Don’t Let Multiple-Character Scenes Run Away With You

Three’s a crowd—especially when authors have to juggle three or more characters in a single scene. One character? No problem. We can safely call him “he” throughout the entire scene without once worrying about confusing our readers. Two characters? Eh, that’s in the bag. The dialogue alternates between characters every other line, and, if they happen to be of opposite genders, we can still safely use the pronouns.

But three or—heaven forbid—more characters? How do we juggle scenes in which multiple characters are all supposed to be acting and talking? How do we keep a dozen characters involved in the scene without making it feel like a rote rotation of speakers? Most importantly, how do we keep this stampeding cast of characters from trampling our readers and leaving them bruised and confused?

Image by Martin Cepan.

Ask yourself the following questions:

What’s the point?

Figure out the point of your scene early on and keep it firmly in mind as you navigate your sea of characters. Think about that last boardroom meeting you wrote. It no doubt had a ton of characters—some of them important and some of them not—and if you had taken the time to touch base with every character, the scene would have lost focus.

What’s the conflict?

Conflict’s another important (nay, vital) ingredient that can often get lost amidst the clutter of multiple characters. We can get so involved in arranging, describing, and chatting with our horde that we forget to make sparks fly among them. A friendly chat among half a dozen characters isn’t interesting. A raging argument on the other hand…

Who will be your primary characters?

Your scene may require the presence of twenty characters, but that doesn’t mean the bulk of the scene has to involve all of them. You’ll be better able to focus your scene and ramp up the conflict if you keep the primary exchange anchored between two or three primary characters. Most of us can’t carry on a conversation with a dozen people at once anyway. We instinctively fragment into smaller groups, and so should your characters.

Are you introducing too many characters?

Bad enough when readers have to keep up with a dozen already-familiar characters. But when they’ve just been introduced to these people, their chances of figuring out who’s who go down the drain. If you know you’ve got a big (and by big I mean crowded) scene coming up, lay the groundwork by introducing all the prominent players in earlier scenes.

How are your characters unique?

You can help readers navigate the crowd by making sure none of your characters blend together. Make them memorable by giving them unique personal traits. And help readers differentiate them by making certain none of their names begin with the same letter or look too similar on the page.

Is your dialogue clearly tagged?

Perhaps the biggest potential pitfall of multiple-character scenes is the dialogue. Unlike two-speaker dialogue exchanges, in which readers understand the dialogue is ping-ponging back and forth between the two characters, conversations among multiple characters can grow confusing. Whenever there’s even the slightest chance readers may not know who’s speaking, do them a favor and clearly indicate the speaker with a dialogue tag (Mike said) or an action beat (Mike thumped his glass down on the table).

Multiple-character scenes can amp up the stakes, the tension, and the fun. So long as you plan them out, realize the pitfalls, and prepare for potential problems, you’ll be ready to host the biggest character party on the block.

Tell me your opinion: What’s the maximum number of characters you’ve ever featured in a scene?

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K.M. Weiland lives in make-believe worlds, talks to imaginary friends, and survives primarily on chocolate truffles and espresso. She is the IPPY and NIEA Award-winning and internationally published author of the Amazon bestsellers Outlining Your Novel and Structuring Your Novel. She writes historical and speculative fiction from her home in western Nebraska and mentors authors on her award-winning website.

Comments

  1. Great post once again, and good question: I’m sure there was once where I had six or seven characters in a scene, but as you advised they were not necessarily all “featured” in that scene — meaning they weren’t interacting. Through the middle of my book there are five characters, but I would say the majority of the book carries three or four at a time, at most.

    And I’ve run into those scenes in published novels where it’s a conference-style meeting, and I don’t know who some of the different characters are. I treat it the same as I do when I’ve just been introduced to a large group of people at a discussion in real life: I pay attention to the words, and not who says them. (I’m not trying to devalue your point, I think it’s a good one; because it’s still a little annoying in a book when that happens.) And as long as a character I like isn’t the one saying something really stupid or crass (unless that’s part of why I like them — usually not though) I don’t pay much attention beyond that to who’s speaking. That’s me, though.

  2. Very helpful. The most number I juggled with was six, but as I write for MG perhaps it is easier.

  3. This was a really helpful post, not so much because I have trouble in this particular area, but as a critter in OWWSFF workshop I often come across this problem and have never been able to clarify my thoughts or express them so succinctly. All these points are spot on.

  4. This is terrific advice for writing scenes with multiple characters. In my first novel there were times in the story where four or more characters in the scene. I certainly could have used this advice then…

  5. @Daniel: You make an excellent point for when we’re on the reading side of the book. When the author unnecessarily complicates things, the best we can do is simplify them wherever possible.

    @Carole: The same principles hold true in all genres, although MG often has an advantage since its characters are quickly and broadly drawn – and thus more memorable.

    @Mike: Glad it was helpful! Critiquing is one of the best ways to help improve, not just someone else’s writing, but also our own, since it helps us quantify our gut reactions to problems.

    @Michael: Never too late to put it to use!

  6. Great post, thanks.

    I did write a chaotic scene with four male characters, but I found making sure each character was distinctive helped. The young suspect saying only that he didn’t do it, etc., his loud and obnoxious father, their quiet, calm, articulate lawyer and the sheriff who watched them and threw out an occassional question. It took a little work, but it made sense in the end and added to the drama.

  7. It does take work, but it’s definitely possible to make multiple-character scenes work well.

  8. I always find your expertise helpful. I have managed multiple characters in a battle scene quite effectively. I used their actions to define who was who.
    Thank you for your guidance.

  9. Battle scenes bring their own set of difficulties. But most of these rules apply just as much to action scenes as they do to dialogue scenes.

  10. The most I’ve ever done (beyond a large crowd situation) is about 6 people together in one scene. I haven’t had too much trouble helping the reader distinguish between the different characters, partly because I’ve already established their character and some distinguishing marks.

    thnx for another great article. 😀

  11. If you’re able to introduce the characters one or two at a time, before throwing them all into a scene together, you’ve usually licked half your problems before you’ve even begun.

  12. In a previous novel, I had seven characters (a family reunion of sorts) in one scene. For my WIP, the most I’ve used so far is four: when two police officers broke some bad news to two family members. For the most part, I plan to use three or less.

  13. It can be tricky to choreography scenes to present only the necessary characters. I’ve learned to limit my casts from the get-go, so I don’t end up with hoards of characters who all need to appear in the final chapters.

  14. thanks for the tips:) The scene I’m writing now has about 9 characters in general(a family) but only 3 are talking. Does that work? I don’t want to confuse or overwhelm the reader:(

  15. What a timely post! My current work in progress involves multiple characters and this advice will come in very handy.

    Thank you!

  16. @Lorna: Three characters are usually very manageable. And it’s not that you can’t or shouldn’t have more characters than that talking. It’s just that the more characters, the trickier it gets to do it well.

    @Karen: Glad it hit the spot!

  17. Thanks for the game plan. It does drive me nuts as a reader when I have to keep going back to figure out who is speaking.

  18. So long as you make sure all the dialogue is tagged, you should be able to make it easy for readers to figure out who’s saying what. After that, it’s just a matter if making certain the characters are distinctive enough for readers to keep them straight.

  19. I would say 4 or 5…it was in a scene where there was lots of action – a house burning down and injured people getting rescued. Most of the main characters were involved, but I felt it worked well. But it is difficult to keep it rolling and still not confuse the reader with who said what.

  20. I do like the more prominently displayed image within the blog post. It does seem nicer.

  21. The most I’ve had in one scene in my WIP is six. One was soon shot by another, the shooter said little, and the main dialogue exchange was by the protagonist and antagonist, with side comments thrown in by two others. I thought it worked okay, but agree that it is tricky to keep the pace moving and the players identified cleanly. Good advice on making sure there is a reason for each character’s being in the scene, and to have a purpose and forward motion of the scene no matter how many characters.

  22. @Jan: It’s tricky, but definitely not impossible. When you have the scene centered around a few main characters, with the minors moving in and out of the scene, it gets a lot easier.

    @Cathy: Thanks! I like it a lot myself.

    @Chitrader: When only a couple of the characters present are speaking, the odds of confusion go way down. The dialogue is where things can get particularly dicey.

  23. One thing I’ve learned is that when more than 2 people are conversing, pick whose POV gets to tell the scene. That person is “he”/”she” said while everyone else is named (“Joe said”). That keeps the scene straight.

    PS-My ABNA entry this year is “The Dream Land” -hmm, interesting title, don’t you think?

  24. Utilizing POV pronouns is a subtle and effective way to, not only help keep speakers straight, but also to further that sense of intimacy between the reader and the story. It’s so simple – and so effective.

    If I recall correctly, we got acquainted on FB way back when as a result of our similar book titles. I hope your win the ABNA!

  25. I try to not go beyond threesome. That’s managable >:)

    Cold As Heaven

  26. Sometimes we just can’t avoid dealing with even more characters than that. But so long as we tread softly, we can still get ‘er done.

  27. I haven’t analysed my writing with this in mind before and it’s very helpful. Most of my scenes seem to be two character, then sequential where protagonist just moves onto next character, and so on. Even when there’s three or more in the room, I find myself writing the protagonist talking to A, then to B and I don’t have A talking to B.
    I will try this – thanks.
    Is there some magic upper limit? Perhaps beyond 4 or 5,would get confusing no matter how distinctive?

  28. I actually like writing scenes with multiple characters. It is like moving puzzle pieces around. One thing I keep in mind is what each character wants. By remembering that I can have them clash and keep the conflict going, even if it is in very small ways.

  29. This was very helpful. I recently wrote a short story that featured a scene with 7 characters. This was important to the plot, but I was careful to give each character a clear purpose in the scene. They each moved the story forward in some way. It was a lot of fun getting to know so many people at once (even if they were all in my head). A great short story that does this beautifully is “The Lottery” by Shirley Jackson.

  30. @Graham: The “magic limit” always depends on the individual scene and its demands. But, personally speaking, I find four characters to be as much as I can comfortably handle at a time.

    @Charlotte: Excellent point. Understanding characters’ motivations is vital to figuring out *how* to move them around on the board.

    @Tasamoah: “The Lottery” is a great example, although Jackson was helped by the fact that her story is told from an omniscient viewpoint, as well as the fact that the characters and their motivations are grouped together into a single “collective character.”

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