Column - List of characters should be required in novelsThere ought to be a law – well, at least a “literary” law – that all novels must be published with a “List of Characters” at the very front of the book.
By: Dennis Dalman, Alexandria Echo Press
There ought to be a law – well, at least a “literary” law – that all novels must be published with a “List of Characters” at the very front of the book.
The list should name every character, major and minor, and then briefly explain who they are and to whom they’re related.
Recently, I tried reading a murder mystery named Skin Tight by Carl Hiaasen. I had read the first half of the book many months ago, but the book got waylaid somehow when I was rearranging my library. I started the book mid-way through, where I had dog-eared a page but couldn’t remember some of the characters. So I started the book all over, which was OK, because Hiassen is such a brilliant, entertaining novelist I didn’t mind re-reading and relishing those early chapters.
Still, so many books can cause character confusion, even if you read them right through. The granddaddy of confusing novels, if you ask me, is War and Peace by Tolstoy. After trying to read that big fat magnificence for decades, I finally succeeded, thanks to the help of CliffsNotes study guide, which listed most of that novel’s characters, alphabetically, plus interesting historical background.
Russian novels are notorious for being overpopulated with characters with names that cannot be pronounced, at least by us, the English readers. What’s worse, most Russian characters have all these cute little nicknames like “Mishka” or “Pruschenka,” and so you’re never quite sure who is whom during the course of the story.
On this side of civilization, there is confusion enough. Jane Austen, for instance, can drive you crazy with character confusion (at least in her Emma). Same with Emily Bronte, author of Wuthering Heights, that sinister and brooding work of genius which I just finished reading for the third time in my life. Trouble with that masterpiece is Bronte shifts around time, and two of the characters, mother and daughter, are both named Catherine. William Faulkner pulls the same stunt in his great The Sound and the Fury, with two characters (again, mother and daughter) named Candace and with even more radical time shifts. You’d like to slap them upside their heads for confusing us, but I guess authors that good have a right to boggle our brains.
In college, while studying literature, I always marked up novels while reading them, including lists of characters. I’m not in college anymore. I don’t want to read with a pen or magic marker in one hand. I want to enjoy the novel without even thinking of an upcoming essay test given by some wheezing grandfather-clock professor.
The good news is you don’t have to buy CliffsNotes anymore. Online, you can now find detailed summaries of just about any famous novel (such as War and Peace), including lists of characters. Those lists are very helpful – worth printing out and tucking into the novels, like bookmarks, as you read them.
But most current books, such as murder mysteries, (as yet un-famous or un-classic) are not detailed on the Internet or “worthy” of CliffsNotes’ attention. Most really good novelists have a knack for making even a minor character memorable by a certain tic, twitch or behavioral habit so when he or she occurs again way later in the book, we the readers know instantly: “Oh, yeah, it’s THAT character again.”
Still, wouldn’t it be nice, next time you pick up a novel, to open the first few pages and see a reassuring list of the characters you are about to encounter? Such a list would be good for older people with fading memories, not to mention younger people suffering from attention-deficit disorder or memory lapses caused by too much daily commotion.