Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Too Many Characters At Once - What I Learned from Nancy Drew

PLEASE NOTE: No, I don't hate Nancy Drew. In fact, she's one of my favorite childhood heroines. That said, the Nancy Drew books are an excellent example of writing that could use improvement. If we want to be good writers, we have to read a lot and face up to when we or others (even our icons) are less than excellent. For a detailed explanation of my feelings on this writing series, go here.

Nancy Drew 04: The Mystery at Lilac InnOf the books I'm discussing, The Mystery at Lilac Inn is the only real offender. But what a doozy! In Chapter One we're introduced to Doris Drake, who mentions to Nancy and Nancy's friend Helen Corning that her friend Phyl had talked to Nancy at the drug store earlier today, which Nancy denies. This sets up the Nancy-impersonator part of the plotline.

Nancy and Helen continue upriver in their canoe  where the canoe capsizes and we see a suspicious man with a crew cut.

Following this, we meet Emily Willoughby, are told of her fiance Dick Farnham, and meet John McBride, Dick's friend, Hazel Willoughby, Emily's aunt, and Maud Potter, the Inn's social director.

But wait, there's more! Hank the gardener, falls into a hole and hurts his leg. Another gardener, Gil Gary drives Hank home.

Including Nancy, we meet or are told of twelve characters in the space of only 9 pages.

As if that wasn't enough, the next chapter introduces us to Mr. Daly, the former owner of the Inn (why he's even in the book is beyond me, since he contributes almost nothing to the plot) and Hannah, the Drews' housekeeper

Those familiar with the series already know Nancy, Helen and Hannah, but by the time in Chapter 2, where Nancy brings up the subject of running into Doris, my head is swimming with names. "Who the heck is Doris?" I mutter, paging backwards, and having totally forgotten the earlier meeting, which was so brief that it took up less than a page.

Darkness Under the WaterWhat's the most characters you should introduce per chapter or per page? It's different for every story. The most important focus however, should be on making the characters memorable enough that you don't confuse the reader. If you've read my last installment in this series, you'll realize that each of these characters are just a collection of names and sometimes hair colors, making it nearly impossible to keep the names straight.

Just for fun, I'll check my shelves and see how many characters we meet in the first chapter of the books I've got handy.
B is for Burglar (Kinsey Millhone Alphabet Mysteries, No. 2)
The Darkness Under the Water a young adult novel about an Abenaki girl growing up in Vermont during the Depression by Beth Kanell starts with all of four characters. Molly is the protagonist, Gratia is her sister who died at the age of 5 and continues to haunt her, and Mama and Papa get mentioned. 

In B is for Burglar by Sue Grafton, we meet the protagonist in a one page prologue, then in Chapter 1 we meet Beverly Danzinger and are told of her sister Elaine Boyd, who seems to be missing. An attorney, Mr. Wender is mentioned, and last we meet Tillie Ahlberg, who manages the condo where Elaine was living. Two names that were on bills sent to Elaine are also mentioned, but thus far these names seem peripheral to the story and I didn't feel the need to recall the names.

The Burglar on the ProwlSince I have The Burglar on the Prowl by Lawrence Block to read next (just coincidental that I'm reading two books with Burglar titles) I opened it and skimmed the first chapter. Only four names were mentioned besides the protagonist, though Bernie, a bookseller by day and burglar by night, and his friend did discuss the names of a couple authors and artists as part of their banter.

Two of the books on my shelf start with a much larger cast of characters in the initial chapter:

DarkwoodDarkwood by M.E. Breen's first chapter features our heroine Annie Trewitt, Aunt Prim and Uncle Jock, Annie's guardians. Page, Annie's sister, and Helen (their mother) and their father (unnamed yet in this chapter) and her friend Gregor, all four of whom are now dead, are mentioned. We also meet Izzy and Prudence, Annie's cats, and the villain, Gibbet, who comes to purchase Annie from her aunt and uncle. We also meet a few peripheral names: the Woefort family, who have lost a cow, Jane who reported this fact to Aunt Prim, and the names of several children eaten by the kinderstalk. Not counting the peripheral names, that gives us 10 characters. Eleven if you count the kinderstalk, a seemingly vicious race of intelligent wolf-like creatures who prey on humans. That's near (or even more than) the number of characters introduced in The Mystery at Lilac Inn. The difference? In Darkwood, Chapter One is 21 pages long (twice the length of TMLI's first chapter) and each important character is introduced with vivid description, dialogue and action to cement them in our mind.

Forbidden Land: First Americans, Book III (Vol 3)Forbidden Land by William Sarabande starts with Zhoonali a midwife, Wallah a kindly older woman, Iana, the other wife of Lonnit's husband, and Kimm and Xhan, the wives of Zhoonali's son, helping Lonit, one of the main characters, to give birth. We meet Torka, Lonnit's husband, Summer Moon and Demmi, Lonnit's two daughters, Karana, the tribe's medicine man. Umak, and Manaravak (both dead) Torka's grandfather and father are mentioned, as are Grek, Wallah's husband, Ekoh, a tribesman and Cheanah, who is Zhoonali's son and seems to be the main villain of the novel, Mahnie, Karana's woman, Aar the dog, and Sondahr, a medicine woman and Navahk, a magician ( both of the last two also deceased) are also introduced. Okay, that's a lot. Nineteen characters! Again this chapter is 21 pages long. Also, this book is the third in The First Americans Series, so if you're reading the series, you already know the majority of the characters.

Can you introduce more characters at one time and make it work? Certainly. Just be certain to make each character vivid enough for the reader to recall. Who's more memorable?
...a dainty young woman, had chestnut hair, set off to advantage by her white linen dress. (Emily Willoughby from The Mystery at Lilac Inn)
She could see the pores in the creases at the sides of her wide, flat nose, and the painted patterns around her smoke-reddened, rheumy eyes had smudged and run together. (Zhoonali from Forbidden Land)

The What I Learned from Nancy Drew Writing Series:
Intro to What I Learned from Nancy Drew
Part 1: Contrived Beginnings
Part 2: Lack of Red Herrings
Part 3: See Through Bad Guys
Part 4: Undescribed Characters
Part 5: Too Many Characters at Once
Part 6: Adverb Abuse 
Part 7: Unnecessary Scenes

Nancy Drew Mystery Stories
Nancy Drew Games

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