Writers' Newsletter

Issue #202
January 2020

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How Many Characters?

By G. Miki Hayden
Instructor at Writer's Digest University online and private writing coach – Monday December 30, 2019

I never really thought about how many characters might be best in a novel because my characters have always had real and necessary roles, and that’s what I’ve stuck by. But recently I had a student whose novel is off to the races with 10 different third-person point of view characters and about an equal number of secondary characters. The student was struggling with whether that was optimal or whether she needed to ditch the whole project. Hey, wait, never toss a project until you’ve pondered the various implications.

And I haven’t mentioned yet another student with four first-person point of view characters, all belonging to a secret university club, and the four are about to be arrested and indicted for a murder. Will four first-person points of view work?

So, if this is your situation or even if it’s not, let’s have a look at what my above students might do to make their choices work. Your number of characters might be five or six in the entire novel, but you might still have a similar problem in that you have too many—or too few—characters, or you just don’t use them well.

What can you do to make sure all your characters are in good working order and that readers don’t become overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of them? Well, to start, don’t open with them all in a row or in a crowd squabbling with one another or doing whatever they will typically do together later on. Feed them into the story slowly—pace in the introduction of your characters. We, the readers, just arrived and we need to acclimate ourselves to the action. Help us by letting us meet one person at a time—oh, yes, generally the protagonist, but not always. After we know John or Joan, let us get to know Laurence later on once John or Joan is set in our minds.

Actually, though I put that suggestion first, because we’re talking above about the opening of the novel, the true first consideration will be what function does John or Joan serve in the novel? Is John or Joan really needed? And the same question will be applied to Laurence and to every other character you introduce whether slowly or quickly. Do you need that character, and does he or she serve a substantial purpose—and probably throughout the novel.

OK, yes, Joan is the protagonist’s best friend and John is the roommate. But wait, can we double-cast Joan as both the best friend and the roommate, thus eliminating John? Well, maybe we can and maybe we can’t because the difference in genders might have a bearing on the story… But sometimes, yes, we can double-cast a character, eliminating one. So toss that other character. And then we have nine.

Let me insert here the strong suggestion that when you’re using however many characters in your novel, whether two or 20, that you don’t head hop. That is, that you don’t present more than one point of view per scene, whether you’re using first person point of view or multiple third person points of view. Stick with one scene, one point of view, which is the contemporary standard.

With many characters—or even with only two or three—you want to make their names distinguishable. Generally, you don’t want to use the same initial letter for even two names—one per letter. Rex and Heinrich might be good for two male characters since when the readers’ eyes falls on each name, they easily know Rex from Heinrich.

But just in case that’s not obvious enough, Rex and Heinrich might need distinguishing characteristics—and that couldn’t hurt. Rex stutters and Heinrich is a germaphobe. Or each has something more subtle, such as a leading emotion. Rex is always angry and Heinrich is overly self-doubting and hates to put himself forward. But you get the idea. And maybe if we’re seeing these characters thorough the protagonist’s eyes, she thinks of each in a distinctive way—Rex, the rich guy from Florida, and Heinrich, the Oxford scholar.

Let me say, finally, that I edited two different speculative fiction novels recently with multiple characters. One had a group of male characters—all hero warriors but each had two different names—his homebody name and his name as a legionnaire. This was utterly confusing since they were all heroes, thus having the same or similar characteristics, and one couldn’t truly be distinguished from the other and certainly not when called by two different names.

By the end of the novel I gave up and saw them all as pretty much the same except for a couple of the leading characters. The mistake by the author was a big one in my view, and yes, I told her exactly what I thought, for such is my sworn duty as a line editor.

(And by the way, stop sometimes calling your character Ed Larson “Ed” and at other times “Larson.” No—too confusing.)

The second speculative fiction novel I edited had a group of women as the lead characters—they were certainly similar, yes, but worse, again, was the author’s naming convention. Because we were in an unknown world, the author chose to give the women exotic names having no relationship to any names familiar to us—strike one. And then as well, a couple of the women had names that began with the same letter—strike two. And, for strike three, the woman all had very similar emotional affect—that is, they cried at the drop of a feather… Certainly, yet again, I told the author my thoughts. The lead character was distinguishable because we got to know her for a few chapters before the others arrived, yet the rest of the lead characters were simply way too similar.  

But now at least you have some ideas to help your readers tell your cast apart, even if you’re writing your characters by the dozen (though you might try to winnow them down—and did I say don’t name the milkman at all unless he reappears throughout the novel—maybe as the narrator).

Keep questioning whether you need to use character B, C, and D. And watch those names.

About the Author

G. Miki Hayden is the author of the award-winning guide for mystery writers, Writing the Mystery: A Start-to-Finish Guide for Both Novice and Professional, available now from JP&A Dyson.

"Whatever your habitual errors are, punctuation, writing style, or even not understanding what the agents/editors are looking for, if you'd like to correct your flaws, take a class with me at Writer's Digest: Or for some less-expensive guidance, you might want to download The Naked Writer for your Kindle at Amazon. Yes, I work with clients privately. Find me on Facebook."

G. Miki Hayden always has a new class starting at Writer's Digest. The feedback she gives is personal, thorough, and actionable.


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Some of this month's news for writers from around the web.

8 Publishing Insights Revealed By Last Year’s Top 50 Bestselling UK Books

8 Publishing Insights Revealed By Last Year’s Top 50 Bestselling UK Books – Sunday January 19, 2020

Every year, plenty of publishing pundits offer up advice on what sells, what doesn’t, and how an author can best climb the rankings themselves. And, every year, there’s really just one way to know for sure what works: Taking a deep dive into the most recent bestsellers and examining the data for insights into what titles people are actually buying.

The Guardian's John Dugdale has published a UK-centric list of the top 50 best-selling titles of 2019, and author Chris McCrudden has used the raw data available in that article to figure out a few more insights, which he shared in a Twitter thread on the topic.

So what books did the British public open their wallets for in 2019, and what can the data tell us about what might sell in 2020?

Here are the biggest insights and analysis that McCrudden came away with.

[Read the full article]

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Which best-selling book series are penned by more than one writer?

Which best-selling book series are penned by more than one writer? – Sunday January 19, 2020

Lee Child has quit the Jack Reacher series and asked his brother to write them - so which other authors have done a similar thing?

The author of the best-selling Jack Reacher novels has revealed he is stepping aside and letting his brother write them.

After the move by Lee Child - whose real name is James Grant - Sky News takes a look at authors who have used other writers to take over their bestselling series.

[Read the full article]

Book Publishers Settle Copyright Battle With Audible Over Captioning Service

Book Publishers Settle Copyright Battle With Audible Over Captioning Service – Thursday January 16, 2020

Seven book publishers have settled a lawsuit with Amazon's Audible over a captioning service that could allow people to read along while listening to books, according to court papers filed this week.

Settlement terms have not yet been revealed. U.S. District Court Judge Valerie Caproni in the Southern District of New York, who presided over the litigation, officially dismissed the matter Tuesday. 

The move brings an end to a high-profile copyright infringement lawsuit brought by Hachette, HarperCollins, MacMillan, Penguin Random House, Scholastic, Simon & Schuster and Chronicle.

They argued in a complaint filed in federal court last August that Audible's captioning service could directly compete with their own physical books and e-books. Hachette and the others alleged the service would infringe their rights by “taking copyrighted works and repurposing them.”

[Read the full article]

Click here for the rest of this month's news >


A selection of the new listings added to this month.

New Magazine Listing

New Magazine Listing – Friday January 17, 2020

Publishes: Poetry;
Markets: Adult;
Preferred styles: Literary

Electronic journal, published quarterly. Submit 3-5 original, previously unpublished poems through online submission system. Accepts submissions between October 1 and June 1 annually.

[See the full listing]

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New Literary Agent Listing: Sheila Crowley

New Literary Agent Listing: Sheila Crowley – Friday January 17, 2020

"My list is primarily quality fiction, psychological suspense thrillers and books in the personal development and mindfulness area. Narrative memoir, especially Irish ones, are also on my wish list."

[See the full listing]

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New Publisher Listing

New Publisher Listing – Thursday January 16, 2020

Publishes: Fiction;
Areas include: Mystery; Suspense;
Markets: Adult

Publishes mystery and suspense novels only. Accepts approaches via post or email. See website for full submission guidelines.

[See the full listing]

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Click here for more of this month's new listings >


Some of this month's articles for writers from around the web.

How Three Bestselling Authors Boost Book Sales By Writing Collaboratively

How Three Bestselling Authors Boost Book Sales By Writing Collaboratively – Friday January 17, 2020

I previously posted part one of my interview with bestselling authors Beatriz Williams, Lauren Willig and Karen White about their new jointly authored historical novel All the Ways We Said Goodbye: A Novel of the Ritz Paris (William Morrow). Today, they share how writing as a trio affects their solo books and fuels their creativity, as well as the impact on book sales and advice for writers who want to collaborate on novels.

[Read the full article]

5 Advantages of Publishing Your Work as an eBook

5 Advantages of Publishing Your Work as an eBook – Saturday January 11, 2020

A lot of authors are shy when it comes to the idea of publishing their work as an eBook. There’s something nostalgic about a print book – for some people it’s the smell of paper, for some people it’s just nice to mark their progress with the turn of each page.

Even so, eBooks are rapidly becoming more popular as a form of self-publishing. There are numerous advantages to publishing digitally rather than in print, and a few of these are outlined below.

[Read the full article]

How to embrace your inner poet in 2020

How to embrace your inner poet in 2020 – Tuesday January 7, 2020

In 2017, Isabella Macpherson and Gala Gordon launched a platform for rising actors, directors and writers from all backgrounds, but particularly women. Since then, Platform Presents has grown in size and influence, evolving from a singular poetry evening to full play readings involving big star names.

Poetry is still a focus and passion for the company and on 9 February, Macpherson and Gordon will stage its 2020 Poetry Gala where high-profile actors and actresses will read the world's best-loved poems, as directed by Gemma Arterton. The line-up includes Chiwetel Ejiofor, Rhys Ifans, Holliday Grainger and Juliet Stevenson to name but a few.

[Read the full article]

Click here for the rest of this month's articles >


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