The third book of the Samurai of Hyuga series presented a ton of challenges for readers. Aside from the usual memory tests, Book 3 introduced deduction puzzles and text-input observations. It also introduced another challenge: scenes with large amounts of characters in them. But keeping track of the cast shouldn’t be a challenge—it’s the job of the author to make it clear who’s in the room and who isn’t.
Interactive fiction writers aren’t playwrights, so we can’t get away with lines like “Exit Masami, Enter Hatch and Borgia”. But we do have an edge over traditional fiction writers, and I make use of it throughout Book 3. That edge is what I’m dubbing as the “Character List Choice”.
Character List Choice
At the very start of Book 3, we find our main character and Masami/Masashi admist a horrific crime scene. There are a lot of characters in that kitchen, and they are each reintroduced with a single choice:
#[Focus on Hatch, the streetfighter]
#[Focus on Toshie/Toshio, the ninja]
#[Focus on Borgia, the butler]
#[Focus on Daisuke/Keiko, the servant/maid]
#[Focus on the Baron, the foreigner]
Maybe the reader skipped through the prologue, or had their memory wiped in the year between book releases. Maybe all the shogi in Book 2 fried their brain (I’m not legally liable for that!). Whatever the case may be, this choice brings them back in an instant. All it takes is a name and a noun to remind readers what that character is all about. This type of choice is a tool every IF writer should have in their collection.
Names are Expensive
The land of Hyuga is populated by people without names. In the poor village of Tanimura, only Kuniko got one—her dad will be forever known as “Kuniko’s father”. This is important because names are expensive pieces of memory, and you should always assume your audience has a light purse. Even on the Choice of Games forums, for example, there are fans who can’t spell the names correctly. Of course Japanese names don’t help this problem, but it serves as a good reminder that I can’t take anything for granted.
Book 3 is 235,000 words. But with all those words, there were really only four named characters added: Kuniko, Kohaku, Captain Goro and General Shatao. I’m no Tolkien or Robert Jordan, and in this regard, that’s a good thing!
All in the Dialogue
Giving your characters unique verbal ticks and accents is a great way to make them memorable. Don’t go over-the-top, but be consistent. Here are some examples:
Ige often starts his sentences with “Ah,”.
Nishi curses a lot.
Daisuke’s grammar is terrible.
Keiko will sometimes end sentences with “~”.
Borgia’s (fake) accent turns ‘the’s into ‘zhe’s.
Ume-Ume’s Kondo accent turns ‘that’ into ‘dhat’.
Just like with visual descriptions, it really doesn’t take much to help the reader carve out a memorable character.
Lay it Out
A trap many authors (including me) make for themselves is trying to be too cute with the prose. Trying to weave in all their characters like threads to form a tight knot. When you have a lot of characters—doing a lot of things—that knot can become a migraine inside your reader’s head. Spare them the headache and don’t be afraid to lay it out:
“Great job, Nishi,” I shouted from across the dojo. “You made Ige cry. Again.”
I’d thought that bodyguarding was the most thankless job there was until I got conned into being a teacher. Instead of one kid—Masami—I had five to deal with. Each with their own problems, drama, and personality flaws.
Hatch. ‘Overeager’ was putting it mildly. But determination only got you so far; I had never seen a man with less innate talent for the sword. A life spent punching people and grabbing blades meant he didn’t have the instincts for swinging one. That wasn’t going to change in a week.
Kohaku. The samurai was intent on doing his own thing, not joining in with the exercises and refusing to spar with the others. All he offered was varying looks of disdain.
Daisuke. The team’s giant looked far scarier than he was. He was unforgivably slow and couldn’t mix up his striking patterns to save his life. But the worst part was his constant complaining; if I had to hear him moan about how much he missed the Baron’s estate one more time, I’d snap.
Ige. The definition of a teacher’s pet—I might as well find a collar for him. His constant stream of pointless questions was driving me insane. He didn’t know anything, which meant he could learn more than the rest of them. But I was starting to think it wasn’t worth the hassle.
Nishi. I saved the biggest troublemaker for last. She was a vicious fighter who couldn’t restrain herself, and she was the best among us with a bokken. The yakuza loved to provoke people and was especially talented at finding emotional weaknesses.
“Of course I made him cry,” Nishi laughed. “I want a challenge, not a bedwetter!”
While her comment was crass, her critique was correct. I needed to form up new pairs.
As the Series Continues
As the story moves forward, it is inevitable that our favorite ronin will encounter new characters. Characters who deserve to have a name, to develop, and to help present new plots and drama into the story. But I will continue to be mindful of how many characters I’m asking my readers to remember. And when it comes down to it, reintroductions are always easier than starting from a blank slate.
So don’t be surprised if you see some old faces return!