When lots of characters are introduced at the start of a novel, I can’t keep them straight. No matter how amazing the author is at pegging them with unique traits, when there are too many, I can’t tell which will matter to the story, which to focus on, sympathize with, follow. Sometimes I’ll use an index card for a bookmark and jot down notes to remember who’s who. But come on. Really? Do authors want their readers to do that much work?
This past week while revising a novel, I removed all names of lesser characters, blurring their identities like the kids in this photo. I kept the focus on the protagonist. In one chapter where I do mention a few names, my protagonist despairs, saying, “I’ll never keep them all straight.” Exactly. That line signals to readers that they don’t have to keep these kids straight, either. The class functions as a crowd-character—a group that comes and goes en mass, adding flavor without distracting from the primary story line.
While revising, I whispered lame apologies to characters whose names I was cutting. Sorry, Mrs. Schwartzkopf. Maybe you’ll make it into my next novel. She was my fourth grade teacher at Summit Elementary School in Wallingford, Pennsylvania. But is it necessary to know that? TMI—too much information. Yes, details bring a story to life, but whose story is it? And how do you keep the reader’s attention focused where you want it? One way is by not distracting them with names that don’t matter.