor.” If she isn’t part of the story, she doesn’t need a name.
Make it easy for your readers to remember characters. Then they won’t have to spend their time with their thumbs in the index trying to remember exactly who is this guy again? And they can just enjoy your story.