A Cast of Thousands!

Short story competition for Londoners

Managing IP in the book-publishing industry

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Paul Whybrow

Full Member
Jun 20, 2015
Cornwall, UK
Some novels are packed with characters, and when the story covers many generations or hinges on confrontations between opposing families, it helps to have a cast of characters at the front of a novel.

A good example of this is Annie Proulx's Barkskins:


Click on
to see the table of contents, scroll down to the Sel and Duke family trees at the bottom and click to open them.

Barkskins is 717 pages long, starting at the end of the 17th-century and moving through to contemporary times as the story follows the fluctuating fortunes of two families. Overall, I enjoyed it, with some sections working better than others and the environmental message feeling a bit laboured. I really appreciated that Proulx included family trees of the Sel and Duquet families, though I was several chapters into reading before I discovered the charts at the end of the thick tome. With a cast of more than 100 characters, some linked by love affairs and marriages, it helped to be reminded of their ancestry.

Ken Follett writes thrillers and historical novels. His Century Trilogy, comprised of Fall of Giants, Winter of the World and Edge of Eternity follows the fates of five interrelated families, and has a list of characters that covers seven pages! This list includes not just the fictional characters, but also real historical figures whose decisions impinge on the action.

Tolstoy's War and Peace contains 580 characters—enough to try any reader's memory.

David Foster Wallace's novel Infinite Jest features dozens of characters in its 577,608-word length! There are so many, that there are websites devoted to explaining who they all are!

At the other extreme, this summer I read a translated Japanese novel called Parade.

Written by Shuichi Yoshida, the tense story follows the alienated lives of just four people. What was odd about the book layout, was that there was a cast of characters at the beginning, giving their names, age, appearance and habits. I found this a bit strange, for surely any reader could remember four names, even if they were unfamiliar Japanese ones. Then, I wondered if the author was playing games through misdirection, and his characters were nothing like his thumbnail sketches.

I've yet to write anything convoluted enough to require a cast of characters or a family tree. I thought that I was pushing the limits of my readers' powers of recall when I realised there were a total of 40 characters in my first crime novel, from protagonist detectives and murderers to one-off appearances by witnesses.

Have any of you written a magnum opus spanning generations or with an enormous cast, that required a family tree or a detailed list of who everyone is?

As with maps in novels, I imagine that having a working version of a family tree would help the author to keep track of their characters while immersed in the WIP.

My series, The Doms of Sybaris Cove, written as Tara Rose and published by Siren-BookStrand, contains eleven books and a convoluted family history of two intertwined families, dating back four generations. I didn't include a family tree in the novels because Siren won't do things like that, but when I had my Tara Rose website up and running, I included it there.

But we're talking eleven books, not a single one. :)
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Short story competition for Londoners

Managing IP in the book-publishing industry