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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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

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

    Cold As Heaven

  2. 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.

  3. 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?

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. @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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  1. […] six or eight or even more characters are involved in a scene, it can be challenging to give them all things to do and say. However, it is not that different from writing any other […]

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