One of these things is not like the other

I gang, Craig here today. I had some of this conversation in the blog comments somewhere, and don’t remember where. Doesn’t really matter, it sparked my idea for today’s post.

I recently finished the draft of a fantasy novel, and will probably have started editing before this goes live. One of the things about a tale like this is the large cast involved. Believe it or not, we tend to wind up with a lot of characters that sound a lot alike.

There is some good advice out there about combining these characters and reducing the cast to a degree. It’s always worth looking at your story through this lens. There are times; however, where this isn’t the solution, or maybe you just don’t want to.

My tale is a pirate tale. In reality it took hundreds of men to operate one of the tall ships, particularly when manning the guns. It isn’t feasible to create every one of these characters, and probably wouldn’t be good reading either.

When dealing with a large cast, you’re going to have to sell the idea that more is going on around the scenes included in the book. In my case, I wanted readers to understand that sails were being adjusted overhead, while my central characters delved into some plot point or another.

This means characters come in tiers: Main characters, heavy supporting characters, lesser supporting characters, and random crew. This works like a pyramid, in that there are more people the lower down the list.

Keeping them all unique is kind of a task. Where it takes some work is in the neighborhood of lesser supporting characters. I have several tricks I’ve used multiple times to help readers keep track of them all.

First, I gave them decent descriptions and memorable names. My pirate crew is international in flavor, and I used that to my advantage. Race, sex, color, accent, and more help me out here. After a brief introduction, readers have an easier time keeping up.

One trick I’ve used many times, and will probably use again, is a verbal tic. One of my pirates is called Stuttering Lewis. Mercifully, he doesn’t get a lot of dialog, but I don’t really need dialog tags when he’s speaking either.

In the past, I wrote one character who always said ‘gots’ when he should have said ‘has.’ It’s wrong on purpose, but it’s memorable enough that readers can keep up. There are actually people like this, so it isn’t a stretch.

It comes in handy when there are three or more people involved in one conversation. “B-b-b-but, C-c-captain, are you shhhh sure?” Pretty sure readers can figure it out without an extra line to explain it.

One of the more interesting pirates is Serang. She occasionally throws out a Chinese word or two. It doesn’t take much, but it helps define a bit for my eventual readers. It also reveals a tiny bit of background and character for her.

One of my characters always says ‘Capitan,’ instead of ‘Captain.’ Again, it isn’t much, but he’s the only one with that particular accent on the ship.

I don’t recommend that you go over the top with this in your stories. This is background stuff. Think of it like an alternative to dialog tags, after you introduce it. I don’t want you to have an entire cast of mumbling, stuttering, or miming characters.

A different trick I used once I’ll name Hook’s Crocodile. I wrote a character with a horrible wet cough. Her intention was to kill the main character in my book, and the MC knew it. I had a lot of fun by having her in crowds, or dark buildings, and the cough warned my MC, but didn’t allow time to find the killer.

Just like the ticking clock warned Hook when the crocodile was near, this cough added a different degree of tension to my story.

Sometimes, things like this do a lot more for a reader than a description of hairstyle or cut of suit.

What do you think? Have you ever used similar things in your stories. Do tracks in the snow at a murder scene reveal a distinctive limp? Have you ever written one of those ‘bada bing’ kind of characters? We’d love to hear about it in the comments.

39 thoughts on “One of these things is not like the other

  1. Pingback: Author Inspiration and This Week’s Writing Links – Staci Troilo

  2. Hey Craig – great stuff! I’m beginning to see the end of of my current writing project (collections of autobiographical essays about growing up in 2000 words or less) I’ve been mostly pleased with the following of the model, but am getting anxious to get back to fiction. I’m starting to form the outline of a hard sci-fi story which is fun to chew on. I have lots of pieces to play with and and the potential of many characters. Just this week I was thinking through exactly what your post was about today. The last time I wrote fiction, I failed at character development because I was more concerned about the phenomenon I was writing about and left my characters flat and boring. I’m committed to not doing that again so this post was very valuable to me. Manly thanks.

    BTW – just wondering – can I presume you have reviewed any of the works of Patric O’Brian’s Master and Commander series? I found this to be an excellent series for study as he did wonderful character development. His characters were colorful, vivid, funny and/or brave and/or greedy – but best of all, they were easily remembered and alive. Many of your comments about the progress of your pirate story took me right back to scenes recalled from one of O’Brian’s novels.


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    • That’s the problem with hard sci-fi. It’s more about the science, and those readers expect some realistic explanations of things. My sci-fi is the softer style. Did not review those books, but I’m pretty pleased with how my draft came out. Really appreciate the comments.


  3. What an excellent post, Craig. I haven’t written stories that tons of characters, but these suggestions are perfect to help the reader keep them straight. I won’t continue reading a book that I have to stop and go back to try and figure out who is doing what. These most certainly would be helpful. Thank you for sharing.

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  4. I’ve written a character who only speaks in formal English (no contractions, doesn’t end sentences in prepositions, calls everyone by their proper names rather than nicknames). I’ve written one who is always lost in his own thoughts and says “Yes, yes.” at the beginning of much of his dialogue because he’s kind of blowing off what the others are saying to rush onto his thoughts. And I’m sure it’s no surprise that my Italian characters often utter a word or phrase in their native tongue.

    I tend to give my characters visual cues as much as verbal tics. A woman who squeezes the bridge of her nose because she gets stress headaches. A man who tips his head side to side to relieve the tension in his neck. Referring to those cues keeps me from repeating names in lengthy passages with multiple characters. I’m currently writing a character whose breath reeks of fish (which makes others recoil, offer him gum, or simply avoid him).

    Great idea for a post today.

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  5. I’m thinking back over my characters and had one in the last two books of my Point Pleasant series who rarely used contractions when he spoke. I think that’s probably all I’ve done. I like your ideas. I especially like the use of an occasional word in another language (such as with Serang).

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  6. The only verbal tic I’ve used is lack of contractions. I tried early on to add some others, but it didn’t work. Too many people argued about it having to be grammatically correct, so I dropped the idea. I went more for physical tics like Luke Callindor rubbing his saber hilts and Nyx touching her amethyst necklace. Seems there are a lot of people out there who think characters in fiction need to speak perfectly.

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