So what is the Roll-call?
Just as in school, the Roll-call is the lengthy list of names that the writer is expecting you to commit to memory. The idea is that if you introduce everyone important all at once, perhaps because they have to be in the same room together at the same time, then we can get that pesky intro out of the way and dive right into the story!
There are varying degrees of how this is achieved. Yes, the epic fantasy writer/reader might be all for Bart, son of Bartholomew, son of Botswana, son of Banana Republic, but unless this is a series and I as an audience member have heard of the epic adventures of Sir Banana Republic, at least by reputation (sorry Tolkien), then it's not actually telling me much about the character, and I will probably forget about all of this by the third title anyways. Now, if this mode of introduction is common among the culture of your characters, reserve it for a FEW select formal occasions of dialogue (or sarcastic banter if it's appropriate), but for the love of all that is holy, please do not use the page-long epithet every time you use your character's name. I know that there is a long tradition in ancient bardic stories to do this, but there's good reasons for those:
#1: The tales are legend, not story, and all of those epithet titles actually already have meaning to the listeners because other stories exist that describe those people or those events in their own narrative tale.
#2: Meter. Ancient bards from pre-literate societies needed to follow a rhythm pattern if they had any hope of memorizing the epic song (yes, it was more song-like than reading out "Chapter One"), and to keep the rhythm in the right meter, select epithets would be used to ensure that the beat would flow more naturally in each line. It made the tale easier to memorize and to recite.
#3: It made you the more popular bard. If you wanted the big tip at the end of the night, you really needed to impress your patrons. So you could name-drop from of your patron's heroic family tree, or his favourite battles into the tale you were telling, and because you mastered the meter, you do it like a beatbox pro and wow everyone with your mad improv skills! Plus, if you could really get that rhyme going, I mean really string it along, it almost stops mattering what any of it has to do with the story because it's a performance and you just wowed everyone in the room who can't believe that you haven't broken the meter yet or run out of things to say... Clearly you have more skills than Billy the Bard and his pitiful 8 title epithets!
Basically, unless you are going to recite your entire story off-script during an open-mic night, this type of writing doesn't work out so well for... well, writing!
That's enough history. Back to the common Roll-call.
Chapter One: Here is my main character and all of the wonderful things about her, and all of the faults that she's very self-conscious about. And here are all of her friends, what they look like, their quirky traits, and the one detail that doesn't seem that important but must be because I've mentioned it about six times. Friend One. Friend Two. Friend Three. Friend Four. End with jazz hands!
I have recently critiqued two very different novels who have essentially used this exact pattern (well, maybe minus the jazz hands) for very different reasons.
First Novel: The SWAT Team
A whole team that's about to be deployed, and each one is a friend of the other, and they each have their own unique set of specialization and skills. So it's like a parody action movie opening credit sequence where each one runs out, has a freeze frame, and then a label pops up underneath that reads "The Hot One", or "The Funny One". Except this was neither a movie nor a parody nor a comedy. And despite all of the very unique traits that were described about these people, there were, like, ten people on this team, and once they were in position, they were still just names to me, I couldn't remember who was the big guy or who had a crush on who. And none of that information really even mattered while they were on the job!
Okay, rant aside, how do we fix this?
Don't tell me all of the details. If they're relevant, I should see it in action. Is the bad guy intimidated by the big bruiser headed right for him? Are there flirtatious quips being exchanged between the two love-dovy characters?
First step: Go back and erase every instance where you had to explain a character's trait using a 3rd person narrator.
Second step: Have someone re-read your story. Have them keep a list of characters they encounter and what they learn about them as they read, including impressions that they inferred as they went. Yes, it has to be someone else because you already know too much about these people and will probably read more into it than is actually on the page.
Third step: Consult your reader and their list. If you notice a lot of blank space beside character names, it's decision time: do you go back and develop this character because their presence is essential to the plot? is this a minor character who is more prop than person and thus can disappear into the ether once their purpose is complete? or does this person serve no point at all other than being appealing to you, as in, you wanted to fit in a character who was just like the check-out guy at Best Buy, or you have a fascination with symmetry and just needed that extra dude to make it a round number? Don't think of cutting characters from the team like sentencing them to the guillotine, they aren't dead forever; think of it as sending them back to the lobby, they'll just be reading magazines and looking at cat memes on their phones until the right story comes along. They'll be fine.
Fourth Step: Get a new reader. Rinse repeat. Don't focus on whether or not your readers notice every little thing about each character. But if there's something huge, like they've made it to the end and they don't know who the "chosen one" is, revise, revise, revise!
So why did this author fall into this common writing trap? Because they were told to.
I wish I was making this part up.
A huge obstacle for writers is getting over their own anxiety and self-doubt. And so they look out to anything and anyone that will tell them the secret to good writing. And they follow, as best they can, all of the advice that they come across.
When I made my first Writing Tip post, I did try to warn you all that any tips I give you aren't gospel. You don't HAVE to follow everything I say just because I claim to have good ideas about improving your work. If anything, in my first two posts, I hoped to share with you that I make mistakes too!
And while I could have reduced this series of long-winded posts into one blunt "Top Ten Writing Mistakes" list, it wouldn't achieve what I'm actually hoping to do here. I don't want to share another vague list. If you really don't know where to start, there are hundreds of them out there. But I also don't want to make you think that there is a "one size fits all" way of writing. Thus these examples I'm offering are pretty specific to the type of work that they were meant to suit.
This author was trying to re-create several writing formulas, and along the way, added in a whole mess of things that actually overpowered the very simple story she had intended to write. This is why her characters were so disjointed from their introduction to their action.
Sometimes you need to forget what you're supposed to do. Especially if it doesn't mesh with the work you're actually trying to create.
Second Novel: The Chosen Gang
1st person narrative. She has been chosen. Her three friends have also been chosen.
All of the epic magical things that happen to her.
Regroup: "That totally happened to me too!"
More epic magic things happen to her.
Like the previous example, this ended up being a very disjointed array of characters. Yes, our first person narrator was able to tell us about who these people are, what they look like, and how she feels about them, but then they disappear until it's absolutely necessary for them to do something relevant. First-chapter roll-call, and then I learn nothing about them from that point on.
How did this happen?
Because decisions are hard. Investing in characters is hard. Developing characters is hard. Focusing on just one person feels less daunting. It can be easier to see yourself in one character and just use her as your personal outlet and your narrative vessel. The issue is that everything else around that character just becomes fodder if you aren't willing to open up to them too. Writing characters is a very personal endeavour!
So what to do? Decision time!
Are you really just wanting to explore life through an alter ego of yours? If so, then drop the genre formula and dedicate yourself to a literary fiction style of narrative. Doesn't mean that you can't do so in a magical world, but you're going to drop the need for complex subplots, and just focus on what your character is experiencing.
Or, is your heart really set on the plotline? Then you need to go back to your characters and decide, once again, who's a lead, who's supporting, and who's an extra. If you are committed to keeping your characters as key components to your plot, you need to work out what's at stake for them. They can't just be conveniently standing in the sidelines to use the special skill that only they possess. They have to be on a personal journey of their own as well.
I think that I will leave it here for this week. I'm at the ready to dive into character development, but this post is already super long, so stay tuned for next week as I walk you through character motivation and plot/subplot!