C h a z z W r i t e s . c o m

See all my books at AllThatChazz.com.

How to Make Readers Hallucinate Happily

I once read a popular novel by a very successful author whose name escapes me at the moment. Two characters were young guys who were virtually identical in worldview and speech patterns. To distinguish one from the other, the author slapped a ridiculous hat on one of them. He fussed with said hat throughout the book.

As I read on, I thought, you got a lot of money for this. I see what you’re doing and I understand why. It still pissed me off. If you have too many characters to juggle, it can be difficult for the reader to keep track of who’s who.

One solution is to break up your groups. In reading one of my favorite books, The Stand, I didn’t love every character equally. While focusing on one less favorite character, I’d wonder what was happening with my faves. However, the story was sufficiently compelling to propel me through the whole book. Stephen King didn’t toss everyone into one room all at once, so it was easy to track the huge cast.

I used that same template in This Plague of Days. Huge cast, but I separated varied groups. The heroes are the Spencer family from Kansas City. There’s a group of Europeans struggling to escape to North America. Then there’s a motley crew of villains: two cults and three species (human, zombie, and vampire).

A writer friend teased me about the global scope of the trilogy. “Meanwhile, in Jakarta…” In my defense, killing off a bunch of characters along the way narrowed the focus and all the threads get pulled together in the end.

The Problem of Who’s Who

Consider a novel featuring a large number of new recruits shoved in a barracks for Basic. They’re all wearing the same greens, so fashion won’t help you. Suppose you make the cast even more homogenous by putting them all on the same page mentally as well as physically. Instead of a nice segmented plate where the peas don’t touch the mashed potatoes, now you’ve got soldier soup.

Who’s who? How can you help the reader distinguish one character from another? Some fantasy authors list the cast of characters at the front of the book and add a glossary at the back. I find convention dated and cumbersome. As a reader, I don’t want to (and won’t) flip back and forth to understand what’s going on in a story. I want full immersion. Let’s talk about how to get there more elegantly.

Possible Solutions

Taking our soldiers in the barracks example further, here are my suggestions for avoiding reader confusion and exhaustion.

  1. Avoid giving them one worldview. Perhaps in an attempt to unify them in glory, some writers forget that soldiers are still people who are drawn to service from varied backgrounds and from marginalized groups. In Jarhead, a drill sergeant demands of the protagonist why he joined up. “Sir! I got lost on the way to college, sir!”
  2. As King did masterfully in The Stand and It, take the time to develop characters by giving them their own chapters so readers get to know them. Some readers complain that the King of Horror goes off on too many tangents. I disagree. He’s not telling you some minor character’s background just because he enjoys typing. He’s making you care when that character gets killed off.

    Repeat after me: NO! FACELESS! REDSHIRTS!

  3. An alternative is to put guard rails on your story. Tighten the focus on a smaller group. Reading Misery, I enjoyed the story very much. However, reading as a writer, I was amazed how King managed to keep most of an entire novel’s action to one room and still keep me invested.

    Tom Cruise’s version of War of the Worlds is instructive, too. The scope of the alien invasion is global, but the focus is confined to one not-so-great divorced father trying to get his kids to safety. It’s not just a pulpy science fiction story. It’s a war story that brings home the horrifying plight of refugees. That’s a war story that’s too rare.
  4. Distinguish your cast by giving them more depth, character, and flaws. I’m not suggesting something as superficial as playing with their hat for 300 pages. Make one a coward and another a traitor. Make one mean and another innocent.

    In The Night Man, Easy Jack is an Army Ranger out on a medical discharge. His knee hurts all the time, he’s overly sensitive to light, and returning home to poverty in rural Michigan has screwed him up and screwed him over. He’s also got a bomb plot and a corrupt cop to deal with. Fortunately, he’s a wry underdog with a loyal guard dog at his side. Complexity serves the story.

    In Band of Brothers, the paratroopers are all highly trained professionals. Still, tensions are high. They fight for the a noble cause and for each other, but a couple still get into a fistfight aboard a troopship after one makes a stupid antisemitic remark.

Unless it’s Winnie The Pooh, there is always an enemy, within and without. Conflict is at the heart of our art. Making our cast of characters less homogenous, we do more than help the reader hold them all in their minds. We transform our tiny imaginings into fully-realized people. We deepen the story’s potential and draw readers into genuine joy and escape.

When a novel is great, it’s not a mere distraction from the moribund spiral of mundane existence. When the experience is rich, reading becomes an immersion to the point of compelling hallucination.

AT RISK OF TELLING YOU WHAT TO DO, READ ENDEMIC NOW.

~ I’m Robert Chazz Chute. Check out all my books at apocalyptic epics and killer crime thrillers at my author site, AllThatChazz.com.

Filed under: writing advice, writing tips, , , , , ,

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