So today I want to talk about dealing with a massive cast of characters. 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 Fellowship cast, there were also additional characters that came in and hung around for a while. They were fleshed out and with their own thread in the plot.
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, it will have more characters 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 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.
Things to consider
DO focus on small clusters of characters:
Don’t try and introduce every character into the same scene at once. 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, all in the first chapter.
Instead introduce the main characters (if you have several, just show a few). Bring in new characters slowly over chapters and if possible break characters into groups. That way you can write each chapter following a different group.
Or you can 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 main character should bring something to the novel.
They will need to have their own details (personality, appearance, background, culture, driving force etc) but also they will have interactions with other characters, create relationships, develop 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(s) (though not always)
So the age and gender of your main character can often set the tone for who is most likely to read your work. By adding in lots 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 prominent Main Characters.
DO make it clear who the main characters are:
Protagonists, antagonists and any other character able to shift the story in a big way, 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, mannerisms, motivations 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 where the author has given everyone a very similar-sounding name. This often happens in fantasy stories where a group of people from a specific culture/species etc all have a similar sounding name. I understand the logic behind this, but it can get overwhelming for the reader.
Consider instead having similar name structure. Such as your mountain people all have names that end in “vir”. This gives you a connection but also scope to keep names different enough not to get confused.
Remember, you may know your characters by heart but your readers are meeting them for the first time and getting pages full of similar names is just frustrating.
DON’T give everyone a long-winded name (and title):
By this, I mean something like “High Esteem Royal Vandum Gregormorgan Vilnatherian”… again I’ve read books where everyone was introduced like that. It’s annoying. Stop doing it!
DON’T keep characters you don’t need:
Having a large cast can often create more characters almost by accident. 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 really 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 need more arcs in your story? Just keep an eye on that.
DON’T lose track of your characters:
As the storyteller, you should know what’s going on in your story. You kneed to know who all these characters are and what the hell they are doing!
It can sometimes be hard to keep track when you have multiple characters and you are weaving numerous subplots. Sometimes one or two can be 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 now at chapter 28.
Playing with a large cast means you need to be super organised. This isn’t the time for pantsing, people. You need to 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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I hope you found 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.