It’s common in novels to have scenes where a character who is known to the reader is observed by another character who lacks that knowledge. To indicate that fact, the writer sometimes refrains from using the character’s name (and generally from mentioning anything that the other character can’t know).

That’s fine, except when (for story purposes) it’s important that the reader recognize that the character being observed is the character that they know.

Many writers use some physical tag that, I guess, is supposed to clue the reader in as to who the character is, and here’s where my bad reading capabilities come to the fore: I read right past that stuff.

When the story talks about someone seeing “the tall man in the black coat,” I do not automatically assume that this guy must be the main character (whom I’ve long ago forgotten was described in the first chapter as being tall and some time later as owning a black coat).

I can’t count how many novels I’ve found utterly befuddling because I never realized that “the guy in the cowboy hat” was not just some guy in a cowboy hat, but rather was the main character (whose choice of chapeau had no doubt been mentioned, but without the important caveat “by the way, in the world of this novel, nobody else ever wears a cowboy hat”).

Now, it’s possible to make this work. I remember a novel that described one character as walking “with the outsides of his feet making first contact with the ground.” When someone with that particular gait was referred to later, I never once thought that maybe this was some other guy who happened to walk on the outsides of his feet.

So, how about you guys? When a book you’re reading references “the bald man” or “the guy with the red beard,” do you immediately know that the author means you to understand that this is the character described three chapters earlier as having that trait? Is it just that I’m a bad reader?

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2 thoughts on “Am I a bad reader?

  1. I don’t read as much fiction as I used to, but I have a terrible time distinguishing characters, even with both names and descriptions. If you are going to have more than five main characters, I will start forgetting them. This is a particular problem right now because I’m trying to get through the (rather bad) last Clan of the Cave Bear book, and all the characters have three-syllable names and show up for short periods of time since they keep traveling. It’s a bad situation.

  2. Yeah! And some writers are terrible about giving characters similar names.

    As a general rule, I make sure all the characters character names in my stories have unique first characters. It’s not an absolute rule—if there’s some cultural significance or story purpose behind it, I might go with similar names—but I hate it when I’m confused for 200 hundred pages before I figure out that Claire and Clare and two different people, so I try not to do that to readers.

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