Thursday, November 10, 2011

With A Cast Of Thousands

by Kathleen Ernst

Well, no, not really thousands. But my current WIP, Beyond Death’s Door, does have a large cast. And although my protagonist Chloe is the primary character, three others have point-of-view scenes. Most of the book takes place in 1982, but it does include an historical timeline as well.

iStock_laptop WTF

Given that, I’ve been thinking about including a “Cast of Characters” at the front of the book.

A recent discussion on a mystery writers’ Listserv touched on that idea. I didn’t catch it all, but at least some posters lamented how the inclusion of a cast list seems to have fallen from favor. I’m paraphrasing here, but one person noted that the characters weren’t the most important people in readers’ lives, as they may at times seem to the author. She voted in favor of inclusion.

Great! I thought. I will include a character list in Beyond Death’s Door.

Then I happened across a comment from Chris Roerden in her book Don’t Murder Your Mystery: 24 Fiction-Writing Techniques To Save Your Manuscript From Turning Up D.O.A. It’s a good book, and I often flip through it as I near the end of a draft. While encouraging writers to introduce characters gradually, she writes: “One novel I began to read named twenty characters in the first chapter. If I hadn’t been looking forward to reading that author, I would have viewed the family tree on the flyleaf as the omen it was.”

Obviously a too-big cast, poorly introduced, is not the hallmark of a great book. But her comment about the family tree on the flyleaf as “omen” gave me pause.

So…what do you think? Do you see a cast list as a helpful tool, or an omen of bad things to come?


Vicki Doudera said...

Kathleen, I think I agree with the "Don't Murder your MS" advice. When I see a big family tree, I wince. It makes me think that reading the book is going to be work -- which I've opened the book to escape!

Alan Orloff said...

Sometimes I have a hard time remembering who's who, no matter how big the cast is. It's easier to go to a list in the front, than it is to try to leaf back through the pages to figure out who someone is.

My vote: include the cast list. (Don't some people like to read a book with lots of characters?)

Jessie Chandler said...

Ellen Hart always includes a cast list at the front of her books, and it's not really a family tree, but just that...a cast list. I know my mom and all of her older frieds loved when an author put a cast list in the front of the book. I'd vote ofr a simple list, not family tree style to make it less "wince"-able, as Vicki so aptly put it :-)

Lois Winston said...

Kathleen, I think this is one of those things that some people love and some people hate. You're not going to please everyone, no matter what you do. So go with your gut. If you feel it's right for this book, do it.

Kathleen Ernst said...

Thanks for the opinions. Bottom line is as Lois says, you can't please everyone. Still, I do like hearing what people think!

Kristi said...

I just got rid of the entire first chapter of my novel partly because a trusted beta reader told me I introduce 10 characters in the first chapter. Mama mia. That's about 7 too many. My novel is MUCH, much better as a result. I say you can include the cast list, but you might want to take a good hard look at how many characters you have and if they all play important roles. I also believe that unless they are going to appear a few times and are important, they don't get a name. For instance, my news librarian at the newspaper in my novel lost her name when I realized her role is very minor. Good luck and good topic to discuss!
Kristi Belcamino

Shannon said...

The Donald (Maass) says keep characters to minimum and combine them if you can. But some books need them all. I say, put the character list in the BACK of the book. Give them something else to complain about.

G.M. Malliet said...

Agatha Christie almost always included a cast of characters in her books. And if it was good enough for her it's certainly good enough for me.

As a reader, I find it helpful if I've forgotten who's who. But beyond that, I enjoy that whole lead-up into the main event. It helps set the scene. (But it's the devil to write those casts, I must say.)

Kathleen Ernst said...

I really appreciate all the comments, here and on my FB author page. It's been interesting to get so many different perspectives. I think I'll include one in my next book--but will also try to make sure that the cast is written and presented tightly. I'd rather have something that some folks skip over than not have something some folks would appreciate.