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My main characters first appear in the book all at once. How do write their descriptions so that the reader isn't overloaded with so much information all at once?

  • Additionally, can you leave one of the four without a name, simply mentioning one of their striking features ... ' ... the fourth in the group was surprisingly tall and didn't say a word.' I ask because in my experience it seems to be the names that bother people. A fourth image of an unnamed person, or a fourth labelled-but-not-named person ('the waiter,' for example) is supposed to be easier for the reader. Then later, in a different scene, you can name the waiter/tall person/etc. – DPT Apr 1 '18 at 18:36
  • I didn't know that. Sounds really weird, but maybe you could be right? I'll try to research that. Thank you. – Klara Raškaj Apr 1 '18 at 20:34
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    I'm also wondering if a prologue with just one or two of the characters would help. About the 'name' thing - I've asked friends about this, to try to sort out what is going on. Have you ever re-met someone who remembers your name and you can't remember theirs? Huge anxiety. My best guess is that learning new names (needing to learn them) triggers this subconscious fear. I might have trouble remembering that your name is Klara (I had to look at your name on the post to be sure), but it will be easy for me to remember that there's a woman who posts Qs here about a story she is working on. – DPT Apr 1 '18 at 23:59
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It is not uncommon that a group of characters are introduced all at once. For example, C. S. Lewis' The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe begins with the sentence:

Once there were four children whose names were Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy.

The first paragraph does not distinguish between the characters and speaks of them in the plural instead, relating how "they were sent to the house of an old Professor" and that "they liked him" when "he came out to met them".

This is appropriate when the differences between the charactes aren't yet important and the focus is on their shared fate. Differences are introduced as the roles for the four children begin to differ.


Best practice is when the (main) characters of a work of fiction are clearly distinct.

Think of the silhouettes of the cast in an animated movie (borrowed from here):

enter image description here

In fiction, where your readers cannot see your characters:

  • Give them names that are written and sound differently.

    As the names are the handles that the reader uses to recognize characters, make each of these labels unique and avoid similar names. A common practice is having each name begin with a different letter (not Ralph and Roger), but be careful of any alliteration (Mary, Karen, and Harriet) or rhyme (Rob and Bob and Tobby) too.

  • Give each character a distinct characteristic.

    This can be looks (blond, brown, red, and black hair), clothing (red shirt, blue socks, etc.), features (angular, round, long face; slim, tall, round body), or behaviors (scratching, tapping one's feet), interests (football, chess, programming, history), traits (courageous, agressive, gentle), etc.

    The characteristic you choose should be the fundamental defining trait of that character or clearly represent it (e.g. you might use large round glasses to signify "innocence" and have the character push them up, clean them, take them off etc.).

    The four characters don't all have to be given the same type of characteristic, e.g. you can combine the blonde man, with the man with the angular face, the old man, and the nerd.

When you introduce your characters,

  1. label each one by their name and
  2. give their most defining characteristic (and no more)
  3. Repeat both name and characteristic often at first and at regular intervals later in your book.

After that introduction, slowly reveal more about each character over the course of the next chapters. We don't usually have infodumps about people we get to know in real life, either.

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By rewriting the book so that the four main characters are not introduced all at once. There is a good reason that most books introduce characters one at a time or two at a time (in the form of a conversation). Readers need time to integrate each character and form a distinct memory of them.

This is no different from meeting people at a party. If you meet one person and talk with them for 20 minutes, there is a good chance you will remember their name and what you talked about at the end of the night. If you meet four people at once and they all talk, there is little chance that you will remember either their names or what they talked about.

This is just the basics of how we form memories. No writing technique is going to change that, except to space out the introductions so that the reader has a chance to form and retain memories of each one in turn.

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    I understood that part already, thank you. My question was, how do I do it when my characters are all in the same place at once? When describing the setting, I can't really ignore them like they're not in the scene for the sake of making things easier for the reader. – Klara Raškaj Apr 1 '18 at 10:46
  • Everything you do in a novel you do for the sake of the reader. You control the plot and the setting and the movement of the characters for the sake of the reader. – user16226 Apr 1 '18 at 11:41
  • Still, my story is set up that way that they are in the same place at the same time. They are a team. They go everywhere together. Therefore, they first appear together in a group. – Klara Raškaj Apr 1 '18 at 12:59
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    They may be a team, but you can still introduce them one at a time, perhaps as they are getting ready to go to a team meeting. The fact that one person gets ready and is there on time would contrast with another team member who wakes up late and throws on his clothing and has to rush to the meeting. – NomadMaker Apr 1 '18 at 14:03
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    It is incorrect that introducing one character after another is "one of the basics of storytelling". Many folk tales begin with a set of syblings, indistinguishable from each other at first (There was once a man who had three sons, and nothing else in the world but the house in which he lived. The Three Brothers, Grimm, KHM 124), and C.S.Lewis introduces all four of his protagonists in his first book of Narnia in the first paragraph. I could draw up a long list of examples that falsify your claim. What you describe is one way to do it, but not the only or only correct one. – user29032 Apr 1 '18 at 16:16

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