Writing a large cast of characters

People sitting in an audienceYes… I am back to writing tutorials and actually getting them out on the right day! Huzzah!

So today I want to talk about large casts! By large casts I am talking about main and secondary characters (not the odd village baker passing through a random scene, never to be heard from again.)

The fantasy novel I have left floundering in a drawer (at 220,000 words… I really should get back to that) had a large cast. It followed several groups of people through numerous subplots (I promise to get to a subplot tutorial soon!) and when I eventually return to it, will have more coming in by the second book.

I never once felt that I had too many characters. After all it was an epic fantasy spanning 3 (or 5) books across a detailed world.  If you hitchhiked across the Earth passing through country after country you are bound to meet quite a few people! Each with their own story, own experiences etc.

My story centred around a situation that had wide reaching implications so people from different places, different cultures were affected in different ways. Due to this it worked to have a large cast brought in.

Now my current manuscript has a smaller cast, though it’s a larger series and throughout the series we are going to me a shed-load more characters but each book will have a small handful – because it just doesn’t need every ‘man and his son’ to be in it.

So, a large cast is not something that should be done lightly. Nor would it work for every book. Before you start cramming in dozens upon dozens of new people into your manuscript you need to make sure it’s necessary.

Here’s a few questions to ask:

Does your story warrant lots of characters?

Do these characters bring anything to the story?

Are these characters strong enough and developed enough to be remembers? (a reader with a large cast to get through may forget under-developed characters)

Will the reader feel connected to all these characters?

Will all these characters slow down the novel?

 

Once you’ve answered these questions (honestly!!) you can start to think about how to write a large cast.

Here are some thoughts on doing that:

DO focus on small clusters of characters – don’t try and introduce every character at once into the same scene. If we are dropped into the middle of a battle I don’t need to know all the soldiers, generals, medics etc on both sides in the first chapter. Instead introduce the main characters (if you have loads, just show a few). Bring in new characters slowly over chapters and break characters into groups. That way you can write each chapter following a different group. Or write several chapters for one group before switching to the next. (remember to end each of these “sections” on a hook!)

DO remember that each main/secondary character need time to be developed – each character that is important will bring something to the novel. They will need to have their own details (personality, appearance, background, culture etc) but also they will have interactions with other characters, relationships, rivalries etc. Each of these new viewpoints will add a deeper level to the novel.

DO remember your audience – the larger your cast of characters the harder it can become to pin down your audience. Often the main readership of your novel is dictated by the protagonist (not always, mind). So the age and gender of your main character can often set the tone for who is most likely to read your work. Add in loads of different characters all of differing ages/genders/religions etc and things become a little more complicated. So if you want to aim your books at a certain demographic, just keep this in mind for your most main of Main Characters.

DO make it clear who the main characters are – protagonists, antagonists and any other character able to shift the story needs to be recognised. Make sure you give them the view points, don’t have them lost in the background of a story when they should be the active character leading the scene.

DO make sure the main characters are well-remembered – give them good descriptions to make sure they are fixed in the readers mind, not just physical descriptions but also traits and backgrounds. Keep them in scenes, don’t introduce them then let them vanish for a dozen chapters before you bring them back in. Consider keeping your chapters shorter if you are bouncing between different groups of characters.

DON’T make everyone’s name the same – I have read waaay too many books were the author has a given everyone a very similar sounding name. This often happens in fantasy where they group people from a culture, species etc into having some similar sounding name. Remember, you know your characters by heart – your readers are meeting them for the first time and getting pages full of similar names is just frustrating.

DON’T give everyone a really long-winded name (and title) – by this I mean “High Esteem Royal Vandum Gregormorgan Vilnatherian”… again read books were everyone was introduced like that. Annoying. Stop doing it!

DON’T keep characters you don’t need – having a large cast can often create more characters almost instinctively. You have a melting pot and all it takes is an important scene and BAM, we’ve added a new character to help with this important scene. Is that character necessary? Can you use another existing character to fill in the hole? If you dump in unnecessary main and secondary characters you then have to develop them. Do you really need more arcs in your story? Just keep an eye on that.

DON’T lost track of your characters – as the storyteller you should know what’s going on in your story. All these characters you have, you need to know who they are and what the hell they are doing! It can sometimes be hard when you have multiple characters and you are weaving numerous subplots for one to get forgotten. So take the time to plot, plan and draw up where each character is and what they are doing throughout the novel. This way you can scan through your notes and see that the traveller who visited the violent gypsy king hasn’t been heard of since chapter 3 and you’re not at chapter 28.

 

Playing a large cast means you need to be very organised. This isn’t time for pantsing, people. You need to really plot your story, you need to develop strong memorably characters and you need to keep the chapters/sections balanced.

If you do this you can create a powerful story with memorable characters that the readers will want to follow throughout the book.

~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~☆~

Yes I ACTUALLY got this written and published in time for my normal schedule! Boom!

Hope you find this useful and as always feel free to drop me a comment or question or just to chit chat. I love hearing from you all. All comments are moderated to stop spammers so don’t worry if it doesn’t appear immediately.

Do make sure you pop back next Tuesday as there will be another guest post up 🙂 There are still spaces for guest posters if you want to share your wisdom, experiences, thoughts, whimsy etc. If you are interested, check out this post here that tells you what I need and gives you some deadlines.

Happy writing

Ari

About Ari Meghlen

I’ve been a writer since I was given unsupervised access to pens and can’t write anything shorter than a trilogy. I live in the greener part of the UK with my awesome boyfriend, 3 mad cats and 1 overly-confident budgie. I spend my time lost in imaginary worlds, making jewellery, taking nature photos or watching bad movies. Connect with me on: Facebook or on my Website or just leave me a comment on this blog. I love comments 🙂

NB: image purchased via GraphicStock.com (supporting other creatives) 🙂

 

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7 thoughts on “Writing a large cast of characters

  1. I usually keep my cast size under control, but when I wrote a whodunnit mystery, I went all out with lots of kooky characters. 🙂

    • lol I like the sound of that. I think some books need the larger cast and I can appreciate with a whodunnit you need enough people to point the finger at, create red herrings with etc.

  2. Pingback: Writing a large cast of characters — eternal scribbler | Matthews' Blog

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