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Keeping Characters Apart

Posted by Nancy J. Cohen on April 4, 2013

By Beate Boeker

Nancy asked me to share some writing tips with you, and I thought I would focus on one aspect that every writer encounters – how to keep people apart. In a mystery, you start with a few key people: The heroine or hero, the murderer, victim one, maybe victim two.

In my cozy mystery series, Temptation in Florence, I have both—a heroine called Carlina, and Inspector Stefano Garini who’s the hero.   Delayed Death

As I’m switching viewpoints between both of them, I think it’s fairly easy to get those people clear in your mind. At the beginning, I characterize them in turn by judging them through the eyes of the other. Here’s the moment when Carlina meets Garini for the first time:

Carlina dropped onto the sofa and looked at the Commissario who took a seat in the battered armchair to her left. His face was lean and thin, and his nose reminded her of a hawk. No, the resemblance with a hawk came from the eyes. They were light and hard and gave her the impression he could spot a detail at a distance of several kilometers. He didn’t look like someone who would understand a silly mistake or two.

Garini in turn discusses her with his assistant Piedro. I’ve made Piedro a bit slow, so much so that he only has to say one sentence, and you pretty much realize that this is the dumb assistant even if you have forgotten his name in the meantime.

“What was her name? Carlina?” Piedro asked.

“No. Caroline Ashley.”

Piedro frowned. “Everybody called her Carlina.”

“A nickname.” For an instant, Stefano saw Carlina’s pale face again. The freckles had made her look younger than she was. Her eyes reminded him of a cat, slanted and intelligent.

Piedro shrugged off the name. “She acted real nervous.”

“Yes, I noticed that too.”

So far, so good. You’re unlikely to forget the victim and the hero(s). However, as an author, you need to populate the scene with plenty of other people milling about in order to create enough red herrings.

Carlina is part of a huge family, and many of the members live in the same house which is split up into individual apartments. On the ground floor, to the right, we have her grandfather Nico, who was murdered. On the left is the apartment of her grandfather’s identical twin. His name is Teodoro Alfredo Mantoni. He’s the most senior man in the house, the patriarch of the family, so I made sure that everybody calls him Uncle Teo, instead of just Teo, and whenever he enters the scene, I mention something that immediately refers to his age – his rheumy eyes, the age spots on his skin, his white hair.

Each of the twins has seven kids, all adults with their own families now. I created this huge family on purpose, to have enough room for further novels. However, I do not introduce all of them in the first novel, to avoiding confusing my readers (and myself!).

Uncle Teo is married to Aunt Maria, who is not only exceedingly fat, but who likes to eat garlic in huge quantities. As soon as she makes an entry, everybody runs to the window or speaks through the nose.

On the next floor, we have on one side Benedetta, who is one of Nico’s younger daughters. Her two teenage kids (seventeen and nineteen) live with her. Her husband died some years ago.

At this point, I feared the eyes of the reader would already glaze over, so I gave each of the appearing persons one special trait. Whenever they appear, I repeat this trait to help my readers stay oriented. Benedetta is always using bright red lipstick. She’s calm and pretty normal in this exuberant family. Her kids both have bright red hair. The younger is Ernesto, the elder Annalisa. Annalisa is very much focused on herself, besides being a true beauty. Ernesto loves to play computer games. I assumed that if I mentioned the red hair throughout the novel as a sort of signal, my readers would immediately be able to place both Ernesto and Annalisa.

Across the landing is their elder sister Emma’s apartment. She’s getting married to Lucio in the first novel. Emma knows exactly what she wants, and she has fantastic legs. Lucio is extremely jealous and traditional, so I made sure to refer to this whenever they appear.

Another floor up, we have Fabbiola. She is Carlina’s mother, and her strand of henna-colored hair is the most typical thing about her. She also has a little habit of carrying around a cushion whenever she leaves the house, so she’s clearly a bit batty, but in a nice sort of way. Whenever Fabbiola appears, the cushion appears, too, and I think this is too eccentric to be forgotten easily.

Carlina is fiercely loyal to her family, and this loyalty is her biggest problem, not only when it comes to finding the murderer but also in her relationship with Garini, who has no large family at all and is the quintessential lonely wolf.

Besides these typical traits I keep mentioning throughout the novel, I gave the characters very different names, some long, some short, and I made sure I did not have them start with the same letter. (I slipped up on Ernesto and Emma, but it’s too late to change that now!). There’s nothing more confusing than a whole family that’s called Lea, Lou, and Liz.

I don’t have any animals in my novels so far, but if they appear, I will give them animal names, like Woof for a dog or Purr for a cat. This might not be very creative, but I once read a novel where the dog was called Sarah, and it threw me time and again. “Sarah followed him into the house.” All through the chapter, I kept wondering ‘Who was Sarah again?’ – until she finally started to bark.

In addition to the traits I keep repeating, I’ll remind the reader of each character’s relationship to Carlina as soon as possible in the course of a natural conversation. Here’s an example:

“Where’s father?” Carlina’s mother sidled along the pew closer to her daughter. Her long blue skirt twisted around her legs, and she pulled it free with an impatient tug.

“Ssshhh.” Carlina placed a finger on her lips and pointed at the altar where Emma and Lucio stood in front of the priest.

Fabbiola stood on tiptoe and brought her mouth to her daughter’s ear. “Why were you so late?”

In this short paragraph, I have mentioned the words mother, daughter, and Fabbiola’s name, so even the most casual reader should be able to place Fabbiola now.

If someone doesn’t make an entry very often, I often use a blunt question from a comparative outsider to help get everybody oriented. Here’s an example from book number two, Charmer’s Death:

Benedetta continued. “We met her in town because she was still at Giulietta’s.”

Who is Giulietta?” Garini frowned.

“Giulietta is a cousin once removed,” Caroline replied. “She’s also a hairdresser.”

Sometimes, when writing, it feels as if you’re overdoing it. After all, this is your world, and you know these characters intimately. But your readers may be distracted. They may have been interrupted when reading the book the last time, and you don’t want them to be confused as to who’s talking and what on earth the character is doing there.

I hope this little explanation helps a little and would love to hear your thoughts!

<><><>

Delayed Death (Temptation in Florence) by Beate Boeker

What do you do when you find your grandfather dead half an hour before your cousin’s wedding? You hide him in his bed and tell everyone he didn’t feel like coming.

Delayed Death
is an entertaining mystery set in Florence, Italy. When Carlina finds her grandfather dead on the day of her cousin’s wedding, she decides to hide the corpse until after the ceremony. However, her grandfather was poisoned, and she becomes the attractive Inspector’s prime suspect. On top of that, she has to manage her boisterous family and her luxurious lingerie store called Temptation, a juggling act that creates many hilarious situations.
BUY HERE: http://amzn.to/VMeCUz

<><><>              Beate Boeker
Beate Boeker is a traditionally published author since 2008. She now offers many full-length novels and short stories online. Several of her titles were shortlisted for the Golden Quill Contest, the National Readers’ Choice Award, and the ‘Best Indie Books of 2012′ contest.
Beate is a marketing manager by day with a degree in International Business Administration, and her daily experience in marketing continuously provides her with a wide range of fodder for her novels, be it hilarious or cynical. While ‘Boeker’ means ‘books’ in a German dialect, her first name Beate can be translated as ‘Happy’ . . . and with a name that reads ‘Happy Books’, what else could she do but write novels with a happy end?

Websitewww.happybooks.de

Facebook – Beate Boeker Author
https://www.facebook.com/pages/Beate-Boeker/153573758044433?ref=ts&fref=ts

Twitter - @BeateBoeker

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19 Responses to “Keeping Characters Apart”

  1. Marcia said

    Very interesting post with many helpful ideas. As an aspiring writer, I take very close note of what is working for successful authors. Thank you so much for sharing.

  2. I’m glad you found it helpful, Marcia! Thanks for taking the time to leave a message.

  3. Linda Ward said

    Excellent article. Thank you so much for the tips!
    As a new author, I have wondered about how many secondary characters are too many. You have really clarified this for me.

    I also appreciate the tip about animal names. In real life I tend to give my pets “people” names, but I can see how this would be confusing for a reader.

    Linda

  4. Dickens used the same technique to make each character stand out, either certain turns of speech, mannerism, or description. It worked beautifully. Good advice!

  5. I’m glad you found the article helpful, Linda and Jacqueline! I actually have a file called “fact sheet”, where I list all the people and add the traits as the occur in the novel. Then I can quickly look up if I’ve already used a name or a certain trait – or if my hero started out with blue eyes and ends up with brown ones!

  6. I get confused if a woman has a man’s name and vice versa. I have to think about it each time to remember the gender. Is George a he or a she? How about Terry? We have two Terry’s over at http://bookloversbench.com where we offer contests for readers. One’s a guy and the other is a gal.

  7. monarisk said

    Very interesting post. I am writing a series with a large family. althpough it’s a romance srries, Holiday Babies Series, I will use your tips to introduce and recognize the characters. Thank you, Beate and Nancy. I like to use taditional names, so readers remember them. Also I avoid names that start with the same letter.

  8. Sally Carpenter said

    Good advice for writers. I agree that picking the right character names is critical. In the early drafts of my first book I had people named Sandy, Bunny, Bernie and Billy. Sounded like a doo-wop group! I changed Bernie to Hank. In my WIP, the only people with the same first initials are two twins and they’re minor characters so it’s not that important to tell them apart (in fact, at one point the narrator says he can’t tell which one of the twins is speaking). Good luck on your new book!

  9. Interesting, useful post. It can be a special challenge to keep the characters straight when many of them are in the same family and share family traits, but you’ve come up with some great tips to do this.

  10. I remember reading a book well into a series, written by a very famous author. In the first few chapters, she had a huge family gathering where everyone was introduced, back story dumped, and I just plain gave up. I also gave up on another book where there was a 3 page family tree at the beginning–groups of characters with the same last names, and what they did in the small town. I couldn’t see myself flipping back to the front of the book every time new characters showed up. I try very hard to avoid writing large gathering scenes, and when I do, I try to focus on one or two characters at a time.

  11. I really had to laugh about Bunny, Bernie and Billy, Sally. It’s funny how we often don’t notice something that jumps to the eye with a bit of distance.
    I have my favorite names, and whenever I have to name a new character, I come up with the same. Like Catherine and Carolyn. Then I look up baby names to get a different inspiration!
    I once named a guy Lester, until an American friend said that Lester is a total no-go. Apparently somthing to do with a sexual innuendo? He was renamed to Marc.
    Terry, I agree that big family trees are intimidating. My second mystery in the same series, Charmer’s Death, starts with a birthday party, and the whole family is present. At first, I introduced the heroine’s cousin Emma and her husband Lucio as well, but later, I just took them out because the reader had to juggle so many characters already.
    I just read a book where father and daughter were called Barry and Berry. I found that really difficult to deal with.
    There’s so much to consider, and I’m glad to share and discover new tips.

    • The best advice I got for naming characters was from author Jeremiah Healy who said that the initials you use for your main character(s) should be “dead” to other characters (although it’s hard with a large cast of characters and/or a series). He recommended keeping a very simply table or spreadsheet (I do this) with the letters of the alphabet in 2 columns–1 for first names, 1 for last names. Then, whenever you name a character, you add it to the list. It’s a simple visual for making sure you don’t have all your characters’ names starting with the same letters. I find I tend to gravitate toward R names or M names, so this helps me spread them out.

  12. Terry, I tried to do a spreadsheet for names and gave up. Too much paperwork. Instead, I do a “Cast of Characters” and that way I have a handy list of each person and his/her role in the story.

  13. Great post and very useful advice, Beate! I too keep a list or “cast of characters”…But I’d like to add something more to what you said: first, if characters are not important, don’t name them. It’s too confusing and the minute a character has a name, your reader expects that character to play a role later in the book. So only introduce characters with names when they are important to the plot. I realize that in mysteries you need to pepper your story with “red herrings” but it’s best not to overdo that. Agatha Christie in this was a master to follow. Simenon as well. Neither have too many characters ever – even when they get up to killing 10 guests! The killing simplifies the number of characters, lol!

    Second, pace the introduction of new characters, not too many all at once. Make sure the important ones come back again before your reader has forgotten their name…Yes, to handle a book with multiple characters is very, very difficult. As you note, Beate, one of the best, least intrusive techniques, is to describe/remind the reader of a character through someone else’s POV.

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