Tuesday, 2 February 2021

Enough already

I like novels that focus on one or two characters and explore their lives and personal-ities in great detail. I get to know them so well they become extremely vivid, almost flesh and blood, and I can really get to love them or hate them.

Novels with too many characters drive me nuts. Firstly I can't keep track of them and I have to keep reminding myself who is who, who's related to who, who's shagging who, who does what job, who died, who has a nasty illness, and so on till I'm thoroughly confused. It doesn't help that I have a memory like a sieve and will forget the character on page 51 once I'm on page 52.

Secondly, when there are so many characters you never get to know them in any depth. They flit in and out and often are little more than shallow caricatures. You know the sort of thing - Jim the controlling husband, Karen the timid wife and their two children, truculent Simon and well-behaved Tessa.

And once they become caricatures, it's hard to tell them apart. Is this uncle one, uncle two or uncle three? They're all grumpy, opinionated and doddery. Which is which?

So why do authors flood their books with so many characters? One author, Anne R Allen, confesses: "One of my personal writing issues is I tend to pack my books and stories with way too many characters. If a fascinating person walks into one of my stories, I feel it would be rude not to let them join the party. This drives my editors batty. They think confusing the reader is worse than being rude to fictional people. And of course they're right."

Right now I'm re-reading Bodily Harm by Margaret Atwood. I love it precisely because it centres on one person - Rennie - and tells you more and more about her.

Rennie sticks in my mind. Not so, uncle three.

28 comments:

  1. I rarely read fiction but will read all of Lee Child's and David Baldacci's books precisely because their stories revolve around one central character.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I think it's oK to stick with one or two characters if you really like them. Otherwise, unless they're very well portrayed indeed, I find myself starting to think, "you know, I don't actually CARE what this person does!" On the other hand, there's always someone to be interested in in Kate Atkinson#s books. She is smart enough to make sure that every character is involved in a different sort of activity and strand of the plot.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Jenny: There's always that risk that you won't care much about a small number of characters. But I find that even if I don't care about them, I'm usually fascinated by the way they think and behave.

      Delete
  3. I love a novel with great characterization and lots of dialogue. I don’t mind a lot of characters, but please don’t name them Sue and Bob. That’s where I get lost.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Bijoux: I also like lots of dialogue. Dialogue zips along nicely without lots of unnecessary verbiage. Indeed, names like Sue and Bob crop up far too often.

      Delete
  4. I don't mind other characters providing there aren't too many. When I start a book I write the characters names as they appear, and a brief description of their involvement. I like Margaret Attwood but have struggled to understand some of them.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Polly: That's a good idea, to make a note of each character as they appear. I think Margaret Atwood will always be best known for The Handmaid's Tale.

      Delete
  5. I don't mind a lot of characters in book series but not standalone books. In a series you can gradually get to know all the different characters.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Mary: Yes, if there's a series of books, it's easier to keep up with all the characters.

      Delete
  6. I seldom read fiction...I prefer memoirs, biographies, and history.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Jean: I read the odd memoir, but history doesn't interest me very much.

      Delete
  7. I have just finished Vikram Seth's 'A suitable boy'. Four families, post independence Indian politics, at least two religions and goodness only knows how many sects...it must be well written as I did not lose track of any of them.
    Whereas a lot of novels with fewer characters see me confused rather rapidly.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Fly: That sounds horrendously complex. I admire your ability to keep track of it all. Strange that fewer characters can get you confused!

      Delete
  8. I'm not a fan of fiction. Biography, autobiography, classic authors. I'm working on American midwest authors now. I just finish the entire work of Willa Cather. Excellent.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Joanne: I've never read any Willi Cather. Perhaps I should give her a go.

      Delete
  9. I'm glad to hear it is a preference! I thought it was just a victim of my aging memory. LOL.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Tammy: My memory was never much good. Jenny can follow very complex novels with a mob of characters quite easily.

      Delete
  10. I also get confused at the beginning of a book if I'm presented with too many characters - but if I stick with it, and if it's a good author, then I eventually cotton on to who's who - but it means that I have to read a large chunk of book in one sitting, and recently I just haven't had the concentration to do that.
    Sx

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Ms Scarlet: I've never been able to read huge chunks of a book at one sitting. I get restless very quickly and have to take my books in short stints. Jenny can easily read most of a book straight off.

      Delete
  11. I'm reading a series right now where there is a group of women who are friends. Too many of them to keep track of. But, while many make at least cameo appearances in each book, each book focuses on the story of just one of those friends. That works for me as I'm now familiar with the women in previous books.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Reply: That sounds like a good way of introducing a series of characters.

      Delete
  12. Too many characters can be a problem, but it depends on how they're presented. I really have liked John le Carre's "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" and some of Jeffrey Archer when I'm in the mood and alert enough to try to keep track of everybody. On the other hand many times I do enjoy reading Margaret Atwood and some others partly because they're less trying on my 'thinker'.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Joared: Some authors are very careful to follow the characters in such a way that I can keep up, other authors just spray characters at me until I'm quite bemused.

      Delete
  13. I agree, if I have to keep track on a sheet of paper, I quickly give up. In depth character exploration is far too important for me to persist if it's not there.

    XO
    WWW

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. www: I don't even get as far as notes on a piece of paper. I just get overwhelmed by all the characters and give up.

      Delete
  14. I don't mind many characters, but it does take longer in the book to get into the flow of the story since you have to learn everyone. I read a book recently where it was told from the perspectives of four different characters. I had to go back a couple of times early on to figure out whose voice I was reading. But I only like it if the characters stick around and are well fleshed-out.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Agent: What really annoys me is when there are a number of prominent characters and the author keeps switching from one to the other without naming them, assuming you'll somehow deduce which person it is.

      Delete