Whether you're reading a novel for a literature class, or enjoying a book on the beach, characters are the vehicles that often help to drive the plot. They make you care about what happens, and you may grow emotionally attached to them (wishing for their happiness and success). But, not all characters are very exciting. And, in some novels, the characters have such similar names that it's sometimes difficult to keep track. Here are a few tips to help...
Time Required: Varies
- Where to Keep Track of the Characters?
A book journal is a perfect place to write about the characters you meet in books. And, you don't have to spend a lot of money on one of those really nice leather-bound or nicely lined gift books (although, I love those books). You can use a notebook, a stack of paper, a few sticky notes, or the back of a receipt (any scrap of paper will do if you're in a pinch). Whatever you are using to write down your characters and bio information, make sure you have it readily available when you are reading your book!
- The First Character?
Who is the first character? In some novels, the first character is sometimes the most important character. Or, even if the character isn't the most important, the first character may lead you to the character you really need to track. So, write the name down. Keep track of when the character first appears, and take note of who he or she meets.
- The Protagonist?
The protagonist is a character in a work of literature, who you may love or hate. Emotional involvement in the successes and failures of the character makes reading a much more rich and memorable experience, but there are a few things you need to track... When did the protagonist first appear? Is he/she the first character? With whom does he/she interact?
- The Details?
For each of the characters (particularly the most important characters), make special note of how much information the author gives you about the character. Does the author tell you:
- Physical Description
- Relationships (family, friends, and acquaintances)
- Motivation (for the major characters in particular, what makes them do what they do?)
- Personal History (birth, childhood, marriage, etc.)
- The Length?
Epic novels often go into much more depth with the details of each character, so you'll be able to track most of these details. It's also much more essential for your understanding of the novel that you track these details. For shorter works, the author may be more frugal with his/her use of details regarding a characters life and personality. Or, the author may compress the details more. You may discover details where you didn't at first realize they existed.
- The Plot?
Where do the characters fit into the plot? How often does a character appear? How does he/she drive the plot? Is there a pattern as to when and where the character appears, how he/she affects the main characters, or how he/she departs from the plot?
- Switching Characters and Complicated Plots
Now, you're writing all the characters down, and you're keeping track of all the important developments in the plot. But, if it's an epic novel (or even for some of the "smaller" books), you may still be having a hard time differentiating one character from another--particularly if the author is using stream of consciousness, multiple points of view, and other literary devices. They really aren't designed to make you pull your hair out! So, what do you do? Try using a different color of small flags for each major development for a character--to track each character.
How do the characters relate to the setting in which they appear? Is it important that the protagonist meets a character on a beach, but he meets another character in a bar? Is the character a product of the setting (the setting would not seem "real" without the presence of the character); or does the character seem out-of-place and alienated in the environment in which the author has placed him/her? The setting can offer important insight into the characterization and plot, and it's important not to overlook how a setting can seem to become a character in its own right!
Is the character a villain, a lover, a trickster, or a rake (in other words, does the character have a archetypal role to play in the plot)? Does the character stand for something larger (something universal)? Sometimes, you can look up the definition of a character's name and find that the name means "peace" and the character is attempting to bring about reconciliation. Even if the name doesn't really mean anything to the plot (or overall scope of the work), the character's actions may point to something larger, more mythic, archetypal, or epic in scope.
- Character as History?
Is the character based on a historical figure? A king? A queen? A writer or a killer? As readers, we have to be careful about comparing the historical character to the fictional one. The author probably took a number of liberties with the fictional version--in keeping with the direction of his her plot, characterization, and setting. While we must believe the author when he/she says the character is "fictional," we also can't ignore the fact that the person really did exist in history.
- Flat versus Round Character
Is the character flat or round? In other words, do you have a sense that you don't really know the character at all? Do you feel that the author neglected to give you enough detail about the character? And, do you find the work lacking because of the many stock (or flat) characters in the work? When you look at your list of details about your characters, you'll likely notice that the protagonist and the villain likely are the most "round" characters. The author has given you the most detail about these two. But, did the author give you enough detail about the supporting characters?
How dynamic is the character? How memorable is he/she? A character can often be said to be dynamic is he/she has experienced a life-changing event or an epiphany. Coming of age stories are great examples, but you'll see dynamic characters in many works of literature.
- Use a book journal or notepad, and keep it with you when you read.
- Keep a pen or pencil with you when you read.
- Look names up in the dictionary (or baby-naming book).
- Particularly with complicated plots (with stream of consciousness, multiple points of view, etc.), use different colors of Post-It flags to track the major events in the lives of each character!