Cast of Characters

Nancy J. Cohen

Do you include a Cast of Characters in your mystery novel? Is this a helpful item to readers? In my experience, some readers like to have this directory. It serves as a refresher or helps to explain the relationships among the story people. Others may view a long list of characters with trepidation. In a mystery, they feel the tale might have too many suspects to remember. So who do we please?

The other thing to consider is placement. If you list your characters in the front of a book, potential new readers who click on “Look Inside” at Amazon will lose a page of text that you could have there instead. Same goes for a Table of Contents. While it may be good to put these in the front of a print book, for a digital copy the opposite might be true. Should we consider putting them in the back where they won’t interfere with that critical first look?

Some authors include entire family trees along with their sagas. This can be helpful if you are writing a series with multiple generations. But what about a single title? Is listing the cast a desirable item?

In my online files, I differentiate between Continuing/Recurrent Characters and the current Cast. The latter includes my main characters and the suspects for this story only. It does not include recurrent secondary characters that only make brief appearances. Those people go on my private list of Continuing Characters. I suppose if your series gets very lengthy, you could insert a guide to all the characters in this particular universe, whether they have blood ties or not. This type of guide should definitely be part of the back bonus materials.

The Cast List that I include for each story is as brief as possible. You can include a teasing question about each suspect or just describe their straightforward role. Be careful not to include spoilers that give away a character’s secrets. There is a short CoC in Peril by Ponytail. Click on the Look Inside feature.

What do readers think?

One reviewer recently said about Peril by Ponytail: “I really liked that at the beginning of the book there was a ‘List of Characters’ outlining everyone within the context of the series.”

Then I asked these questions on my Facebook Page: Do you like a Cast of Characters in a mystery novel? Is it helpful or intimidating? Does it matter if the list is up front or in the back material?

Negative Responses:

“I don’t usually look if it’s included. I like to discover the characters as I read the book.”

“No. It makes it seem too theatrical, like I’m being told right from the start that this isn’t real.”

“I won’t look at it unless I’m having a hard time keeping characters straight or am having long lag times between reading and need a refresher.”

Positive Responses:

“Up front! It’s especially helpful if you haven’t read the previous books in the series.”

“I like it because it gives me a sense of place, especially with a new series. Also, if I get confused, I can go back to the list to figure out who’s who.”

“I like it, and I usually refer back to it as I read and come across each character. I like to know how they relate to each other.”

“If the book is a part of a series, the cast of characters can be very helpful if you didn’t start at the first of the series.”

“I like it if there are a lot of characters, of if you have a character who only appears a few times, several chapters apart. And put it in the front.”

“Up front! I recently read two mystery books that involved several guests at parties and a quick cast of characters guide would have helped.”

“I think it can be helpful if there are a lot of characters or if they have similar/unusual names. Also, no spoilers in the list.”

“I like it in the front. Sometimes new characters are hard to keep straight.”

“I like it at the front. That way I know it’s there if I need to refer back to it. I also love maps!”

“Up front. I always read it and I go back to refresh my memory on who a character is.”

“I like a CoC and a floor plan of the main character’s home.”

And More! This question garnered over 960 people reached. View it here:

As you see, it’s a mixed bag of responses, but the majority appears to be overwhelming in favor of including a list of characters in the front of a book. What is YOUR opinion?

14 thoughts on “Cast of Characters

  1. You know, I can’t decide. There are times when I read something and wish I had a character list to refresh my memory when there is a large cast of characters or, more often, because there is a time lag between periods when I pick up the book to read. Yet the other part of me doesn’t like having a character list up front. I’ve rarely seen one in a book, but when I have, I had an annoyed reaction to the effect of “Doesn’t the writer think I can track this myself?”

    So how’s that for a non-answer? LOL!

    The only supplemental material I tend to look at is if its a book where they’ve included a map.

  2. As a reader of Suspense/Mystery/Thriller books I tend to not like a cast of characters list. As long as the characters are well developed in the book, that is all I need.

  3. I’m in the ‘nay” camp. If I see a big cast of characters up front, I think — the author doesn’t think he/she can write well enough to make them come alive and be memorable on the page, or doesn’t think I’m going to be able to keep track. Also, if there’s a large list, especially when you see family trees, I figure it’s going to be too much trouble and ignore the tree. If I find I need to go back to see who’s who, I’ll usually quit reading. I want to move forward, not flip back. (Notable exception: War and Peace, where my high school English teacher provided the CoC and relationships)

    Just don’t name characters with similar names, and I’m happy.

  4. Interesting idea. I’ve never heard of this before, but I can see how it could be helpful with long series. That said, as a reader, I like to discover the characters myself.

  5. I LOVE cast lists, but they’re so rarely used. I’m terrible at remembering names, and often find myself flipping back to where a character was introduced to remember them again (which is much harder digitally than in print!). I don’t care if it’s at the start or the end. If it has a link it doesn’t make a difference. I especially like the idea for series, especially with characters who are in some books, but not others.

  6. In certain types of books it works to have a cast, or maps, or other details. For my own though, I prefer to introduce folks as we move along, let them get attached, but keep them on edge as to whether or not that person is going to morph into a major character, or end up dying in the action, or both.

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