Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Getting into (TOO MUCH) Character

Cheryl Wyatt here. I was delighted last week when Joan Marlow Golan, Executive Editor for Steeple Hill Books, recommended Brandilyn Collins' Getting into Character as one of four resources for writers.

I met Brandilyn at an American Christian Fiction Writers www.acfw.com conference. Not only was she a savvy MC, she took time out of her demanding schedule to encourage me and a group of friends. Many agents and editors recommended Getting into Character during panels so I bought it. Brandilyn shows how applying acting technique and theory improves characterization. I learned a ton from the book and still use the techniques today. This book goes very well with Deb Dixon's GMC.

You might notice the title of this blog post says Getting into (TOO MUCH) Character. I want to talk about some pitfalls of characterization today, with special emphasis on ancillary characters and secondary characters. Ancillary characters is a term I came up with from working in the hospital. You have the main nursing floor but then there are what are called "ancillary" departments. Though they are non-medical or main, they are still valuable, crucial even, to the inner workings of a hospital and patient care. They serve some kind of purpose. You can liken that to ancillary characters in a book plot. Main characters are obviously your hero and heroine or protagonist and antagonist. Some people refer to them as "leads."

Every ancillary (and secondary) character should serve at least one valid purpose. That purpose needs to be of paramount importance to the plot or setting. If not...nix 'em.

Secondary characters are those of the next level down from your "leads" of significance and importance in the story. Normally someone close by way of friendship, proximity or relation to the main character/s.

Ancillary characters are everyone else in the book. While not crucial, they are important, yet more in the background of the book. They're like props. My B & B had to have an owner and my restaurant a waitress. People like that. I combined the two and stuck the restaurant in the B & B and viola! The B & B owner doubled as a waitress. That cut one entire character. Better than cutting half a character I guess. EW! LOL. Condense, combine and cut them wherever you can.

Also, ancillaries don't always have to have names. In fact, if them having a proper name is not vital to the plot, refer to them by title. For example, "The garage owner" or "the police officer" etc. Do this whether they make one appearance in the book or several. That helps your reader keep track of the more important, named characters. For category-length books, I try to keep my cast around 7 named characters if I can help it. This includes animals/pets. It's harder to do that with a running series where readers want to catch glimpses of leads from previous books, but if I have to use more than 7 characters total, I severely limit the time those ancillary characters are "on-stage" in the book.

The main thing is you don't want your reader to sweat bullets of agony trying to keep up with who is who and to who. Make sense?

Another pitfall is not introducing the hero and heroine right off the bat. I judged a contest entry recently and by the end of the 25Th page, I still had NO idea who the hero was. Several men had interacted with the heroine by that time. This was a short contemporary romance, so I encouraged the author that I felt we need to know sooner who the hero is because, according to the synopsis, there was no good plot reason for the slow reveal. Readers need to meet the hero and heroine in the first chapter if you're targeting category romance...the first page or few if you can manage that without jarring the reader with a too-short scene break or POV (point of view) switch. In other words, make clear who the "mains" are as close to the beginning of the book as possible.

Antagonist. Ancillaries. Hero. Mains. Leads. Protag. Heroine. Secondaries. Antag. Secondary. Villain. Lead. Protagonist. Primary. Am I confusing you yet with the many different terms I'm using?

I'll bet you wish I'd just quit it and stick to the only two things I'm talking about: Main character/s. Secondary character/s, huh?

In much the same way, this frustration is what readers can feel when you call the same character by more than one name or continually switch the way you say their name. Pick one name per character and be consistant throughout. Only veer from this when you HAVE to for a vital plot purpose. Vital organ (character) means the body (plot) absolutely CANNOT survive without it. If your story can thrive without a character, question whether you truly need them. Save them for another book. Conserve. LOL!

Secondary and ancillary characters are great tools to reveal your main characters' good traits and even their weaknesses and vulnerabilities in a natural way. It can come out during dialogue or interaction between characters.

Don't let other characters steal the spotlight off the leads, even if you're setting the reader up for a sequel using that secondary character. The hero and heroine need to remain in the forefront, especially in romance.

And, don't be offended if you've done this...but my biggest pet peeve with characters is when an author gives an animal or pet in the book a human name. That confuses the daylights out of me. It's a flaw on my part, rather than the author though because I have a TERRIBLE time remembering names. Whether it be in books, or in life. SO, for the love of dogs (LOL) please give your next story pup a canine-y name rather than calling her Charlie. Oh, yeah...that's my other difficulty. When females are given male names. I have stories I've done this in (not submitted yet) and it drives my critters bonkers. So don't do that if you can help it.

*Try not to introduce too many characters at once. Give the reader a chance to ease into it and get to know them.

***The biggest thing I want you to come away with today is to make sure that you don't have too many characters in your book. That is probably one of the most frustrating things to readers trying to engage in your story.

*Another secondary/ancillary character pitfall is when you have more than one name for the same character. I have a character whose name is Vince Reardon (A Soldier's Devotion). But all through the Wings of Refuge previous books, he is referred to as "Reardon" because that's what he prefers. In his own story however, the heroine made it a point to call him Vince. It was tricky because the heroine called him "Vince" yet the secondary (Vince's Pararescue teammates) characters referred to him as "Reardon." The ancillary (the teenagers) characters referred to him as "Yo, Dude" most of the time. I consolidated to make clear for the reader by the heroine's subtext (thoughts following dialogue) that he was "Reardon" at least in the first chapter so readers new to the series would understand he's the same person. I nixed all the "Yo, dudes" until the last half or third of the book, by which time readers hopefully had a chance to familiarize themselves with each character.

Be mindful of this if you have various characters call another character by more than one name, nickname, attribution, pronoun or endearment. If you're not sure you've done this, have someone give it a cold read. Fresh eyes will be able to see if you're keeping clear who is who and not overwhelming the reader with too many, too much, too soon, too confusing in the way of character cast and names.

The only time it's okay to make your reader have to work to figure out who is who is the real villain in suspense or mysteries with red herrings and keeping them wondering Who actually Done It. LOL!

I recommend that you cut and combine characters where you can. If they are not 100% crucial to the plot, nix them. Just like you cut extraneous words...be brutal with cutting unnecessary characters too.

*Another ancillary/secondary character pitfall is giving them more precedence than the main character/s. In A Soldier's Promise, my debut novel, on editorial revisions, I had to tone down the heroine's best friend Celia because she was such a strong character, she overshadowed the heroine. Of course Celia eventually demanded her own book because of it...hence A Soldier's Family. LOL! But you get my drift.

These are a few of what I percieve to be the main pitfalls of secondary and ancillary characters. List more in the comment section if you think of any I've missed.

I'm giving away a copy of Brandilyn's Getting into Character to one lucky commenter. Be sure to leave an e-mail address by Thursday, May 20Th at Midnight.

If you don't happen to win Brandilyn's book, here's a Amazon purchase link. http://www.amazon.com/Getting-Into-Character-Secrets-Novelist/dp/0471058947

Brandilyn's Web site is http://www.brandilyncollins.com/

I'd love to know what your biggest character pet peeve is, either as a reader, writer or both. I'd also love to know what your biggest character pitfall is if you're a writer.

*Curtain opens and stage mic is on for comments* DO share!

Thanks so much for stopping by today.

Cheryl Wyatt


Mia said...

Great post, Cheryl. Usually everyone writes on adding more characterization, so I liked reading an opposite take on it :)

I've written stories where there were too many characters, and stories where there were too few, so I'm struggling to find a balance. Someday I'll get it right!

One of my biggest character pet peeves as a reader is when the author has at least 3 or 4 characters with names that start with the same letter. It confuses me and I'm never sure who is who.

As a writer, I struggle most with making my characters sound unique. I think the more I write, I get better at it with every story. But it's still something I have to seriously work on.

Oh, and don't enter me into the giveaway, please. I already own a copy of Getting into Character :)

Debra E Marvin said...

Good Morning Cheryl and everyone. I also have Brandilyn Collins' book and I've had Debra Dixon's GMC book for years. They are always good for a re-read, too.

I'll start the coffeemakers and I'm thinking about a nice buffet of scrambled eggs, black beans, fried potatoes with roasted red peppers, colby-jack cheese, veggie empanadas and chicken empanadas, two kinds of salsa, cornbread, fruit salad with extra papaya and fresh strawberries, flour tortillas, and maybe some sopapillas if I can find a source. Vanilla yogurt for the light eaters. What did I forget?

I ordered the empanadas in from Jose' y Maria's in the public market downtown Rochester.

Oh, Guacamole. I'm addicted.

I always have a moment of concern when someone brings up a contest entry they judged as example. Am I the only one just waiting to hear mine described?
And I've also started counting characters in the first chapter of books.

Jody Hedlund said...

You're spot on, Cheryl. In a couple of the contest entries I judged, I got confused by the number of ancillary characters in the first pages. I'd either cut a few or if they're important then I'd wait to introduce them more gradually. I think adding a character follows the same principle we use with backstory--wait to add it, and unless absolutely necessary, don't include it.

Ruth Logan Herne said...

Cheryl!!!! Are you in my head??? Hmm???

You see me axing, whacking and cutting extraneous people all the way from the Heartland, don't you, baby girl????

The good thing is, I used to be SO MUCH WORSE!!!! :) There is hope.

Wonderful post, Cheryl, and if I understood it, anyone can. And your points make perfect sense, so why do I tend to overload????

But the good thing is I've found my 'delete' and 'backspace' keys and they both work fine, LOL!!!!

Chop-chop. Slice-n-dice. Cut, cut, cut. I'm learning.

My pet peeve... ONLY ONE????


Okay, I've said it before and I'll say it again.


Are ya' kiddin' me? Blame my convoluted family, my disenchanted childhood, my innate understanding that Disney princesses are, in fact, FICTIONAL, but when an author goes out of their way to FIX EVERYBODY, I gag.

I do. I admit it. I'm fine with organic layering so that a character (primary, secondary, tertiary, ancilliary, contradictaberryary, whatevah!!!) grows with the story. That's how I "see" an organic story, and while we all strive for that, we mostly fall short.

I think that's because our temptation to fix everything and everyone takes hold. We KNOW that God's loving power and mighty hand hath no rival...

But that little bit of unreality in a real world makes me cringe.

Sometimes bad is bad, even in a book. And evil exists. And very rarely do unfit parents meet a day of reckoning and change over days or weeks.

Years, yes. Regrets can change a heart and soul. And sometimes it's just a matter of degree, like the Kevin Bacon game. One-to-three degrees of bad are fixable in a book...

four-to-six... Wow, be careful... Choose your word path with caution.

Seven-to-nine... Call Oprah and tell her you're the next Frank McCourt and the book you wrote makes Angela's Ashes seem like casual reading.


Deb Marvin, thanks for breakfast! Lovin' it, a little Tex-Mex to greet the day!

And coffee.... yes... Yum....

Lisa Jordan said...

Great post, Cheryl. I like your idea of combining characters to reduce the number on stage.

I really struggle with introducing too many characters at once. *I* know who they are, so I forget that I may be confusing my reader. I try hard to limit that now.

Recently I judged a contest and felt I repeated myself in the comments. I'm a visual person, so I like to see a character. Showing the character through another character is enough for me to visualize the character. If the reader is one character's POV, I hate reading that character describing her hair as tresses or locks...we don't think that way of ourselves.

When introducing new characters, the writer needs to remember to tell who they are in the story. If Laura is Kate's sister, mention that right away so I know her relationship as I read.

Characters need to have a purpose in a scene. Show me what the character wants, and then put obstacles in her path to keep her from getting what she wants. That keeps me turning the pages!

lisajordanbooks at yahoo dot com

Audra Harders said...

Great post, Cheryl! I think Ruthy's comment is almost as long as your post, LOL!

My rough draft is a mess of characters, each giving a crumb of reason to walk on stage. Only after I get the story down on paper, do I go back and meld characters together like your B&B + waitress.

I so agree with everything you said, except maybe naming the dogs *dog* names. Somehow having a heart to heart with "Fido" isn't as satisfying as one with "Hank." But hey, you're a nurse, not a vet, LOL!!

Thanks for great spread, Debra!! You've been working your fingers to the bone writing and cooking!

Janet Dean said...

Good morning Seekerville! Great post, Cheryl! Lots of excellent points on secondary/ancillary characters. I love your term for those walk-ons. I don't have Brandilyn's book, but after your recommendation, I want it. I may need it since I seem to break some of the rules.

I use multiple names for the same character if it fits my purposes. So far editors haven't complained. In Courting Miss Adelaide, Charles called Adelaide, Addie. The nickname made her feel cherished. In my wip, the heroine calls the hero by his given name, Jacob, a more dignified name than Jake. For a man just out of prison that dignity matters. The trick is to remember to to call the character Jake in his POV and Jacob in her POV.

I break the rule about multiple characters too. When I sold my debut, my editor said my poor heroine needed friends. So I gave her a quilting group. Since that first book, I've made sure my heroines interact in the larger community. Perhaps this is more important in historicals with their small towns where everyone knows everyone else. Readers don't need to keep the names straight since these characters show up together like the quilters in Courting Miss Adelaide and the members of the Ladies' Club in The Substitute Bride. I hope I'm not annoying my readers!

I agree, Mia. It's hard to keep characters straight when names start with the same letter. My cp points this out with every book. LOL

Thanks for the coffee and yummy breakfast, Debra.


Pamela S Thibodeaux said...

Wonderful post & the book sounds like one every writer should read.

I never thought too much about too many characters - I love family sagas, etc. but that's just me LOL.

I have found in a romance though, the number of characters should be limited.

I'd love to be in the drawing for Brandilyn's book!



Julie Lessman said...

Too many characters??? Oh-oh ... right off the bat, I'm in trouble ...

I have to admit that I recently read a book where there were tons of characters to remember, and I found myself flipping back and forth trying to place them in my mind. Which worries me A LOT since I write family saga romance with a HUGE cast of characters. I have already vowed that on my next series (which will not be about the O'Connors), I will keep the number of characters down because I agree that it is tough to keep track of too many characters, not only for the reader, but for the author too!

In my next book due out in September, A Hope Undaunted, not only did I have a main story between the hero and heroine, but I actually had a separate substory for EACH of the other six couples as well ... sixteen main characters, and yes, I know I'm crazy! Fortunately, my editor made me pull out several of the substories and put them in the next book instead, which does help.

So, Cheryl, I totally agree with you on this point, and I only wish I had read your blog sooner ... :)


Barbara Early said...

Sounds like a great book. Add me to the drawing (barbearly at aol dot com).

And great post! I had recently decided to reject a suggestion from one of my crit partners that I name the cops in my mystery. (They are not major players.)

He (a retired cop) not only wanted them named, but wanted to know what their rank was, and which law enforcement body they served with, which would hamper the casual reader. So this post encouraged me that I had done the right thing.

I still fear I may have named too many people in my first chapter, and I've cut some out. But I also tried to help the reader too, by reintroducing characters in a context in which they would be recognized, not leaving the reader scrambling to remember.

I'm dreadful with names too. One book I read had four or five hotel maids and employees introduced in the first chapter. By the time I got to chapter three, I was so confused, I had to take a 3x5 card and write down their names and distinctions--and had to refer to it the entire book.

And, btw, the cat in my story is named Jezebel, and since nobody names their babies Jezebel anymore, I think it qualifies as a non-human name.

Thanks for the great post. And Deb, breakfast sounds wonderful. Don't be surprised if you hear a knock on your door in an hour or so. ;)

Teri Dawn Smith said...

My pet peeve about characters is ones who are too perfect. It's the fastest way to make me not like them.

But if you're like Mary you can take the worst character ever (Wade) and redeem him. Can you believe she made us like him?

Don't enter me in the contest because I already have Getting Into Character--all marked up, read, and reread!

Missy Tippens said...

Such a great post, Cheryl! I'm also bad with names and get confused. (Okay, is it because we're blonde??) :) So I get worn out if there's a cast of thousands. So that's my reader pet peeve.

Enjoyed the post today! So helpful, and a great reminder to pull out Brandilyn's book!

Missy Tippens said...

LOL, Debra!! I still worry that one of the Seekers may have judged me at some time and my bring up one of mine! :)

Missy Tippens said...

Oh, Ruthy, I'm guilty! I want to fix everyone in a story and make them all happy. Yes, I'm a people pleaser who can't stand conflict. LOL

Erica Vetsch said...

What a fun post!

My biggest pet peeve in reading...alliterative character names.

As Mia said in the first comment, names that all start with the same first letter, names that look too similar on the page. It trips me up and I have to go back and double-check who I'm reading about.


I fell into the pitfall of introducing too many charactes at once.

My cure?

Write for Heartsong Presents. At 45-50K words maximum, you don't have time to waste on too many secondary peeps.

Mary Connealy said...

I just finished a book with a (gasp! surprise!) sassy heroine.

Well, the hero finds her in a terrible situation and saves her. She's incredibly vulnerable and grateful.

I had a hard time with that. I couldn't get to her REAL character until she calmed down. So for many, many pages she's really sweet and traumatized and clinging to the hero. I tried to make her sassier quicker but it was just wrong. It made no sense that she'd mouth off to the guy who saved her.

So, that was tricky. Revealing her true character in glimpses. being TRUE to character, not letting your character do something they wouldn't do, is always a challenge. Especially if you need them to do something. :)

Casey said...

I keep getting closer to the top, but no first comment yet! :)

Please don't enter me, I have this great book on my self help shelf.

Okay, pet peeves? Names are one like you said. There are SO MANY characters and they don't have distinctive personalities, so they all seem to muddle together. I like two strong characters and everyone is like props, but play a vital role in the story non the less. I like unusual names (to a certain extent) for the hero and heroine makes the more orginal and memorable.

So, maybe not a pet peeve, because I will read a book with many characters, but I like it so much better when you only have to keep track of a few. :)

Mary Connealy said...

Gingham Mountain, if any of you remember that. Six kids in a tiny house, I originally had eight kids. Plus I had them living near the McClellens and Reeves from Petticoat Ranch and Calico Canyon.
Those are books CHOCK FULL of characters.

I believe my editor used the words "A Cast of Thousands" LOL and she was right.
I moved Gingham Mountain to another town for that very reason. And I still kinda feel bad about them living too far away from the rest of the books characters. But it had to be done.

Julie, your characters are so vivid I think you do a terrific job of keeping us all in the loop with them.

Kav said...

Oh dear, I'd have to say that my character weakness when I'm writing are the animals. They talk to me...they have voices and perspective and...well, sometimes they worm their way into a story. (blushing furiously)

Pet peeve about characters is when a prolific author chooses names from a cache of ten or so and reuses them in each book. When you read one right after the other you tend to get them confused. It's like a mother naming all her girls Sarah and all her boys Tom. LOL. Who would do that?

And Janet -- the only way you could annoy your readers is to stop writing!

And Julie -- rules were made to be broken. :-) I LOVED revisiting with the whole O'Connor clan!!!!!

Mary Connealy said...

I remember an episode of King of Queens when Jerry Stiller, the annoying father who lived in the basement, wrote a book. Someone who read it said, "You have two characters named Larry. It was really confusing."

Stiller's response was, "What? You've never known two people with the same name before?"

Mary Connealy said...

I have a cold today. So everything I type must be seen through the prism of mood altering medicine.

When they say 'don't operate heavy machinery' they should probably include the computer.

But, having said that, Here's one thing I do with characters to resist the 'fix them too fast' impulse.

I don't fix them.

Well, I fixed Wade, but MOSTLY I don't fix them. Instead the CHARACTER stays the same but hopefully by the end of the book their MOTIVATION has changed.

Does that make sense?
I mean Belle Tanner is always going to be bossy and think she knows best how to run her ranch.

Those Reeves boys in Calico Canyon are always going to be a wild bunch.

Clay McClellen in Petticoat Ranch NEVER learns to be comfortable around a crying woman.

Glowing Sun is always going to struggle with her wild upbringing and her distain for white people. Even now that she's living among them.

But they are all in love, happily married (well, not the Reeves boys, that is coming in the next series, though) and their flawed characters are working FOR the Lord not against him.

Mary Connealy said...

Kav, pets can be a terrific plot device. Instead of a character sitting alone thinking through things, they can TALK them through with a pet. It's a much livelier way to set a scene.

Jennifer Crusie almost always has a pet as a character and she does that deliberately (well she may just like pets...who knows) but she likes what they can reveal about character, too.

Mary Connealy said...

I re-read my comment about Jennifer Crusie and pets and am invoking the medicine clause.

I don't know what she thinks or why she does stuff. Why would I? And yet the comment reads like I really know. Duh.

I may have taken Nyquil instead of Dayquil by mistake.

I think a nap sounds good right now.

Denice Stewart said...

I guess Seekerville writers must be rubbing off on me because now, as a reader, it drives me crazy to read wimpy, whiny characters.

I just want to reach into the pages and slap them silly.

Quiet and vulnerable, but with a clear inner strength and a spine of steel . . . yes.

Oh poor, pitiful me, whatever shall I do, wishy-washy characters . . . NO!!!

It's not the number of characters or the names that get me, but the characterization.

Thanks for the great post, Cheryl. I'll be going back through my WIP and reworking a couple of things.

PatriciaW said...

I've heard so many good things about Brandilynn Collins' book.

About too many characters, I've read and enjoyed books where only the hero and heroine were introduced in the first two chapters and where a host of people showed up. I'm no expert, but I think if you're going to introduce ancillary characters, either make them fade into the background or make them really standout. If they fade, meaning they serve their purpose and then disappear, most readers won't remember them. They're necessary props.

The other way, make them significant. Give them something memorable and unique to say or do that the reader isn't likely to forget.

I think the problem is a lot of times writers do neither. They make the character more than forgettable and less than memorable, kind of this niggling person that their brain has to decide whether to hold on to for future reference.

I'm no expert...

Tina Pinson said...

I've probably done most if the no-nos with characters especially having a name and nickname. One aspect I've been grappling with, is a character that people can't stand
I wanted him to be mean but I did my job too well they hated him. So I rewrote him hopefully he tugged abit at the ol' heartstrings now.

We'll see.

Tina Pinson said...

Julie, take heart in my book/ series When Shadows Fall my Oregon With The Wind epic, I got lots of secondaries, kind of hard to have a wagon train without them.

Ruth, I Must Save everyone... Must Save...must

Sarah Forgrave said...

I'm coming out of hiding to comment today. :-) Great post, Cheryl! Just this morning, I was reading through one of my early scenes where I expanded way too much on a character that's mentioned maybe 3 times in the entire m/s. So I really liked your suggestion to take out his name completely and not be afraid to make him a prop. :-)

Oh, and don't enter me in the giveaway. I've got a copy of Brandilyn's book.

Myra Johnson said...

Cheryl, your post reminded me I should reread Brandilyn's book one of these days. Good stuff there.

One awkward situation I run into in writing close third-person POV is when I have a character's mother or father in the scene. In the heroine's POV, she'd refer to her mother as "Mom." But others in the scene would call her "Mrs." whatever or by her first name. Any tips on keeping it from getting too confusing?

KC Frantzen said...

Cheryl - thank you!

I'm still new enough at this to not be able to offer anything of import, other than to say - when I read Nicholas and Alexandra, it was so confusing, I finally started writing down the names and relationships on the inside back cover. Queen Victoria was related to almost everyone in Europe which meant they were all related as well. I had a terrible time with it.

Sounds like your tips and ideas will truly be of help. I'd definitely enjoy the book. Thanks! may at maythek9spy dot com

May on the Way is breaking one of your "pet" peeves though. There's May, April and Hans. Sassy would probably be ok for a doggie name. But dogs are the main characters so perhaps it'll be fine!

Ruth Logan Herne said...

I love the way Mary 'fixes' things, because she's right, she doesn't do it...

They evolve within their own personality. Except Wade and even I liked Wade by the end, though I hate admitting it and you all KNOW I hate admitting it.

I'm not talkin' fixin' though, partners, I'm talkin' savin'... And fixin'... And sugar-coating... and rainbows...

And I'm still gagging. So we might be talking about degrees again, what degree would a character change given the author's instilled motivation and thrust and conscience.

And I have no idea what any of that means, I only know when I don't like it so that makes me the Grinch of Seekerville.

Which surprises no one. And Jules, I love family sagas. Love 'em. Your cast of characters totally works in a series about a family. You balanced them beautifully with outsiders helping to re-center the characters in life, faith and love


(quite importantly)

Deepen the gene pool. Always a plus.

Janet Kerr said...

Thanks for the information Cheryl,
My pet peeve about characters as a reader is if they all sound alike in the dialogue.
My biggest pitfall is that if there are too many characters I get confused on knowing who is who.

Cynthia said...

Thanks for the great posting. I learned a lot. It also highlights for me what I need to do more in my own writing. So much to work on. I'm guilty of having one of my secondary characters have more depth and be interesting that my heroine. I know I've got a lot to work on. I've been wanting to read "Getting into Character." Please enter me in the book drawing.

cynthiakchow (at) earthlink (dot) net

Cara Lynn James said...

I love this post, Cheryl! I've had a friend read one of my wips and thought I introduced too many characters too quickly. I did. And then I realized I often did it without paying any attention!

I read a book once where 2 characters had the same first name. More than a little confusing.

Kathleen L. Maher said...

This is helpful advice. As I wait for my Genesis scores, I read writing raft articles with a bit of trepidation, but yours takes teh pain and confusion out of the process. Thanks! :)


Carla Gade said...

You do have a knack for explaining things, Cheryl. Thanks for the great post! I like your term, ancillary characters.

In my current WIP I have my main characters on an expedition. This expedition will include at least half a dozen or more other individual. I want this to be known, but do not want to have them involved in the story much at all so I'm trying to decide how to include them properly. I think I just need to refer to them by job description: the cook, the assistant surveryor, etc.

My pet character peave is when the hero and heroine are set up for not liking each other in the beginning of the story. There is nothing wrong with them not getting along, but I find in doing so that many authors make the actual characters unlikeable to me, the reader. Not a good thing. Then I have to accept their change later on when I have developed no fondness or sympathy for the character.

carlagade [at] gmail [dot] com

Dawn Ford said...

You gone and did it! You made me think long and hard about my secondary characters, of which I have several in my current WIP. I also have a main character who is referred to by something else other than her name. I will have to go back and see if I have made it too confusing. Thanks for the tips, I needed them!

Dawn Ford said...

Oh, I forgot my biggest pet peeve. I'm with you on most of yours, but I hate it when the character is whiny. Snotty is one thing, we all love to hate Nelly from Little House, but whiny really gets my goat.

Angela Bell said...

Great post! My pet peeve is when multiple character names begin with the same first letter. I always get them mixed up.

I also don't like names that are impossible to pronounce like in some science fiction/fantasy books.

Count me in on the drawing!

Ruth Logan Herne said...

I love that name, Angela...


Rock on.

~ Brandilyn Collins said...

Cheryl, I'm happy to see you're giving away a copy of my book, GETTING INTO CHARACTER. Thanks for your kind words about the book. May the winner find it helpful and insightful!

~ Brandilyn

Cindy W. said...

What an awesome post! I just scrapped (at least for awhile) a story where my characters just didn't want to share their story. No matter what I tried it didn't work. As soon as my characters for that story went "on vacation" new characters moved in and oh my, oh my, they have plenty of siblings and friends that suggest a trilogy.

I could really use Brandilyn's Getting into Character book. Please toss my name into the hat and thank you for the opportunity.

Cindy W.


Cheryl Wyatt said...

Sorry for being MIA all day. Dog needed trip to vet and I just now got home. Off again...late to a graduation! Keep comments comin'. Wanna hear those peeves. :-)
BE BACK LATER. Keep chatting and eating without me. LOL.

Angela Bell said...

Thanks Mrs. Herne!

Rock on right back at ya!!! ;)

KC Frantzen said...

Mary - hope you're feeling better. Cheryl - how's your dog?

Was just checking back in and enjoying the comments. I learn so much here. Thank you all!

(Now if some of it'll just show up in May on the Way!!)

Mary Connealy said...

Hi, Brandilynn. We've had a lively day talking characters.
Thanks for stopping in.

Mary Connealy said...

And no. I'm not feeling better.
I missed my noon dose of Dayquil and now I'm afraid it's too late and it will clash with the Nyquil.

So I cough.

Dianna Shuford said...

Excellent points, Cheryl. Thanks for this in-depth post. My local writers group just had a speaker who went into detail on characterization so your post went right along with that information I took notes on. I wonder if God's trying to point things out to me? (Always!)

Anyway, I'll look for the book you've mentioned in case I don't luck up in your drawing. It sounds like a keeper.


Dianna Shuford said...

Ooops. Forgot to tell about my character pet peeve. What leaves me shaking my head in the beginning-middle-end of a story is when a character is not consistent. If the heroine is strong in chapter one she can't suddenly be a wimpering female who needs to be saved. Drives me crazy because you can't really get into the story. As soon as you connect to a character, the character changes, leaving you feeling as if you're starting a new story without finishing the one your in. Did that sound as confusing to you as it makes me??

Debby Giusti said...

Hi Cheryl,
I'm stopping in late...had to get my blog ready for tomorrow! :)

I ditto the others who mentioned multiple characters with similar names. I get everyone mixed up. In fact, I've decided I only look at the first letter in the character's name when I'm reading. If more than one character has a name that starts with the same letter, I'm in trouble.

A problem for a category suspense author--introducing enough characters as red herrings so the reader can't identify the real villain. That's tough in a short book, which shouldn't contain very many secondary characters.

Thanks for a great lesson on ancillary characters!

Project Journal said...

So sorry to get here so late! How'd the graduation go??? That'll be us soon : S

Ah well, I'm ALWAYS so excited to hear you're posting *grin* You just make my day!

This post was very interesting. I loved how you incorporated the part about Celia into your post *wink* She's AWESOME!! However, I have to admit that I'm really enjoying Manda-Panda and Nolan....be still my heart!! He sounds just about perfect! You know what I mean!

Now tell me, did I hear rumor (straight from the horse's mouth of course) that you're going to be doing a book on Nurse Bailey??? That'd be SOOOOOOO cool, Cheryl! She seems like a strong character, like Celia, but still unique. You definitely should do it.....I'd be reading it for sure....though that doesn't mean much I guess because I'd read ANYTHING you wrote, Cheryl : )

Okay, Glee's going to be going off, so I've gotta run, but I can't wait to maybe chat soon!!

Great post, as usual,

Renee said...

Cheryl, thank you so much! I'm currently in revisions and I keep coming across situations where my characters are called by different names. I know I do away with anything confusing. Your post has given me something to think about.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Excellent post, Cheryl.

It takes me about 3 chapters to recognize the H/h's names at a glance. And that's why I don't like too many characters at the beginning.

My pet peeve is characters with similar sounding names. It's downright confusing once the books are turned into audiobooks.

I've heard so many good things about Brandilyn's book so I'm throwing my name into this hat...

anitamaedraper (at) hotmail dot com

Thanks for the post. Another keeper. :)

Cheryl Wyatt said...

EEEK! I am so sorry for not being here more today. What was supposed to be a 100 dollar vet trip ended up being a 700 dollar vet trip. Several hours longer than expected too. But my dog is fine...very groggy from surgery. He was neutered and microchipped then they found an infected tooth and so he had surgery on the other end of his body too. Poor guy. He has happy pills though. :-)

Just got home from the graduation. That was fun. But I see I missed all the fun here! Waaa!

I won't be able to address each and every comment, but rest assured I read them and BLUSHED!

ALL of the mistakes and peeves mentioned in my post and in the comments are ones I have done or still do. LOL!

Vince. Val. Yeah, that two characters with same first letter names...totally. Although I don't think I noticed it until the galley stage and so it was too late to change it.

I enjoyed reading all your posts and peeves.

Thanks for coming by!


Walt M said...

Great post, Cheryl. I'll have to print it off. The thing I have with my characters is to make sure that none of them have a name that starts with the same letter.

authorkathyeberly said...

Thank you so much for the post! This is definitely useful information :) The book sounds very interesting and I would love to be in the drawing for Brandilyn's book.

Lee Smith said...

I wish I could be more original but most of my pet peeves have already been mentioned.

I don't like it when like twenty people are introduced in the first two chapters and you have no idea who is who.

I totally dislike cardboard people who have no depth at all - villain, hero ... it doesn't matter. I really like characters to come alive and jump off the page.

I don't like it when all the ladies are small, young, blonde, beautiful, thin (and curvy in all the right places) and the heroes are tall, dark and handsome - and they are generous, wealthy, pious, and generally perfect and perfectly disgusting.

Oh and my weaknesses as a writer? Probably most of the above. lol Seriously the worst is the perfection angle. Trying to come up with just the right flaws and balancing that correctly so they come off as real people is what I'm working on. I have the book on my wishlist but I would love to be entered into the contest.

Hope Chastain said...

Excellent post. I think I'll add it to my writing collection, too! This sounds like a book every writer needs on his or her reference shelf! Please enter me in the drawing! Thanks!

guitarista [at] iwon [dot] com
(Since joining the ACFW crit group, my hope_chastain box is always overflowing!)

Eva said...

Great information Cheryl! This post is a definite keeper to look back on.

EvaMariaHamilton at gmail dot com

P.S. Glad your dog will be better than ever after his ordeal

Anonymous said...

Cheryl, thanks for a great post. Also thanks to all the rest of you for your posts. That is a lot to think about.

As for my pet peeve as a reader, I get annoyed when one character is called by several different names. This makes it hard to follow the plot line at times.
My email is beekeeper5(at)bellsouth(dot)net

Cheryl Wyatt said...

Mia, I'm TOTALLY sure you'll find that balance. :-)


Cheryl Wyatt said...

Debra, LOL on Oh, Guacamole...

I think that will be my new favorite phrase. LOL!

I wish I'd been here for that great coffee!

Cheryl Wyatt said...

Jody! Great to see you here.

Everyone, if you have not visited Jody'd blog...DO IT. It's now among my favorites.

Jody, GREAT point about characters being like backstory...sprinkle them in and in moderation. Excellent point, as always.

Cheryl Wyatt said...

Ruthy, either I'm in your head or you are in mine. LOL!

Scary, eh?

Love U.


Cheryl Wyatt said...

Lisa, I get ya. LOL~

That character overload is something I've wrestled with the last couple Wings of Refuge books.

Thanks for coming by!

Cheryl Wyatt said...

Audra, thank you.

I'm like you...I write the book how it comes out then cut characters later.

Thanks for sharing!

Cheryl Wyatt said...

Janet, I think your characters are wonderful and perfectly done. I never got confused on Adelaide...so we could all take lessons on how to work it right by reading your books as examples.

Your characters are very memorable too. Love them.


Cheryl Wyatt said...

Pam, so true that it depends on the type and length of book.

I'm not too much into family sagas but I LOVE Julie's books. That says a lot.

Thanks for coming by.

Cheryl Wyatt said...

Barbara, that's funny about the cop. LOL! Maybe he needs his own story...

Thanks for visiting today!

Cheryl Wyatt said...

Teri, I think I made that "too perfect" mistake a time or two. LOL!

Thankfully good contest judges caught it and I learned from that...hopefully! LOL.


Cheryl Wyatt said...

Missy, yes! It's the blonde thing. Let's claim it anyway. LOL!


Cheryl Wyatt said...

Julie, I LOVE your writing...

Trust me, you have NOTHIN to worry about. You handle your characters very well in my opinion. WAY better than me. LOL!

Cheryl Wyatt said...

Erica...UH OH. LOL!

I have done that in AT LEAST one book. Vince. Val. Soldier's Devotion.

And for some reason, several of my heroine's names begin with "A"...


I need to start doing an alphabet chart for my characters' names I suppose. LOL.

Cheryl Wyatt said...

Mary, can't wait to read that sassy heroine in print!


Cheryl Wyatt said...

Casey, I love unique names too. I'm always on the hunt for different character names. I eyeball waitresses' and store clerks' nametags all the time.

Waitresses and Target clerks have the COOLEST names. LOL!

Thanks for coming by!

Cheryl Wyatt said...

Mary, I TOTALLY agree with you about Julie's characters being vivid. Collin is by far one of the most memorable characters I've read in the past few years. Unforgettable.

Charity too! How Julie managed to make us love her...amazing job.

I'm not just saying that because she's a Seeker.


Cheryl Wyatt said...

Erica, I need to write for Heartsong too in that case. LOL!


Cheryl Wyatt said...

That would help me learn to lasso my characters AND my word count. LOL!


Cheryl Wyatt said...

Kav...LOVE animals in stories. There's totally a readership for that.


Cheryl Wyatt said...

It's strange how readers don't mind people being killed off in books...but let harm befall an animal and the book is likely to become a wallbanger. LOL!

I remember watching westerns with my dad and he'd be confounded by the fact that I was SOBBING profusely about the horsey going off a cliff...yet think nothing of the cowboy on his back as they plunged to their Hollywood death. LOL!


Cheryl Wyatt said...

Mary, LOL on the Larry gig.

Took me THREE times of reading that to figure it out.

It's that blonde thing.


Cheryl Wyatt said...

Oh my guacamole!!!

Sorry. Just had to say it.

I'm still not sure I completely get the whole Larry thing.


Someone unblonde please clue me in.

Cheryl Wyatt said...

Mary, ROFL! Maybe it's not the blonde thing with me. Maybe I uploaded some of your medicine by osmosis...



Cheryl Wyatt said...

Kav, I SO agree about Mary and Julie's books.

Cheryl Wyatt said...

Denice! Great to see you here.

My first heroine was wimpy, wimpy, wimpy (I'm hearing the trash bag jingle in my head)...but my editors helped me grow her backbone so it was hefty, hefty, hefty. LOL! LOVE great editors!

Sometimes we think our characters are coming across one way but we fail to get that across.

Okay...correction. *I* fail to...until my editor or critters pick up on it. Thankfully they mostly know what I was trying to accomplish. LOL!



Cheryl Wyatt said...

Denice! Great to see you here.

My first heroine was wimpy, wimpy, wimpy (I'm hearing the trash bag jingle in my head)...but my editors helped me grow her backbone so it was hefty, hefty, hefty. LOL! LOVE great editors!

Sometimes we think our characters are coming across one way but we fail to get that across.

Okay...correction. *I* fail to...until my editor or critters pick up on it. Thankfully they mostly know what I was trying to accomplish. LOL!



Cheryl Wyatt said...

Patricia, great point about ancillary characters being in the background. Excellent.

Glad you stopped by.

Always, great to see you!


Cheryl Wyatt said...

Holey guacamole...

Had to say it. LOL!

No idea why that post showed up twice. Either Blogger burped or I am REALLY happy to see Denice here. LOL!


Cheryl Wyatt said...

Tina, I doubt you have anything to worry about! I LOVE the idea of a wagon train story...or even series!


Cheryl Wyatt said...

Sarah, thanks for coming by!

It's easier to unname them when you think of them as props, eh? LOL!

Yet the setting would be bland without them. SO good job!


Cheryl Wyatt said...

PS...glad you came out of hiding!

Do it more often, okay?



Cheryl Wyatt said...


Glad you stopped by!


Cheryl Wyatt said...

Myra, totally. It's one I refer to again and again. It helps with more than characterization.

Thank you for commenting!


Cheryl Wyatt said...

KC...you're welcome! And...shhhh...but I'm still new at this too! LOL.


I have a ton to learn. Love it.


Cheryl Wyatt said...

KC, I'm dying to know that the K9spy means on your email address. LOL!


Thanks for stopping by.


Cheryl Wyatt said...

KC...forgot to say that I LOVE the concept and name of May on the Way. Love it.


Cheryl Wyatt said...

Janet K, I'm with ya! Doesn't take much to confuse me though. LOL!

Thank you for sharing your thoughts.


Cheryl Wyatt said...

Cynthia, I'm glad you learned a lot.

I would recommend you just toss all the rules aside for now and just get the rough draft down. It can be so paralyzing to try to remember (and keep from breaking) every rule.

These aren't really rules as much as things I've learned to help readers be able to keep track of who is who better in my books.

I only know these things because I made or still make ALL the mistakes mentioned. LOL!

Don't worry about getting it right for now...just get it written. May God bless you with the ability to tune out your internal editor until after you've finished the story.

Keep persevering, okay?


Cheryl Wyatt said...

Cara, thank you for the kind words.

LOL on the characters with same name...

Wonder if that was my book...


I'm pretty sure my eds would have caught that. LOLOL!


Cheryl Wyatt said...

I wouldn't put it past me is what I'm sayin'. LOL!


Cheryl Wyatt said...

Kathleen, if you saw my first five contest scores and entries you would have NO trepidation. LOL!

I'm glad the article was helpful to you and didn't make you fearful.

It's great that you have a teachable spirit. Editors will love that.


Cheryl Wyatt said...

Ruth, LOL about the gene pool.

Cheryl Wyatt said...

Cindy, LOLOLOL on your characters going on vacation. LOL.

I've had that happen a time or two. I subjected them to mayhem until they obeyed though. LOL!

Thanks for the laugh and for coming by.

Cheryl Wyatt said...

Hi Carla! Awww. Thank you for saying that. I think I'm long-winded when explaining things. LOL! So thanks for the vote of confidence.

Glad you stopped by!


Cheryl Wyatt said...

BTW Carla...your expedition story sounds VERY interesting. I don't think it would be confusing for them to have names if you need to do that, meaning if the lead or leads have to have convo with them at some point in the story.

Depends on the length, but I think in some cases they need names if they have a lot of interaction with the main character/s. You'll figure it out...I have faith in ya!

Cheryl Wyatt said...

Dawn, LOL! Glad it made you think.

I totally agree about Nelly on LH. I always know an author or writer has done a GREAT job if they make me hate a character who is supposed to be a thorn in the side of a lovable main character in books or movies.

I almost forgot about her. LOL! Thanks for the reminder.


Cheryl Wyatt said...

Cynthia...I totally know you can do it! Keep the faith.


Cheryl Wyatt said...

Dawn, I'm with you on spatting heroes and heroines. If they fight for no good reason, I tend to have a hard time connecting with them.

Manny and Celia are kind of that way, so I had to be careful and properly motivate their friction with one another.

Thankfully, Manny had "stupid" all over him in Joel's book when it came to how he acted in Celia's presence. LOL! My sister said something hilarious the other day.

"You have "stupid" smeared all over you...wipe it OFF!"

Not sure who she was talking to but I was dying laughing when she spoke that into the phone. LOL. I SO want to use it in a book someday.

Cheryl Wyatt said...


OOOPS! LOL. You haven't read A Soldier's Devotion yet, have ya? If so, beware. Both H/h's names begin with V. LOL!

Thanks for stopping by! Come back often. :-)

Cheryl Wyatt said...

Dianna, I'm glad it helped!

Glad you stopped by.


Cheryl Wyatt said...

Debby, glad you could stop by! I am amazed at how you romantic suspense authors pull it off with the small cast that word count requires. I'm in awe most of the time while reading your books.

Even your villains are memorable. Amazing.


Cheryl Wyatt said...

KC...now you have me hooked. I TOTALLY want to read May on the Way.

Cheryl Wyatt said...

HANNAH! SO glad you stopped by.

I hope to do a story featuring Bailey in the future. We shall see! :-)

Thank you for making me feel like a million bucks! You have an amazing gift of encouragement.

Remind me to introduce you to my niece. I 100% feel like you two should connect.


Cheryl Wyatt said...


Thank you for the sweet words! Glad it helped. Come back often.


Cheryl Wyatt said...

Anita, that's a GREAT point about audio books. I hadn't even considered that.


Cheryl Wyatt said...

Anita, that's a GREAT point about audio books. I hadn't even considered that.


Cheryl Wyatt said...

Not that I'm big enough for my books to go audio...


Cheryl Wyatt said...

Maybe someday...


Dream, dream, DREAM, peeps!


Cheryl Wyatt said...


Glad you stopped by! I have a feeling your book will be a breakout when it sells.


Cheryl Wyatt said...

Cindy, yeah! Go for that trilogy. :-)


Cheryl Wyatt said...

Kathy, you're most welcome. Glad it helped.

Thank you for commenting!

We appreciate it.

Cheryl Wyatt said...

Mia...regarding helping characters to sound distinct...I have one word for you.



I do.



Cheryl Wyatt said...

Lee, yes! Balancing flaws with likability in characters takes the precision of a surgeon's fingers.

Fine tuning to be sure.

Great point. Thanks for coming by!


Cheryl Wyatt said...

Hope, LOVE ACFW. Such a great blessing for writers at any level.

Glad you stopped by!


Cheryl Wyatt said...

Eva, thanks! Hope it helps.

Thanks for coming by and sharing.


Cheryl Wyatt said...

Renee, you're welcome. I still gotta be mindful of that too. Every book. LOL!


Cheryl Wyatt said...

Hi beekeeper!

Aren't these guys helpful! I learn a ton from the commentors too.

Every time I see your name, I think of the movie, Fried Green Tomatoes...and the note at the end on the jar of honey.

Love that show and the elder woman's smile in that moment. Talk about poignant and memorable.

Thanks for coming by.