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How to write a Massive Cast of Characters

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

If you’re not sure what I mean by a large cast of characters, think Lord of the Rings.  As well as the main cast of the Fellowship, there were additional characters that came in and hung around for a while, fleshed out and with their own thread in the plot.

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My Large Cast

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.

So, a massive 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 are 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 remembered? (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.

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Things to consider

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 viewpoints, 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 reader’s 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 stories where they group people from a culture, species etc into having some similar sounding name.

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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 where 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.

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Stay organised

Playing a large cast means you need to be super organised.  This isn’t time for pantsing, people.  You need to really plot your story, you need to develop strong memorable 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.

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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 you have a large cast of characters in your novel?

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Happy writing

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Title Image: how to write a massive cast of characters. Image: A crowd of people

 

10 comments

  1. Great post 🙂
    I love me a large cast of characters, both as reader and as writer. I’m reading a historical mystery now where there are really many characters, but they don’t create confusion, rather they create a great sense of community. And what I’ve noticed is that there is a cleare hierarchy for them. That really helps me keeping track of them, though I admit at the beginning, I had a bit of a hard time telling who was who.
    But it didn’t really annoy me. I trusted that in time I would know who was who 😉

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

    1. 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.

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