Conducting a Large Cast of Characters
Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been mindful of my characters. Specifically – that it’s getting to be a pretty big cast. I’m writing what will hopefully be my 4th historical fiction novel (More info about my published books here!). It’s partly because I’m introducing a new narrator. My first 3 books in the series are 1st person from Daniel’s point of view, my new project is dual 1st POV – between Daniel and another character, Imogen.
This has made it quite tricky to keep track of all the different characters, because I don’t want to forget about the characters closest to Daniel, but I’ve also got the characters Imogen is close to. Sometimes these overlap, but other times they don’t. So, this week in my writing craft series I thought I’d talk about how you conduct your characters so it doesn’t get overwhelming.
1. Try not to crowd a scene
Try not to have the focus on too many characters at once. Even if plenty of your characters are present (e.g. they’ve all been summoned to an important meeting) you can shift the focus onto two or three of them at a time. Maybe a couple of them could even arrive late to space it out even more. Listing all of your characters at once can be a temptation. Especially if, like me, you’ve realised halfway through your novel you’ve barely mentioned one or two of your favourite minor characters. However, having to keep track of a whole heap of characters can easily overwhelm the reader – and quite possibly the writer, too.
2. Why is your character there?
In a series, typically with each novel, the cast gets even bigger. I think ‘why’ is one of the most important questions you can ask yourself as a writer. Why are your characters there? What specific purpose are they fulfilling in that scene, to move along the plot? Does one of them add a bit of extra conflict? E.g. a childhood friend just coming into borrow something and leave again might confuse the scene and jar with the reader. However if that character has just come back from a long time away and has a mysterious message, suddenly that minor character is instrumental to the plot.
3. Keep some characters as extras
There’s a Friends episode where Phoebe gets a job as an extra character in a couple of scenes on Joey’s TV show, Days of Our Lives. First of all she’s a nurse, then she’s a waitress. The hilarious minutes that follow are a great example of Phoebe making her character backstory too complicated, including conflicting with the main scene by slapping Joey on the head. (If you have a minute, you can check out the clip here!)
It can be tempting to give each minor character a backstory. Of course it’s totally fine for you as the writer to come up with all the backstory you want. It might be that the lady at the side of the road who warns about the weather is really an elf who has been banished from her home in the magical forest for a thousand years. However, if her only line in the entire book is to say ‘storm’s a coming’ then she never appears again, it might not be necessary to mention it in that scene where four of your main characters are arguing. (Darn, I kinda want to write about the banished elf now). It’s okay to keep some characters as extras, perhaps even having the same old lay show up later on to perform a different purpose.
4. Make your characters distinctive
Sometimes it’s not necessarily how many characters you have, but how you describe them. If you introduce five characters all beginning with B with blue eyes and short dark hair, then your readers will get confused pretty quickly. However if you mention little details like the mole on his upper lip or the scar on her left arm, then it might make it easier to keep track of who is who. If you can, give your characters distinctive names, too. Jack and Joan may get lost in the narrative pretty quickly but Sir Newton Digby and Lady Ermintrude Blythe are bound to be more memorable.
*A side note here that this can be even trickier if you’re writing historical fiction, as you may not get to name your characters. E.g. if it was up to me, I wouldn’t have three royal characters named Edwin, Elffin and Ethelfrith – but those are the different princes and kings I’m writing about! If this is the case, you may want to include a few extra details to keep them distinctive.
5. Have a cast list
If you are writing a series, it might be an idea to keep a cast list at the front of your book. It can be helpful to mention characters from previous books, even deceased characters here too, if your main characters are going to be talking about them a lot. You can include details about who is related to who as well – helpful if there are complicated royal families! That way, if your readers are confused who is being talked about or if they’ve forgotten which prince is from which kingdom, they can just jump back to the first page to remind themselves.
How about you? Do you have a large list of characters? How do you keep track of them? Why not drop a comment or get in touch with me on social media. I’d love to connect with you!
Thank you for reading! While you’re here you can check out my other blog posts, including others in my writing craft series. You can also find out more about me as an author or find out more info about my published books.
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Till next time,