Readers Aren’t Elephants

Elephants, it is said, never forget anything.

Readers, not so much.

I’m reminded of this memory gap frequently in my critique group. I’ll be reading a scene from chapter eight of someone’s draft, and suddenly a minor-sounding character pops up from out of nowhere to contribute a bit of dialogue. There’s no description that reminds me who this character is, or where he came from. There’s just a bit of dialogue, and a name. I have no clue who this character is.

Oh, I introduced that character four chapters ago, the writer says, a tad defensively, in response to my sheepish request for a reminder. How could I have forgotten?

I’ve forgotten your character, I want to scream at the writer during these moments, because A) You failed to introduce the character originally in a memorable way, and B) You didn’t re-establish him later in an effective manner

A Universal Truth of Writing: It’s Never the Reader’s Fault!

It doesn’t work to ignore a character for several chapters, or even one scene, and then sling him back upon the unsuspecting reader without proper re-introduction. To a reader, this type of assault feels a bit like a zombie attack from outer space. Readers need to be reminded about what your character’s been doing the entire time you’ve been focusing attention elsewhere.

Within a scene, the re-introduction of a character who’s been missing in action can be done with a single sentence. For example, let’s say you have a scene with three characters, and two of them have been having a heated argument. Now let’s say you need to re-introduce Character #3, who hasn’t said anything so far in the scene. This is one way you might do it:

Bertram, who’d been listening to us from his unsteady perch on the broken stool, cut in to deliver a verdict. “You’re both wrong,” he said.

If your character’s been missing in action for entire chapters, you’ll need to do a bit more work to re-introduce him. One thing you could do would be to show other characters reacting to your MIA’s re-arrival in the scene.

Best Practice Suggestions
Don’t lose your reader by ambushing him with improperly introduced details or characters from previous sections.  
Do re-establish characters from earlier sections with gentle reminders that help readers stay oriented in the story flow.

How do you re-introduce MIA characters in your work? Have you ever had to go back a few pages to remind yourself who a character is?

17 thoughts on “Readers Aren’t Elephants

  1. Yeah, I’ve gotten the non-memorable character feedback more than once. Hard to do, but thank goodness for our crit partners and beta readers to set us straight!

    • Even the most minor character needs to be intriguing, and suggest a story all his own, and not be presented just as a generic, stock character. And you’re right BK–sometimes it takes our critique partners to point out areas that need improvement!

  2. Reading a work in progress over weeks, chapter by chapter. it can be easy to miss things you might not otherwise if you’d read it straight through. Secondary characters should be memorable if they will play a part through the story.

    I am often surprised when I see the summary info provided by the copy editor whrre the CE lists all the names in the book, from main characters to secondary ones to the random appearance people. Even in a relatively simple story, the names can add up. So crafting characters to be memorable or reminding the reader who each one is can be very important. You definitely don’t want the reader to stumble over a name and have to flip back pages for a reminder.

  3. Yes, this is something I struggle with, and I appreciate the reminder to look at it again this morning. My plan was to do a read-through of everything I’ve written so far on this book but I’ll be this to my checklist for sure. (it’s a good time, I completed the part one). Thanks!

  4. I have a tendency to over-remind readers so that I don’t confuse them, Jordan. Usually I have to pare those down after being told that the readers “got it.” 🙂

  5. I make an effort to make sure any character I plan to bring back later had some kind of key role in the scene where the first appearance is made. Then, if it’s been a while since they made an appearance, I’ll work something in to the return that reminds the reader without beating her about the head and shoulders with it. Dialog is great for that. If my minor character is with the same person we saw her with first, they can make mention of it in some reasonable way. If they’re with someone else, reference can be made to the previous scene, as the re-appearing character fills in the other on what’s happened. It doesn’t take much. Or, better said, it shouldn’t, if it’s done right.

  6. Excellent advice, Kathryn! So important not to confuse or annoy the readers! I’ll be sending my clients and Facebook friends here to read this great advice.

    On a related note, it’s important that writers don’t give too much emphasis to walk-on characters who won’t appear again. Best not to give their name or too much description, as readers will then assume they somehow play more of a role in the story, and will pay too much attention to them, so then you have too many minor characters cluttering up the scenes and readers overtaxed memories! 🙂

    But of course I know you’re not talking about cab drivers and store clerks and waiters here… 🙂

    • I like to make even the most minor characters have a suggestion of personality, Jodie. For example, the crabby clerk might have gray circles that suggest he’s in the late stages of recovering from a weekend in Vegas. Not so much to imply he will play a bigger role in the story–just enough to keep him from sounding flat.

  7. This sort of thing just drives me nuts. This also goes for characters with similar names, or ones that look alike. “Do they all have beards? Is everyone six-foot-six?” I get those comments more often the once. I have a Franco character and a Frankie’s Place (a bar). Confusing? Of course the owner of the bar is Frankie. To put it frankly, I changed it to Johnnie’s Place. And here I thought I was the only person having this “similar, but not the same” kinda problem.

    I suppose next we’ll trash various regional colloquialisms, too. (Wow–nearly broke spellchecker getting to that tongue-twister.) My favorite being, “What it is?”

  8. Good post, Kathryn…it’s a “minor” thing but an important one, what we do with those minor characters. This reminds me another pet peeve of mine: writers who introduce too many characters too soon in a story. I call them “spear-carriers” after the folks who crowd the back of the stage in operas and don’t really have anything to do but be part of the scenery. The problem with spear-carriers in books is that too often writers give them names. And everytime you give a character a name, the reader’s brain records that as important. But then the spear-carrier disappears. Or worse, writers often give spear-carriers cute quirks, thinking that enlivens the scene. No, all it does is shift the spotlight away from your tenors and sopranos.

  9. Kathryn–
    You are talking about something most writers have to deal with–being overly familiar with their characters, to the point of losing track of how readers will experience those same characters. In a way, it’s a lack of empathy, of not seeing the story’s world through the eyes of someone who didn’t create it. Belonging to a writers’ group is one of two ways I know of to solve or reduce the problem. Since I don’t belong to such a group, I have to rely on method #2: distancing myself from what I write by putting it away long enough to gain some detachment from it. The longer I do this, the better the odds of catching mistakes like the one you’re talking about.

  10. I definitely remember this happening in a critique group and I couldn’t keep track of some of the minor characters at all – mainly because half of them were only in for a scene and then they disappeared only to reappear ten chapters later without any reintroduction. This made me wonder whether they were even necessary in the first place – so one additional piece of advice I’d give is not to overburden the story with too many minor characters that don’t serve any purpose (also don’t use similar names as that only adds to the confusion if there’s a Doris, Doreen and Dora the reader won’t remember who was who unless handled properly!).

  11. It’s embarrassing when you have to critique in person and you have to admit that you don’t remember a character. How else can you say that you didn’t remember because that part must have been boring as all hell?

    If I don’t remember a character and I feel a scene misses an intro, my first question is always, “Am I supposed to know this character? I read the last chapter 3 months ago!”

    OMG, it’s difficult in a critique group because I feel like I lose track of stories and characters trying to keep up month to month.

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