Shaking the Tree

If you know all the visual cues you’ll understand this. If not, sorry. Image attribution.

Can you name the original X-Men? Do you know who the first members of the Uncanny X-Men (the second team) were and how many are still in the group? All right, how about the Reavers? Or the New Mutants? What about Generation X?

My point being that as a reader, anyone who followed the far-ranging cast of characters created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in the 1960s taken by Chris Claremont in the late 70s and expanded beyond any scope or definition of Reason into the 90s had to have an inclination toward keeping literally hundreds of mutants straight. Fortunately there were visual cues. Unfortunately, not every artist interpreted those visual cues the same way.

But there was a lesson there for young Jason as he aspired to his own dreams of writing. (Sorry, the Claremont pretentiousness sometimes slips over the levee. <cringe>) The lesson was that for a reader to enjoy a story with an enormous cast, the author had to have a kind of shorthand that immediately cued the reader. Sometimes it’s the way a character talks, or a catchword or phrase. Or maybe it’s patois that’s stylistically disguised as “accent” ala having an English character say “Eh, wot?” That’s all in the writing.

There are surface differences in writing comic books and prose, but the same things apply: the reader needs a cue of some kind to know who’s in a scene, a room, or who’s talking. In prose it’s enormously easy to write “Daphne said…” and if the writer has taken the easy route.

Sometimes there’s a cue that’s part of the character’s physical description: old man, young lady, the one-armed man, the lady with the eye-patch. Or maybe it’s the function the character performs in the story which could range from story function to the job in society: muse, ditch-digger, witch, politician, shouter, or chef. These shorthands don’t just pop up, though.

No, the author has to work the shorthand references into the character descriptions pretty early on in the story then only use one reference per scene in order to keep it straight for the reader. So let’s say that Daphne is a a red-headed witch whose day job is being a politician. Oh, yeah, she likes to wear purple skirts, too. That’s an awful lot of descriptors for just one person we made up on the spot.

In any one scene, the author can only use a maximum of two descriptors. She can be Daphne. She can be the red-head. She can be the witch. She can be the politician. Or she can be the purple-skirted woman.

Pick two and alternate them in a scene and you’re okay. If your scene has more than three characters in it, don’t use two descriptors for more than one person. Keep it simple. Feel free to mention Daphne’s purple skirt if you have to, but it should be in the course of an action, whether smoothing it down or having is swirl around her as she walks into the room or some such. But mention it only once if you’re using her name and referring to her as a witch. Really, just keep it simple.

Now, when you’re writing a novel, it’s easy to lose all the descriptors you’ve used in course of the book. The best way I’ve found to keep things straight is to put my large cast of characters into a set of notes and every time I use a reference to them that I might want to remember later on, I put the page number and the reference into those notes. If there are a lot of relationships in the novel, best to do some kind of organizational chart or family tree.

In the end, it’s up to the author to keep the reader interested and not lose them when you have introduced a supporting character early in the book who will play a major role near the end. Keep cues to a minimum and keep copious notes.

Organization is the key. All my issues of the X-Men are kept in order in a box in my closet so I can find them easily. Do the same for your reader.

Jason Arnett is a storyteller living in Kansas and writing in the plains of the fantastic. Some of his work can be found at

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