I'm adding a qualifying question to the end of this question.

So I have (let's say) two types of feedback in my beta critiques and real-life writing clubs. One is that I have floating heads syndrome, - conversations without grounding and surrounding details. I can fix those.

The second is, I have 'too many characters' in some scenes. FTR, I have 32 named characters altogether, which is near average for a SFF book. (Some famous works have over 70.) IOW, I am not convinced that the number of characters is the problem - I suspect it is my execution that is the problem.

These two pieces of feedback stand somewhat in opposition, in my mind. Readers want more surrounding detail - but that detail should not be characters. Even if those characters have a defined role. Example: in a hospital setting, the MC has two nurses. This is on the lower side of realistic - I'd expect three shifts, three nurses, at a bare minimum. My writing group wants this folded into one nurse, or even no nurses at all.

While also wanting me to ground the scenes with realistic detail.

I could expand the scenes, but this runs up against "What does the reader really need to know?" I could not name the nurses, but they are a staple of the scene.

In another chapter, there are twelve people (five inside and seven outside), and I agree this is a lot. At the time that I wrote it, I remember I was trying to get past all the 2-person dialogs I had. I wanted a crowd scene, full stop, so I wrote one. the intent of the scene is chaos, as well. Now, I can prune this back to about eight (four of whom the reader already knows), and the children can lose their names, becoming 'the baby' and 'the little boy.' (However, it is unrealistic that the mother in dialog would say "Come here, little boy." She would use his name. So this solution is only partial for the children.)

I'm not convinced removing names is necessarily the thing to do. It immediately will be less true-to-life and these characters show up later.

So. if you have thoughts about the correct pacing of introducing new characters, ways to tighten up the reader's experience, or (in my estimation) if a writer's group reading six excerpts back to back provides feedback that is not applicable to a solo reader immersed in a story, and should be tempered accordingly, I'd love to hear it.

How would you describe the ideal pacing and introduction of new characters?

Edit: Additionally, what is the effect on the reader, if, for example, a nurse said something like, "I'm Mary, but it's alright if you don't remember. You just get well." Will the reader feel permitted to not remember? (LOL I could have her say "I'm Mary but I don't show up in this book again," LOL)

Another edit: To say that he forgot her name is to (mis)characterize him, the MC. I'd rather have her say that she is Mary but he need not remember, if this is acceptable. I don't believe I have any named characters that only show up once, or only in one chapter (even Mary.). I'm definitely on the lookout for those, though.

What is good pacing and style for new character introductions?

Another edit:

It occurs to me there may be special tricks for some types of characters. For example, a baby. If I want her mother to use her name, the mother can occasionally call her 'Baby Annie' and not just Annie. Now and then the mother might remind everyone that Annie is the baby.

Similarly, the little boy could sometimes be 'Little Joey.'

(A nurse can occasionally be called Nurse Mary, and not just Mary. These label-cues should help the reader along, yes? (oh, right, that's the nurse.) I think this is similar to Amadeus' suggestion about remembering someone from a party within dialog.

This trick makes sense to me for some of the characters ... and if there's a point here that I might be missing I'd like to put the idea out for consideration.

(Bad, on-the-fly, needs rewriting) example:

The mother said, "Oh, thank you for picking that up. Baby Annie is always dropping her pacifier. Little Joey never dropped a thing, but his sister has butter fingers."

Another Edit: Another trick picked up over the months is to give a small easily-visible detail to the less important characters. Like a red bowtie. "John, the man in the bowtie, was speaking again." The reader seems to be able to grab onto that sort of detail and remember John not as John but as Man in red bowtie.

  • 2
    You say that your readers want more surrounding detail, but then you jump to the conclusion that they mean more character descriptions. Have they explicitly said this? Or could it be the case that they mean they would prefer to know what the hopsital looks like or what kind of people are there - old and sickly, young and with recent sport accidents, ...?
    – Secespitus
    Feb 15, 2018 at 16:18
  • 1
    Not trying to jump to 'more character descriptions,' rather, trying to understand why 'two nurses, Mary and Sue, checking his IV and dressing his wound' is harder for a reader than 'three windows, one of which was open, and blinds that were half drawn. The sun hit his eyes straight on, and he squinted and twisted in the sheets, wishing he was able to walk to close the blinds. The sheets tangled around his legs, and he hit the call button.' Do I need to add more action to Mary and Sue? The specific feedback revolves around the idea of names. Why? Why are names a problem?
    – SFWriter
    Feb 15, 2018 at 16:24
  • 2
    Are Mary and Sue used more than on one or two occasions later? Is it important to have a name for them or can you just use "the nurse" instead? If they never make an appearance again you just set up your readers expectations. The general expectation is that a named character will play an important role in some way - that's why he gets a name. And that's why a reader has to reserve some memory whenever he comes across a new named character. In your example it looks like you could leave out "Mary and Sue" because the names themselves add nothing to the story.
    – Secespitus
    Feb 15, 2018 at 16:31
  • 2
    The blinds and the bedsheets are inanimate objects; to describe them is to dress the set in the reader's mind. You don't need to go on for pages about them. But if you name all the nurses, you are telling the reader that they are worth remembering — they are not interchangeable. You could as easily say The Jamaican nurse checked his IV. He knew she had introduced herself earlier, but he had forgotten her name, and was now too embarrassed to ask again. That acknowledges reality without asking the reader to keep track of an NPC. (cont'd) Feb 15, 2018 at 17:15
  • 2
    I have seen countless nurses over the years, don´t recall the name of even one of them, most never told. May recall the looks of some and what the room looked like. Also, never seen more than one nurse working on a patient, even if there are hundreds in one shift ... just because they are there does not mean they all have to make an appearance.
    – Daniel
    Feb 15, 2018 at 17:23

2 Answers 2


Names are not a problem, nor do I worry about naming characters that won't be used again. For "extras" I give them forgettably common names, but for characters that serve some dramatic purpose, I give them a more rare and memorable name, even if they won't appear again (or may only make one more appearance).

If the POV character should remember them or what they did or suffered, I give them a more memorable and distinct name (and I keep a list of names used). So if I had a male, I might choose Jonathan or Michael or George for an extra, but if my male had a dramatic purpose, I might choose Sterling or Grayson or Conroy (all first names of people I have met).

For characters I intend to be forgotten, my writing reflects whether they can be forgotten as well. Extras may be introduced as a group, just a list of names with zero physical description; making the characters interchangeable extras in the reader's mind.

If it is necessary in the scene to single one out, I go back and add a note of physical description I can use to remind the reader later: Ariel had long straight brown hair, to her shoulder blades, parted in the middle.

Grounding the scenes in reality is not being so meticulously realistic. If you need two memorable nurses, "Mary" and "Sue" are poor names for them, you might choose something besides The #1 and #7 most popular female names of the last century. Which makes them very forgettable in the reader's mind.

But that said, in fiction, reality is not *real** realism, it is just not being magical or so improbable it breaks suspension of disbelief. Nobody puts your book down because you did not cover every shift with unique nurses.

Nobody puts it down because a boy's mother spoke to him without using his name. It seems realistic enough to me a boy recognizes his mother's voice when she says "Come here." And just as realistic if, after referring to the "little boy," the only line naming him is "George, come here," to which the little boy responds. And there is another dodge: You can tell instead of show such interactions without losing any points: "The little boy's mother commanded him to return," which lets you specify the action without any names at all.

A crowd scene: My current work has a large crowd scene, in which a dinner is held for thirty people, all the family of a man returning from a mission that had taken him away for four months. This returning hero is not the POV character, but my POV attends this dinner as his guest. He meets and greets everybody individually and calls them by name, but after the first, my POV gives up on trying to remember them. It would be a bore to "show" all these greetings, individually they have no real dramatic purpose, the entire thing is covered in a few sentences. Collectively they have a purpose, proving our hero is emotionally connected to all of these people.

Intentionally, the first new name is a person she will interact with later, and the last person she meets comes in late, fifteen minutes after the initial greeting round, and comes to greet and apologize for her tardiness to the hero; and is introduced to our POV separately because of that. The POV remember that name too: Which just so happens to be another person she will interact with in the future.

Our hero is introduced to a twelve year old child his daughter has adopted while he was gone, they are given names, and during the dinner they sit close to him and my POV, and she remembers their names, essentially the dinner is described between her own servings and what the child and new mother do. There are kids, but their dialogue is described, not given: A child whispers to his mother, and she escorts him from the room; my POV character assumes to visit a restroom.

In that entire scene of thirty people, four previously introduced people are named, the two extras sitting next to her as a foil for describing the dinner and setting, and two (with uncommon names) were introduced that served a later purpose, and "luckily" were in plausible positions to be remembered; first and last.

Ideal pacing: I engineer the story so I introduce characters "naturally" a few at a time. Even if my POV meets fifty people at once, I would never name them all, if the POV needs to get in touch with one, they "remember" the name when it is necessary. Oh, Jason was the contract lawyer at Marcia's party, that's right. Then meeting Jason, we can describe him as needed (though I tend to avoid physical description and describe personality instead). Or the POV happens to re-meet Trig, and recognizes him from Marcia's party, the funny guy with a crowd around him laughing at a story.

I think more than a few introductions per scene is too much, it is overloading the reader's memory.

  • Thanks. I like the placement of first and last introductions as bookends; standing out a bit. Based on @LaurenIpsum s help, I believe a good solution for the nurses is to add a colorful scene in which they use the important object that shows up later. This serves two purposes and the readers will feel better about Mary and Sue's importance. As far as the children - I'm currently limiting their names within dialog, from the mother and a visitor. I think this helps distance them, also I think small children will more likely be discounted anyway. Perhaps they won't tax the reader.
    – SFWriter
    Feb 15, 2018 at 22:06
  • Choice of names - It also may be that certain 'names' such as Destiny and Hope might have a different mental price tag on them. A nurse named Angel might have near-zero mental cost to the reader. A nun named Faith.
    – SFWriter
    Feb 16, 2018 at 0:32
  • A little too on the nose, for me. Angela, perhaps. I'd use some of those for constrast; e.g. "Destiny" as an assassin.
    – Amadeus
    Feb 16, 2018 at 1:17
  • As a matter of mental price tag, not of style. I don't think Angela is 'easier/cheaper' than Mary, though it may well be! A nun named Faith is indeed on the nose, and the 'authorial price tag' is a reader groan, but the 'reader price tag' is ease in remembering. A builder named Bob. A man built like a tank, named Thomas. A ninja named Nina. :-) :-D This is fun. Destiny is clearly the girlfriend. Unless ... She isn't. Da da dum. Oh, oh oh, and Angel is a boy's name, so the male nurse.
    – SFWriter
    Feb 16, 2018 at 1:25
  • AH, just remembered: "Angel" is the vampire that Buffy The Vampire Slayer falls in love with, right? David Boreanz. I meant "Angela" for an angelic nurse. I'm not sure what you mean by "mental price tag", but IMO it is harder for the reader to keep track of a common name than an uncommon one. And even harder if they have no other defining characteristic beyond their profession. You could use that difficulty, actually: Your POV character clearly remembers the nurses named Mary and Sue, but was mentally out of it and can't for the life of him recall which one is Mary and which one is Sue!
    – Amadeus
    Feb 16, 2018 at 11:09

Realistic detail does not necessarily mean describe unimportant characters in greater detail - it may for example mean more details about the environment

Judging from the comment conversation it seems that you interpreted the feedback you received to mean that people want more information about the people, even if they are not important to the story. And your confusion comes from the fact that people seem to be okay with, in your eyes, superfluous descriptions of the environment but not with named side characters.

I am taking the examples you posted in the comments (emphasis mine and with added paragraphs to make it easier to read):

'two nurses, Mary and Sue, checking his IV and dressing his wound'

is harder for a reader than

'three windows, one of which was open, and blinds that were half drawn. The sun hit his eyes straight on, and he squinted and twisted in the sheets, wishing he was able to walk to close the blinds. The sheets tangled around his legs, and he hit the call button.

The first one is not harder to read. In fact, it's quite easy to read. But it sets expectations. When reading the first one I thought that Mary and Sue will be important characters and I expected you to mention them in your second example.

Here is my comment response:

The general expectation is that a named character will play an important role in some way - that's why he gets a name. And that's why a reader has to reserve some memory whenever he comes across a new named character. In your example it looks like you could leave out "Mary and Sue" because the names themselves add nothing to the story.

The names themselves are not important and do not add anything, but they signal to the reader that these people will be important later on. Read up on Chekhov's Gun (obviously a very dangerous TVTropes link). Chekhov's Gun applies to names. If you name a character you definitely, absolutely have to use that character for something. Maybe as a conversation partner. Maybe the main character will just remember them because they were kind or cruel or clumsy. Maybe they help the main character in some way. Or maybe they are casualties in a terrorist attack and he later sees them dead somewhere. Maybe they are just there to show in which situation other characters are because of how the new character treats them. The details depend on your story and what you want to use these characters for - but you have to use them somehow.

The reason why the second example you mentioned is better is because the reader gets a feeling for his surroundings. What does it look like? What is the main character's current condition? What time is it (roughly)? It's adding to the setting and theme of your writing and gives the reader a way to imagine the environment in which the character is currently acting.

The first one on the other hand mentions some nurses. And at the same time these are just unintentional promises.

Whenever a reader comes across a name he will try to remember the name because it will surely be important somehow at some point. This will put more stress on the reader than the description of the room. Three windows are pretty generic. Imagine three windows. See, there is not much to it. Of course I could add stuff to make them unique, but apparently they are not that important so any image that crossed your mind is okay.

Now imagine Mary. See how your mind jumps to a couple characters and munches them together? You have an image of what a Mary is supposed to be like. Maybe you even know a Mary in real life and have to think about her when you read the name.

A name carries a lot of meaning. It's what most humans identify with - because it's used as an identifier for humans. That's what a name is suposed to be. Therefore we associate importance with a name. And with importance come other associations of situations where we encountered for example a Mary. And these associations on the other hand set up expectations. Expectations of what a Mary should be like. And it produces anticipation about whether this Mary will be like other Mary's or different and what her role in the grand scheme of your universe will be.

A window on the other hand is a window. You can look through it most of the time. It may be bigger or smaller, but it serves a practical purpose and as long as there is nothing special happening with the window it's nothing else. Maybe a possible exit if you are in an action-driven mood, but that's about it.

Descriptions of mundane objects do not carry a lot of meaning. Special objects, like guns hanging around, carry a lot more meaning. And names are one of the most important things for people, so they carry a whole lot of meaning for these people and therefore they should carry quite a whole lot of meaning for us as readers.


Now we come to the nearly boring conclusion: the ideal pacing for introducing new characters is that you introduce a new character whenever that character first plays a role in the story you are telling.

That's it.

You introduce them when they become important. Not earlier. Not later.

And you only introduce them with a name if they will play an important part later in the story somehow.

It doesn't matter how many characters you have. It doesn't really matter how many characters you introduce at once. As long as they are distinct and important and it's their moment to come into existence for the reader they should be introduced.

Maybe you introduce a whole group because they are a group of friends or colleagues who just happen to run across the main character and are discussing some event that the main character should be part of. Then you introduce a whole lot at once. Or you introduce one character every three or four chapters in one-on-one dialogues with your main character. This, like always, depends on the details of your story.

To answer your additional part

"I'm Mary, but it's alright if you don't remember. You just get well."

That's just weird. Why would you say that? This would make me curious as to why she would say that and again I would have expectations - expectations of the character trying to uncover why she feels that she is so unimportant that she wouldn't even give people a name to identify her.

Just leave it out. Don't make it a dialogue. Just state that your character is thinking about how his arm hurts while the nurse asks him a few basic questions and that he can't even remember whether she told him her name.

Or you could just show his internal monologue describing his broken bones, how he thinks about getting out of the hospital while the nurse tells him the usual stuff: her name so I can ask for her, that she will care for me until I am better and where I can find everything. No need to explicitly use her name to show that the main character knows her name. You could even later use this to something like I told the old man in front of me the name of my nurse and he wouldn't stop talking about how she is 'such a sweet girl'.

"I'm Mary but I don't show up in this book again."

You can do that - in a comedy where breaking the Fourth Wall is common and acceptable. But normally you would never do something like this. Except for when you suddenly add an omnipotent being that is above all normal characters and knows it's in a book. So, again, expectations. Very high expectations even.

  • Very encouraging. Thanks for the time spent on that. You're saying that names come at a cost but if they're integral to the story, then they shouldn't be folded away.
    – SFWriter
    Feb 15, 2018 at 19:29
  • @DPT I am trying to say that names are a powerful tool and like every tool learning how and when to apply it is the key to making them work in your favour. Names carry a lot of meaning for humans, which means that giving a character a name is an act that you should think about carefully. If you want to use the character later it's important to have some sort of unique identifier for this character. If you don't want to use the character for something that character should not have such a unique identifier. Names are common, though to a lesser degree you can also use scars, clothes, hair cuts..
    – Secespitus
    Feb 15, 2018 at 19:33
  • Yes, you were clear. I could go on about the reason for the characters, the effect on the MC, how the nurses come to symbolize something deeper to the MC, and so on. You don't want to read that, nor do I wish to spell it all out. I feel validated in naming the nurses, and in having two. :) Thank you again.
    – SFWriter
    Feb 15, 2018 at 19:43
  • A detailed physical description, especially of the face, is also something that takes up the reader's mental space and sets up expectations. This is why I try to use the minimum character description necessary (without a name) unless these characters have an important purpose.
    – NomadMaker
    Feb 15, 2018 at 22:22

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