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I've been writing some fantasy. Now, inevitably because its a big piece of fantasy, its all very involved with the world, culture, story and general bits. Personally, I'm really enjoying writing it.

I have noticed that in a few fantasy novels I have read, I just haven't been able to remember who everyone/what everything was. For example, Thomas Covenant, The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, Malice represent this perfectly. There are so many materials and things, strange concepts that sometimes I'm completely unable to keep track of them. For example, in The Hobbit I didn't know which dwarf was talking half of the time...

Anyway, in my novel there are many different materials and characters, and the world is really big. How much of this can I expect the reader to remember without having to flick to the glossary or map every two minutes?

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    Another consideration: What happens if the reader doesn't remember? In The Hobbit, if you don't remember which dwarf is which you may miss out on a little bit, but in order to understand the overarching plot all you really need to know is which one Thorin is. The reader doesn't necessarily have to "get" every little detail the first time through, and while most will probably only read it once, those who come back may appreciate that they're still noticing new details (as you can see by browsing any Harry Potter-themed tumblr page). – Tin Man Aug 22 '16 at 22:48
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    This may be helpful, particularly the second point. – Mike.C.Ford Aug 23 '16 at 9:10
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In addition to Mark's excellent advice, I would suggest:

1) Start slowly. In Game of Thrones, we start with just the Starks, and Martin adds on characters a few at a time and lets us live with them for a chapter before bouncing back to someone we already know. Granted that by book 4 you may need to refer back to the index, but that's over thousands of pages.

2) Either build your world or introduce characters, but not both at once. In David and Leigh Eddings's Belgariad and Malloreon pentologies, we start with one boy who has one aunt and one adult friend, the aunt's father shows up, and then the band collects more members one by one as they leave the small farm and go out into the wider world. Each person is distinctive and has a part to play, and the Eddingses either introduce a new setting/city or a new character, but not both at the same time.

3) Remind the reader occasionally. If you want us to remember that Sadi keeps a poisonous snake as a pet, make the snake's entrance memorable, and then remind us every 40 pages or so that the snake is around. Have Sadi feed her, talk about her, let her out of her bottle to crawl around. Then in the big showdown 200 pages later, it won't be a surprise when the snake bites the bad guy, because we've been reminded that the snake exists.

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    While wholeheartedly agree with points (1) and (3), I am not sure that "Either build your world or introduce characters, but not both at once." works for me. Character introduction can easily contribute to worldbuilding through the description (someone storms into the room wearing an Imperial Officer/Monarchist/Separatist, etc. uniform, and demands to see someone with a thick Abrakadabrian accent), one just has to stick to point (1) and go easy on the reader. – Lew Aug 22 '16 at 19:13
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    @Lew My point was that if you're using the Imperial Officer character to establish something about the world, the reader is either going to remember worldbuilding details or going to focus on the new character. Trying to shoehorn both tasks into the same scene means that something will get forgotten. So the Imperial Officer should be nameless and undescribed until the societal details are imparted, and then we can learn her name, rank, appearance, quest, personality, etc. Not that you can't use her for worldbuilding, but do one task at a time. – Lauren Ipsum Aug 22 '16 at 19:23
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    I see your point, but I still disagree. The tricky part is--as it always is--the balance of the two. Once you pin down the existence of the Imperial Forces and the region of Abracadabria, you can freely expand of the physical and personal traits of the new character without worrying about the reader forgetting the worldbuilding details, because there were none yet. But when the Officer finishes showing off and leaves, it is now very easy to pick up the worldbuilding thread and go with your point 3 (remind): "...I just can't decide whom I hate more, the Imps or the Abracks..." – Lew Aug 22 '16 at 19:50
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    Looks like it :) – Lew Aug 23 '16 at 13:30
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    @LaurenIpsum idk if i agree with your specific example either. You can name the Imperial Officer while worldbuilding the Imperial vs Abracad thing. Especially if this is a main character, you can definitely name him/her and worldbuild it. The reader isn't gonna forget the name or character if he/she keeps coming up. The reader ain't gonna forget the Imperial vs Abacadab if it keeps coming up too. However, if you name 100 characters in your first chapter, or worldbuild 100 things in your first chapter, then in that case, yes the reader will forget. – DrZ214 Aug 24 '16 at 4:18
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Ultimately this is a question of psychology or perhaps neurology. How does human memory work? But I think it is reasonable to suggest is that what people remember is a novel is story and the things that matter to the story. If that is true, people will remember things that are connected to the story, and the more strongly they are connected to the story, the more strongly they will remember them.

And I think what that means is that if you introduced something 200 pages back as an aside or a piece of scene setting but did not connect it strongly to the story arc, then the chances of the reader remembering it when it becomes plot-relevant 200 page later are close to zero.

But if you introduced it 200 pages back in a way that was integral and important to the story, there is a good chance that when it becomes important again, readers will remember it. That is, of course, supposing you do actually have a strong story arc connecting the two incidents.

I suspect the reason that you can't remember which dwarf is speaking in the Hobbit is that, other than Thorin, the dwarves are interchangeable. It really does not matter which of them is speaking. Whether that is a design choice on Tolkien's part or a defect in the story is another matter. But I can't think of any way in which it matters if you can tell Bifur from Bofur from Bombur. The names rather suggest that it is not supposed to matter.

  • The Hobbit was originally geared for Tolkien's children, so yes, they were kind of meant to be silly and interchangeable and piling on. The trilogy is much more serious, so he reduced the character count, diversified the races, and sent them on separate quests. I do still blur Merry and Pippin together, but I'd never confuse either with Sam or Frodo, nor would I muddle Aragorn with Boromir or Faramir, because they are all drawn distinctively. Point being that I agree with you: make the event/person distinctive and important, and it's memorable. – Lauren Ipsum Aug 22 '16 at 15:00
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    +100 LifePoints for perfect summary ==> "...what people remember [in] a novel is story and the things that matter to the story." :D Great explanation. – raddevus Aug 22 '16 at 18:19
  • Thanks for the example, because I noticed that a few things were useless 200 pages back. – Daniel Cann Aug 22 '16 at 18:27
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    Bombur is the fat one. I still remember that some 15 years after reading the book, because he falls into some kind of magic sleep and has to be dragged through the forest. But for the rest of the dwarves you are pretty much right. – BlindKungFuMaster Aug 24 '16 at 12:59
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Use knowledge about how people remember things to your advantage. There's a number of websites, books, etc. out there talking about how people remember and providing tips and tricks for memorizing. As a writer, you can incorporate lessons from these aides memoire into your writing.

Repetition People remember things better when they're encountered multiple times. Readers will be familiar with your main characters' names because they'll happen on practically every page. That minor government official mentioned once, 200 pages back? Probably not. The same minor government official, but who now has been popping up repeatedly in several chapters? Much better chance of being recognized.

Method of loci People's memories are highly contextual. You might recognize a barista on sight when at your local coffee shop, but completely fail to recognize them when you're at the DMV. The coffee shop environment primes you to remember things related to the coffee shop. Likewise in writing, it's easier to remember a priest if they're re-introduced in the context of a church, rather than in a bakery. As a writer, be aware of the contexts your characters appear in, and be more conscientious about re-introducing characters who re-occur outside of their standard context.

General vs. specific It's much easier to remember the general outline of things, rather than specific details. So people might remember that someone is a Lannister, but forget exactly how they're related to Tyrion. When you're writing things that may be forgotten, don't overload the reader with "useless" details, and make sure that the "general outline" of the character you present is the salient feature which will become important later.

Related to this, remember that the main interface you'll present to readers is the name of the item. All too often writers will use names that are very similar to each other (e.g. Ori/Dori/Nori, Bifur/Bofur/Bombur). If all readers remember is the general outline of the name, the exact details (i?/o?) may be glossed over. This gets worse for polysyllabic names. Only the most astute reader will remember - or possibly even notice - the distinction between Amaphidalia and Amothifalia. Using unique and distinguishable names helps to keep people from confusing things.

That said, sometimes similarity of names is helpful. For example, if you're attempting to invoke the trope of "practically indistinguishable siblings" (e.g. Fili/Kili), or if the relationship between objects is the most important trait (e.g. the Amaphae people are ruled by the Amaphidalia from the capital city of Amaphidon), using similar names may be warranted. If using related names to show a relationship, be sure to introduce them in close proximity to each other, so readers are clear on the relationship and are alert to the distinction.

Connections One very important point about memory is that memory is less about facts and more about the connections between facts. The richer you can make the interaction of your characters with the "interesting" parts of your world (while simultaneously avoiding unnecessary details), the better your readers will remember them. That named-but-faceless guard isn't going to stand out, but one with interactions and associations with other important characters or important places/events will. (Note that it's the connections that are important. Extra detail that's unique to the character and doesn't connect them with characters/places/events that the reader is already interested in will be promptly ignored.)


That's a sampling of how you can parlay memorization advice into advice for helping your readers remember your characters and settings. There's likely more tricks you could use, so I'd recommend reading up on memorization aides, and thinking about how they might be applied in structuring your writing.

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    Thanks for pointing out that 'method of loci', its pretty interesting – Daniel Cann Aug 23 '16 at 8:06
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Use epithets like the stories in the pre-literate oral traditions. by using a name or phrase that reminds you of a character's defining characteristic, it becomes much easier to remember them. The more unique or outlandish the characteristic, the easier it will be to remember the character. So, for your main characters, you can just use a simple common name like "Joe". But for some minor character who only shows up every 200 pages, call him something memorable and graphic like "Barfie the pirate" every time he is mentioned. You would be surprised how natural that writing style can feel after a few chapters. Look at the epithets of Homer for inspiration.

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    c.f. The Mountain, the Hound, the Red Viper, the Blackfish... :) – Lauren Ipsum Aug 23 '16 at 11:04
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    @LaurenIpsum excellent examples! also, "cf." was new to me, thanks for that :) – james turner Aug 23 '16 at 16:41
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    Your “philosophical opposition” to capital letters makes your writing quite hard to read... I am glad you are not opposed to spaces. :-) – DaG Aug 23 '16 at 19:36
  • @DaG thank you for your patience. you are helping to make the world a better place :) – james turner Aug 23 '16 at 20:01
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    Slashes are specifically used to separate lines of poetry or song lyrics when they are printed inline rather than stacked: "Now Paul is a real-estate novelist/who never had time for a wife/and he's talkin' with Davey/who's still in the Navy/and probably will be for life." or "I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-/dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding/Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding/High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing/In his ecstasy!" The slashes preserve Hopkins's weird enjambments. – Lauren Ipsum Aug 24 '16 at 0:45
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In my edition of War and Peace (not sure if it was added by the author or the editor, so can't tell if it's in all editions) there is an addendum to recap all the main characters (a lot), give an overview of their biography and their relationships. Very useful when you haven't heard of a character for a few chapters and can't remember his full name. It's only a couple of lines for each character but it saves going back in the book to find who is the daughter of X and the lover of Y.

The maps and addenda in a Song of Ice and Fire or the Lord of the Rings (maps only) play a similar role and I often find myself marking the maps and house history pages because I access them all the time.

It's not terribly aesthetic (except for the maps) but it certainly does the job in an efficient way.

This is explicitly something you want to avoid apparently, but if the cast of characters starts to become really large or confusing (unfamiliar and/or similar names for instance), I think this is still the best solution.

  • I find those annoying, and never read them. I figure if the cast is so big and confusing that it's not possible to keep track of them without having to interrupt my reading to refer to an index, then the author has done something very wrong. – Benubird Aug 24 '16 at 9:32
  • @Benubird meh, YMMV. I really enjoy ASOIAF, and the TV show Game of Thrones, despite the sprawling casts. In that case an index is helpful but not crucial, and usually only needed for smaller characters. I agree that is possible to overdo it — I read an otherwise really good self-pub novella which had a very wide cast, and specifically because the author hadn't spent enough time distinguishing characters and worldbuilding, it was hard to keep track of everyone, and that index was critical. – Lauren Ipsum Aug 24 '16 at 12:15

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