On Character Consistency

Posted on March 10, 2010. Filed under: Editing, Fantasy | Tags: , , , , , |

Can you have too many characters in a novel?

So I’ve been working on editing my novel, and it’s understandably slow-going. (Though I admit to suffering severe laziness lately!) I’m still doing my first read-through, but one of the big things I’ll be picking up after this read-through is character consistency.

I titled it that because I’m not sure if there’s another “proper” term for it. So I’ll define it for you.

Character consistency: (noun) in a novel, the keeping of character descriptions, mannerisms, backgrounds, skills and abilities consistent throughout the whole

So that’s where my question originates. After looking at a few of my favorite series of fantasy novels, I have to wonder how difficult it’s going to be for me to keep my characters consistent. I plan to eventually write the sequel to Fire and Ice Bound, and it will no doubt add more characters to the mix that will need good, solid descriptions and backgrounds to enrich this world I’m creating.

Frodo Baggins

I decided for comparison’s sake to look into two well-known series. First, let’s consider Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. I am no Tolkien. He was a true master of the craft, having created Middle-earth, all its various creatures, the languages spoken by different races, and the specific characters who give the world and the plot life and breath.

The fellowship of the ring numbers 9 characters: Frodo, Samwise, Gandalf, Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Pippin, Merry, and Boromir. By the end of the first book, they number 8 and have split up, but the following two books tell the entire fellowship’s story in detail, following each group (with the exception of Gandalf) in their own travels.

If you look up the Wikipedia page for LOTR character pages, you’ll see that there are 64 different characters listed, all with separate Wiki pages. I can’t claim that Wiki’s correct (and no one will dispute that Wiki’s accuracy sometimes leaves something to be desired), but I scrolled through the page, and there are a number of characters listed that I remembered from the books, including those who didn’t make the movie version.

I’d be willing to guess that this is an incomplete list as I don’t remember everything from the books. But just consider that Tolkien wrote in parts for at least 64 different characters, all with appearances, backgrounds, abilities, and other minutiae he must have had to dream up. Even if he didn’t write in their stories, Tolkien created such a rich tapestry that it seems impossible for him not to have at least dreamed up the backgrounds for such characters as the various hobbits (the Bolgers, Brandybucks, Tooks, and Proudfoots “Proudfeet!”).

Okay, so moving right along, let’s look at another fantasy series since I am by no means epic like Tolkien. I got to looking at C.S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia as well. The Wiki article covers characters from all seven of the books, so there’s a large number of characters mentioned. Just looking at the page, though, I’m a little overwhelmed by how many characters were introduced in this children’s series.

Lewis’s most endearing and enduring characters are characters like Lucy Pevensie, Mr. Tumnus, Reepicheep, and others. And they have very different personalities. Where Lucy is curious and brave, Mr. Tumnus is nervous and watchful, and Reepicheep is brash and excitable.

Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of Lewis’s series is how much you see the children change. Yes, I know they don’t all feature in each book, but it’s the mystery of Narnia that Lucy and Edmund can continue into Narnia after Prince Caspian but Peter and Susan cannot.

How many characters is that? Six characters of a whole host of them featured in the stories.

I ask myself how these two incredibly talented writers could create such richly tapestried worlds with varying cultures, peoples, and plots. It seems a great deal of work to me.

And then I look at my own story. Fire and Ice Bound follows the story of 14 students. That’s enough to give me a headache, especially if I weren’t focusing on just one as the main character. But I have to give each student a description, skills, abilities, background, and a myriad of other items to make them come alive. And I’ve fallen in love with each of the students I’ve written.

To the end of character consistency, I started a character profiles document in my F&IB folder for the purpose of documenting the characters. Each student has a name, age, height, hair color, eye color, status, and element. (Because F&IB is an elemental story, most of the students have an elemental ability, which can get confusing.)

Of course, these 14 students aren’t the only characters in the story. So I have all my characters listed in the profiles sheet, including parents, extras, and others. And many of these characters haven’t even appeared in my novel in any way. But they’re all listed because they have their various parts to play.

At present, I have 35 characters listed in my document, but it hasn’t been updated since I wrote it at the beginning of November 2009.

In short, my second revision will include quite a bit of shuffling of characters, fixing those who change elements mid-story, bringing blue eyes back to brown where necessary, finding personality flaws that should be brought into more prominence, and making them more lively in what ways that I can.

Anybody else think I’ve overdone it? What about you? Have you written stories with multiple characters like this? How do you deal with a story that has a large amount of characters?

-Rae-

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3 Responses to “On Character Consistency”

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I don’t think it matters so much how many characters you have as it does how and when you introduce them. I’ve read books with numerous characters that were very distinct, but I’ve read other books with around the same number of characters, only I couldn’t keep them straight for the life of me.

One thing is not to introduce too many characters at once. You can get used to 2 or 3 people at once, but not 14. If you can stagger when the characters appear, it will keep things easy for the reader, assuming the characters are distinct from each other.

However, if you find that some of your charcters are similar, it can be a good idea to combine them (if possible plot-wise).

Hi Rae,

Sorry about that last post. I posted under my father’s account, I’m helping him build a blog for some software he’s trying to sell. I apologize. I always forget to logout. Could you please erase that message?

Thank you.

No problem, Ed. I was really confused when I started looking at it. LOL. But it should be gone now, so no worries. 🙂


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