Write a phone book?

phone books

There’s an old joke about the guy who went to a bookstore looking for a new novel and bought a phone book by mistake.

When one of his friends saw him later with the phone book in front of him, turning the pages, he asked, “How are you liking the book?”

“The plot’s not much but the cast of characters is amazing,” the phone book purchaser said.

Like all jokes, what makes that funny is because it hits close to home, especially for authors who like to populate their novels with a menagerie of characters.

Blue Screen by Robert Parker
Blue Screen by Robert Parker

I mentioned a few days ago that I have been reading  a Robert Parker book.  Parker is one of my absolute favorite writers.

One of the things I’ve noticed about Blue Screen, and I believe this holds true for most of the Parker books I have read, is that he introduces a lot of characters linearly as the book unfolds. In other words, the reader meets Sunny Randall (the private investigator heroine), Jesse Stone (the chief of police hero) and several other people early on.  But as the chapters pile up, the reader meets someone new all the time.

Parker builds the relationship of these characters like a house of cards. If the reader loses track of one, she will need to go back and refresh her memory, although Parker  adds summaries of prior events through dialogue with his  main characters to help the reader keep her place.

Another way of approaching characters is to front load them, get the lineup in place, then let them follow their own devices, colliding with each other along the way.

I’m sure there are about a thousand books on the topic of how early a character should be introduced in a book.  And I am sure there are another thousand about how many characters are enough, how many are too few, how many are too many.

But since I haven’t read those books, I’d really like to know your take on it.

As a reader do you prefer to meet  most of the characters in a book early on?

As a writer, do you front load your characters, or sprinkle them in when you feel like the time is right?


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