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Cast (character) lists—readers like or not

Bondi Beach

I just opened a highly-rated story and found a 10-page listing of characters by chapter. Yikes.

I know we've discussed this before but can't remember any details. Why do you include such a list? Do your readers like it?

When you read, do you find such a list useful?

I'm going to take my chances and skip this list, and hope the author didn't use it as a crutch because he couldn't figure out a way to tell us about the character as the story unfolds.

"X is the sister of Y."
"A is a cop/teacher/politician/minister/juvenile delinquent/hero/coward."

What's the use of this?

bb

Ernest Bywater

@Bondi Beach

What's the use of this?


If you have a large cast of characters it helps readers to remember who is who. I actually create such lists while writing a story to help me remember who is who because some stories take years to go from start to finish and it helps to keep the relationships right.

I've had readers ask for such lists with longer stories, and those with a larger cast.

awnlee jawking
Updated:

@Bondi Beach

When you read, do you find such a list useful?


Occasionally, but if you have to keep referring to it, in my opinion the author is failing. Every time a reader has to break from the narrative to remind themselves of who a character is, the author is at risk of losing them.

Mind you, I seem to be in a minority on this. I've even seen effusive praise for a story with a large cast which I thought the author had got badly wrong.

AJ

Switch Blayde

@Bondi Beach

When you read, do you find such a list useful?


When I WRITE the story I find a list useful. I keep a list of characters and any pertinent information about them for my reference. But it's not posted with the story.

Replies:   sagacious
Not_a_ID

@awnlee jawking

Occasionally, but if you have to keep referring to it, in my opinion the author is failing. Every time a reader has to break from the narrative to remind themselves of who a character is, the author is at risk of losing them.

Mind you, I seem to be in a minority on this. I've even seen effusive praise for a story with a large cast which I thought the author had got badly wrong.


I'll take a little from column A and some from column B.

I've only rarely used cast lists. They're most useful when dealing with a serial that updates sporadically or that I only read sporadically, as the case may be. In other words, where enough time has passed since I last read any of the material, the cast list helps "jog the memory" rather than needing to go back and re-read most of the past several dozen chapters(or more).

That being said, large (ensemble) casts can be good, or they can be bad. A lot of it depends on context and situation. If the serial is written in an episodic format, where you only see a small number of them at a time/per "episode," it may be fine.

Beyond that it starts to become a question of how focused that story is. SOL and some other sites I visit have their share of massively long wandering stories that are more "slice of life" than they are focused and concise stories. In some of those cases, I almost think the author, editors and readers alike might be better served by splitting the storyline apart and creating parallel storylines with their own respective cast lists, allowing for more focused story telling. Although that comes with its own set of hazards and challenges, in particular where there are common plot elements shared between books and how you keep it comprehensible and coherent for someone who decides to read one book in its entirety before picking up the second book.

Serials released simultaneously have a slightly easier time while it's being released, as they know readers are getting each progression one chapter at a time. Their problem is the people who come along later...

Crumbly Writer

Ideally, you should never read a cast list, as they aren't included as entertainment and may contain spoilers. Instead, they're for the longer episodic stories that revisit characters not seem in some time for updates, by which point many will not recognize the names. As such, they're useful for saying 'That's who that is!'

Generally, if you've got less than twenty named characters in your story, you can forgo a cast list. Heck, even if you go above that threshold, you need to carefully consider whether it's necessary. But, if you only post a couple times a week, and you revisit characters not seem last dozen chapters, then it's more of a memory aid that a required reading list. Use it when you need to, otherwise skip it.

Also, only include the bare minimum needed to identify the charater (i.e. who they were when they were first met, rather than what they accomplished later in the story). Also, you should develop a new list for each book in a series, updating and purging the list each time to make it more relevant. If someone only appears in a couple contiguous chapters, then don't include them, as there's generally no need to search for them.

Hope that provides some guidance.

Replies:   Bondi Beach  Duke_Mantee
docholladay
Updated:

@Bondi Beach

As a reader it depends on the story. I only use it for stories with a large set of characters (not sure of the right wording here). More than a limited number of characters in a story, a list makes a good reference tool when I can not remember the relationship of a character. In those cases its a nice reference which I can check when I forget the character's information.

edited to add: I agree with CW about keeping the character data to a bare minimum. More detail can be developed inside the story itself if needed.

Bondi Beach

@awnlee jawking

When you read, do you find such a list useful?

Occasionally, but if you have to keep referring to it, in my opinion the author is failing. Every time a reader has to break from the narrative to remind themselves of who a character is, the author is at risk of losing them.

Mind you, I seem to be in a minority on this. I've even seen effusive praise for a story with a large cast which I thought the author had got badly wrong.


Exactly. If it's a minority, there's at least two of us.

I understand the rationale as outlined just now by others, but I'm left thinking (a) it's the author's job to introduce the characters in the course of the story in a fashion that engages the reader, and (b) if the cast is so large it requires a list to remember who's who, perhaps it's too large.

And no fair citing War and Peace, unless you're writing War and Peace.

bb

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Bondi Beach

@Crumbly Writer

Ideally, you should never read a cast list, as they aren't included as entertainment and may contain spoilers. Instead, they're for the longer episodic stories that revisit characters not seem in some time for updates, by which point many will not recognize the names. As such, they're useful for saying 'That's who that is!'


Funny thing, despite my views I just thought of an endless tale with extensive cast lists by House—I refer to George R. R. Martin's opus, where at the end of each volume he has charts of each family.

Is it useful? Yes. In Martin's case, there's a dense back story that all the characters know—the kids are taught who did what to whom in their tutoring—and Martin's storytelling moves from character to character so it's hard to remember every name.

So, if you're George R. R. Martin, go for it.

bb

Replies:   awnlee_jawking
ustourist

@Bondi Beach

I dislike cast lists, as they shouldn't really be necessary.
If it is before the story starts, then what is the point of it. At that time I have no idea who the characters are anyway, so listing someone who may appear peripherally ten chapters into the book is just confusing the matter.
If it is at the end, if by that time I haven't identified who the characters are and their relationships, then the author has failed or I haven't been paying attention - which means that it failed as a story for me.
About the only time I can see them as possibly relevant is in an ongoing serial or second book where there has been sufficient delay that characters may have been forgotten, but even in that case a good story will tend to stick in the reader's mind and they will very quickly remember.
They do however make for good padding to make a story appear longer than it actually is.

BTW bb. You say not to quote War and Peace, and then give George R R Martin as an example. Taking all his books together, which is longer?

Crumbly Writer

@Bondi Beach

And no fair citing War and Peace, unless you're writing War and Peace.

Okay, I won't cite War and Peace, but how about one of mine. I had a six volume series. By the end of the series, I was well over 100 characters, and few readers could recall each character from each book. In that case, if I gave an update on someone from book 2, most readers needed to look up who the hell they were. I tried to provide reference in the story itself, but even that is limited.

It's not a question of either/or. You explain who everyone is and define their personalities, but readers still have trouble recalling them (especially when it's a several days or weeks between chapters). Again, no one expects you to READ the character list, but it's there in case you need it.

However, in most cases, you aren't writing your magnum opus! If you don't need a huge cast, then just don't worry about it. But in a few cases, especially when characters are building movements a few people at a time, the character counts mount up quickly, and readers want to know what happened to their favorites--even if they weren't major characters.

Crumbly Writer

@ustourist

I dislike cast lists, as they shouldn't really be necessary. If it is before the story starts, then what is the point of it. At that time I have no idea who the characters are anyway, so listing someone who may appear peripherally ten chapters into the book is just confusing the matter.

Sigh! The reason why cast lists appear as the first chapter is because you've got to reserve a spot for it when the story first starts, otherwise you're stuck with posting it after the story completes, at which point no one will ever see it.

Even then, the question is: do you constantly update it each chapter, or just post everyone once so you don't need to track every single update for each chapter? Modifying the cast list makes the most sense from the readers perspective, but includes a huge amount of additional work while posting. I've tried both techniques and have never received complaints or congratulations either way, so who know which is best.

Again, the best rule of thumb is the number of characters. If you've got a cast of less than twenty characters, then skip it entirely, even if they're all named George! However, if you've got multiple books and your fans keep asking whatever happened to Freddie from chapter 7 of book 2, then there's a demand for the reference.

However, cast lists are not an excuse for not fleshing out characters or establishing who someone is when they reappear in the story. They're simply a convenience for a few readers, nothing more.

Replies:   Bondi Beach
Joe_Bondi_Beach
Updated:

@ustourist


BTW bb. You say not to quote War and Peace, and then give George R R Martin as an example. Taking all his books together, which is longer?


Heh. Touché. Although I said don't quote it unless you're writing it, and Martin surely can argue that he did write it (and still is, we think).

bb

Bondi Beach

@Crumbly Writer

However, cast lists are not an excuse for not fleshing out characters or establishing who someone is when they reappear in the story.


Exactly.

bb

Grant

@Bondi Beach

When you read, do you find such a list useful?

Extremely rarely; but then I only read completed stories. Generally it's if there are a couple of books, and a minor character from early on a previous book makes a return & becomes a more significant character.

If you're reading a story as it's written, and there's considerable time between instalments and there are a lot of characters in the story, a character list would be necessary to refresh people's memories when the next part is posted.

Dicrostonyx

Personally, I'm a fan of cast lists; also glossaries, pronunciation guides, references or further reading lists, maps, and similar material as appropriate.

In print books, all of these things should be at the end of the book in appendices (even world maps). That way, a reader who wants a reminder or more information can flip back to them, but they don't get in the way or distract new readers.

Posting online is different, though, especially with the chapter format of a site like SOL, so if you want resources available for your audience you need to put stuff at the beginning. If the system allows it, I'd recommend that authors post cast lists at the beginning when posting, then shift them to the end once the story is completed.

There are lots of cases where having a cast list is a good plan and does not indicate a problem on the author's part. Take aroslav's "Living Next Door to Heaven", for example. Even if you've read the whole thing, each part took over a year to post. It's completely understandable for two characters to chat casually about a friend they haven't seen for a year, and they don't need to provide details since both know who is being talked about, but the reader won't necessarily remember the situation twenty chapters later.

Replies:   Not_a_ID
Not_a_ID

@Dicrostonyx

Posting online is different, though, especially with the chapter format of a site like SOL, so if you want resources available for your audience you need to put stuff at the beginning. If the system allows it, I'd recommend that authors post cast lists at the beginning when posting, then shift them to the end once the story is completed.


Maybe chuck that one into the Author's Bucketlist for Laz. The ability to flag a "chapter" as being an appendix/cast list posting, and not part of the story itself. Then allow for SOL itself to sort it accordingly(at the tail end) rather than front loading it, or having to constantly repost the thing as the last chapter increments.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
awnlee_jawking

@Bondi Beach

George R. R. Martin's opus, where at the end of each volume he has charts of each family.


If it weren't for the TV series, only a handful of people would have heard of Martin. He's a rich source of examples of how not to write.

AJ

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Not_a_ID

Maybe chuck that one into the Author's Bucketlist for Laz. The ability to flag a "chapter" as being an appendix/cast list posting, and not part of the story itself. Then allow for SOL itself to sort it accordingly(at the tail end) rather than front loading it, or having to constantly repost the thing as the last chapter increments.

It's easy enough to post it first, update it each chapter, and then when the story completes, delete it and repost it at the end. If Laz does it, it would have to be a 'floating' chapter, which would probably be a nightmare to arrange.

Replies:   Not_a_ID
Crumbly Writer

@awnlee_jawking

If it weren't for the TV series, only a handful of people would have heard of Martin. He's a rich source of examples of how not to write.

Sorry, but his book series was immensely successful before it was picked up for television, and long before anyone considered it capable of being broadcast as a weekly series. You may not like his techniques, but they work well as a whole and fit his stories.

Replies:   awnlee jawking
richardshagrin

If you break a bone, or several, you may need a cast on an arm or leg. Some magic types require lists of spells the characters can cast. Invisibility, invulnerability, sexual attraction, mind control or reading, calling elementals or supernatural beings, lots of other potential ideas for spell casting. A list of those spells could be useful. Or how far various shot-put, javelin, discus etc. can be thrown would be a cast list.

Ernest Bywater
Updated:

@awnlee jawking


if you have to keep referring to it


If you have a 50,000 word novel and twenty characters, you don't need anything to keep track of who is who. However, when you have a 100,000 or 200,000 word saga with over 50 characters who pop in and out at various points, then it's best to give the readers a quick check guide on who is who and how they fit in.

edit to add: In Finding Home I have 72 primary and secondary characters I have in the cast last, and a over a hundred others in the story. The story is 270,000 words long - a novel is 40,000 to 50,000 words long, so this is equal to 5 novels. Some of the characters are mentioned early, vanish for a long period, then reappear. It's unreasonable to expect every reader to remember all the characters in such a long and complex story. Thus a cast list helps them as a reference source to identify a character and put them in their proper relationship to every one else, to save them spending hours finding the earlier references.

Crumbly Writer

I suspect everyone understands the arguments for cast lists. What I suspect they differ over, is the need for such extensive, largely unfocused stories. Thus I believe it's more a question of story preference than the need of a few select stories.

Replies:   Ernest Bywater
Ernest Bywater

@Crumbly Writer

What I suspect they differ over, is the need for such extensive, largely unfocused stories.


just because a story is large and complex, doesn't mean it's unfocused.

Replies:   Not_a_ID  Crumbly Writer
Not_a_ID

@Ernest Bywater

just because a story is large and complex, doesn't mean it's unfocused.

True enough.

But likewise, just because a story is large doesn't mean it is complex.

There are examples where one approach is warranted, and other times where another approach would likely be better.

Replies:   Ernest Bywater
Not_a_ID
Updated:

@Crumbly Writer


It's easy enough to post it first, update it each chapter, and then when the story completes, delete it and repost it at the end. If Laz does it, it would have to be a 'floating' chapter, which would probably be a nightmare to arrange.


Depends on how it is set to sort/display. If it's keyed alphanumericly, then just preface any "appendix/cast list" content as chapter number "z###" and have the SOL scripts parse it into something else for display. If all of the normal chapters are (only) numbered in the first place, the letter preface alone should be enough to kick it to the end and trigger "special handling."

Ernest Bywater

@Not_a_ID

But likewise, just because a story is large doesn't mean it is complex.


True, however, I was challenging the statement all large stories were unfocused, when only some are.

Replies:   Crumbly Writer  Not_a_ID
awnlee jawking

@Crumbly Writer

We'll have to disagree on that.

The writers' group I go to has some creative writing course addicts who are taking or have taken all levels from university degrees down to evening classes.

They all say that they've been told how awful Martin's writing is. That he's achieved any level of success is a triumph of story weaving over technical skill.

His books could be so much better if he used a decent editor.

AJ

Replies:   Switch Blayde
Switch Blayde

@awnlee jawking


They all say that they've been told how awful Martin's writing is.


I haven't read his stuff so I can't comment on that, but I know when "The Da Vinci Code" came out the critics said Dan Brown was a lousy writer. I loved the way he wrote it.

I actually think Stephen King isn't a good writer. Great story teller, but not a good writer.

Replies:   awnlee jawking
awnlee jawking

@Switch Blayde

Great story teller, but not a good writer.


That's probably what matters the most.

I wish I could find a breakdown of sales of 'A Song of Ice and Fire' by year. I would expect the peak to have occurred a significant time after initial publication, after the TV series captured public imagination.

AJ

Replies:   Crumbly Writer
Crumbly Writer

@Ernest Bywater

just because a story is large and complex, doesn't mean it's unfocused.

You, of all people, should know that I specialize in large, complex, heavily detailed stories with huge casts. I was trying to restate the objection that first provoked this discussion, questioning why casts list were necessary at all if stories were 'properly written'.

Crumbly Writer

@Ernest Bywater

True, however, I was challenging the statement all large stories were unfocused, when only some are.

Again, no one here ever claimed that. I was merely echoing complaints I've heard before in an attempt to summarize the original post. I never claimed that ALL long story are unfocused, in fact, I was arguing against my own stories, so don't start attacking me for stating positions which aren't my own. Instead, wait until someone agrees with my summary of the objection to cast lists, and then they can either defend it or not.

@awnlee Jacking

They all say that they've been told how awful Martin's writing is. That he's achieved any level of success is a triumph of story weaving over technical skill.

His books could be so much better if he used a decent editor.

If he did, he'd likely never have gotten his story published. You've quoting a bunch of unnamed sources--probably all unpublished from the sounds of it--to question the 'literary claims' of someone who's sold millions of copies.

And so what if his books sell because he's a better story weaver (i.e. story teller) than a grammarcist? Does anyone really care what kind of grades he got in applying commas? Few of us here are heavily trained in the literary arts. We're all fumbling in the dark, trying to pick up in our later years everything we didn't pay attention to while we were in school. So to start attacking someone for not being a great 'technical writer' is the ultimate in hypocrisy.

Note: I'm not saying you can't criticize him for his poor use of English, just that it's unjust to claim that he's a better story weaver than a technically skilled writer. Who the frig cares? There are millions of technically correct writers who'd I'd never read, but finding a great story that engages me is an agonizingly difficult task.

Replies:   awnlee jawking
Crumbly Writer

@awnlee jawking

I wish I could find a breakdown of sales of 'A Song of Ice and Fire' by year. I would expect the peak to have occurred a significant time after initial publication, after the TV series captured public imagination.

All I know is, before the story was ever considered for television (HBO), he'd published three hugely successful books, each densely packed with details which his fans loved. So it's misconstrued to claim that he's only successful because he's on TV now. Instead, his books are on TV precisely because his books were SO successful! The sad part is that because he refused to turn his stories over to some unknown scriptwriter, he'll probably never finish his original series. :(

Replies:   awnlee jawking
awnlee jawking

@Crumbly Writer

better story weaver (i.e. story teller)


I deliberately didn't use the term 'story teller' because one of the principal criticisms relates to how the books are structured. By all accounts the TV series did a very good job of assuaging this defect.

AJ

awnlee jawking

@Crumbly Writer

When I think of 'hugely successful' fantasy, Harry Potter springs to mind. But the Harry Potter books made it from genre to mainstream on their own, before the films came out. Game of Thrones was still firmly genre until the TV series made it a household name.

AJ

Not_a_ID

@Ernest Bywater

The writers' group I go to has some creative writing course addicts who are taking or have taken all levels from university degrees down to evening classes.

They all say that they've been told how awful Martin's writing is. That he's achieved any level of success is a triumph of story weaving over technical skill.

His books could be so much better if he used a decent editor.


This may be more of a reflection of the academic world having a disconnect with the wider world. There are plenty of stories out there of Commercial DJ's and other media personalities who during earlier periods in their life would be working part time at a radio station while attending "Media" classes at a Local University.

Where it wouldn't be uncommon for the people working in the industry to get poor ratings from the instructor. In the case of the Radio DJ's, getting criticized for "being too Commercial" wasn't unusual.

And that is where someone has to stop and ask "Uh, if they're not working in a Commercial Market as a DJ, who the hell are they working for?"

Duke_Mantee

@Crumbly Writer

I think I'm 100% in agreement with Crumbly here. I keep a separate sheet of characters for any story i read that's above say a hundred pages. If I read a story over several days, I often need to go back and find out who "Donna" or "Joe" is, meaning how they were introduced to the story. From there, I can usually remember what influence they have on the plot.

Cheers!

Dominions Son

@Not_a_ID

And that is where someone has to stop and ask "Uh, if they're not working in a Commercial Market as a DJ, who the hell are they working for?"


NPR (National Public Radio)

Bondi Beach
Updated:

@Not_a_ID


This may be more of a reflection of the academic world having a disconnect with the wider world.


And perhaps the disdain the literary fiction world (and wannabes) expresses for successful commercial fiction.

I've never finished a James Patterson novel, because they don't click with me. But as Patterson said once in response to another writer's (can't remember who it was) ding, "How many books has he sold?"

Patterson is, I believe, either the No. 1 bestselling author in the world, or close to it.

Yeah, yeah, the literary types will reply, but it doesn't matter how many books he's sold if the writing isn't any good (See, Fifty Shades of Grey).

Each to his own.

bb

Replies:   awnlee jawking
awnlee jawking

@Bondi Beach

As well as being a prolific writer and latterly grooming a crop of young writers to imitate his style, Patterson now positions himself as a teacher as well as a writer. He has some street cred in that respect because his various sets of rules for writing are often mentioned in Creative Writing classes.

I consider him a good storyteller but I have issues with the quality of his story weaving. His universes lack the attention to detail of George R R Martin, for example.

But that's just my opinion, YMMV.

AJ

Replies:   Bondi Beach
Bondi Beach

@awnlee jawking

As well as being a prolific writer and latterly grooming a crop of young writers to imitate his style, Patterson now positions himself as a teacher as well as a writer. He has some street cred in that respect because his various sets of rules for writing are often mentioned in Creative Writing classes.


I didn't know about his presence in writing classes. Yikes. At Barnes & Noble the other evening (trailing after my spouse on the hunt for the next Outlander volume) I saw a table covered with what appeared to be novellas by Patterson. Claimed to be original work, could be read "in a couple of hours" or words to that effect on the jacket. Can't remember the name of the series—"Morsels?"

Is there a Patterson School, like many of the old Renaissance painters, i.e., a crew doing the work while supervised by the master?

bb

Replies:   Not_a_ID  awnlee jawking
Not_a_ID
Updated:

@Bondi Beach

I think the term you're looking for is "Ghost Writer" which is something a number of Celebrities do when writing "autobiographies" or a number of other works. Chances are they didn't write down a single word, although they might have dictated some of it. They paid someone else to do all of the actual writing, composing and editing. But as their name is the draw, and the ghost writer is often contractually bound to stay silent(or at least, has agreed to not have their name directly tied to the title), the celeb gets most of the 'laudits.

Edit: Or to put in the context an Erotica Forum might be able to appreciate. Think Mr.Skin and its' efforts to confirm/deny the use of Body Doubles(and who they are, if possible), merkins, or other such tricks. Ghost Writers are the publishing world equivalent, and not to be confused with ghostly apparitions leaving behind messages of one kind or another.

Replies:   Bondi Beach
awnlee jawking

@Bondi Beach

Is there a Patterson School, like many of the old Renaissance painters, i.e., a crew doing the work while supervised by the master?


I think that's a pretty good description. The authors write to a strict 'James Patterson' formula, allegedly Patterson edits the results, and his name is writ large on the cover alongside the author's in order to appeal to Patterson afficionados. I believe the 'Private' series have all been written that way.

AJ

Bondi Beach

@Not_a_ID

I think the term you're looking for is "Ghost Writer" which is something a number of Celebrities do when writing "autobiographies" or a number of other works.


It's not ghost writer. (See awnlee jawking's response.) If I'm remembering the notes correctly, Alexandre Dumas employed assistants in writing The Count of Monte Cristo and other novels, although how much Dumas delegated is disputed, I think.

Or to put in the context an Erotica Forum might be able to appreciate.


Touché!

Although I've always appreciated Mr. Skin's efforts on the body double / no body double front.

bb

sagacious

@Switch Blayde

I do the same thing. Make a list and update it as the story proceeds, but it stays with me. Continuity is much easier to keep this way. I get irritated when a story gets names wrong or places characters in situations they would not go into. When I encounter character lists I ignore them. If I can't follow the characters through the story, then it is not well enough written for me to finish it,has happened several times.

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