writing large casts of characters

The 10 Rules of Writing Large Casts of Characters

10 rules of writing large casts of charactersLarge casts of characters are the thing these days. Rowling, Martin, and Marvel—just to name a few newsworthy examples—victoriously (and sometimes not-so-victoriously) throw casts of hundreds at screen and paper. Understandably, writers rush to emulate—both because, on a head level, this seems like the obvious path to success, and because, on a heart level, we like these stories and instinctively want to recreate their enjoyable patterns.

It sounds straightforward enough until you round up all your suspects in one room and try to organize their chaos of conversation. And multiple-character dialogue sessions are the easy part. Once you start factoring in each character’s personal contribution to plot and theme, the inside of your brain can end up looking like John Nash’s secret shed.

Recently on Facebook, Claire Lauzon messaged me:

I’m writing a novel about a heist and I have so many characters (20+) involved in this heist that it becomes very difficult to deal with. Have you written an article describing how to tackle this problem? I can see it in my head as if watching a film but putting it in writing is another story.

10 Rules for Handling Large Casts of Characters

Despite being a vocal proponent for small casts (more on that in a sec), I tend toward relatively large casts of characters in my own stories. The just-finished first draft of my portal fantasy sequel Dreambreaker features nearly 70 named characters, almost all of whom appear repeatedly throughout the story.

Today, let’s talk about what I’ve learned over the years about managing large casts of characters—and how you can employ a couple important rules of thumb to you help you manage your own teeming call sheets.

Rule #1: Characters Should Exist to Represent Theme and Move Plot (Preferably Both)

The first and single most important principle to consider when evaluating the size of your cast is this: does each character matter to this story?

Characters, like any element in a well-thought-out story, should never be throwaway additions. Each must contribute to the story. Sometimes this contribution may necessarily be as small as a few catalytic or informational lines in a one-off scene. But the more screentime characters have, the greater your responsibility to make sure they contribute to the story on a larger scale.

It’s not enough for prominent characters to exist in the story merely to move the plot; they must also influence and comment upon the thematic argument, either symbolically or by directly impacting the protagonist’s personal arc of growth.

Rule #2: Fewer Characters Are Better

By extension of the above, here’s a truth some authors don’t like to face: fewer characters really are better. The tighter your cast, the tighter your story’s focus—in both its presentation of a forceful plot and its thematic argument.

On a practical level, small casts aren’t always possible. For example, you can’t tell an epic story about multiple kingdoms at war without a cast of hundreds or even, technically, thousands. In these cases, you will need a substantive cast simply to convey the weight of the story’s events.

But even in these instances, it’s almost always best to whittle the active cast down to a smaller handful that can represent the greater event happening in the background.

Always ask yourself: what is the fewest number of primary characters necessary to tell this story to its optimum? Any more than that, and you risk clutter.

Rule #3: Avoid Repetition by Recognizing Which Archetype Each Character Represents

Planning an optimally-sized cast begins by recognizing the archetypal roles of characters within stories. Specifically, I’m talking about the broadest of all story archetypes—protagonist, antagonist, and relationship catalyst. Every single character in your story will (or should) represent one of these primal thematic forces.

>>Read More About the 3 Character Types

From there, we can expand the three primary story forces into a slightly broader exploration of the perspectives that will fully flesh out your story’s thematic argument, ensuring your plot is covering all its bases. These archetypes (based in large part on Dramatica’s exploration) are:

  1. Protagonist
  2. Antagonist
  3. Sidekick
  4. Skeptic
  5. Guardian
  6. Contagonist
  7. Reason
  8. Emotion
  9. Love Interest/Relationship Character

These roles can overlap or be represented by multiple characters. However, in recognizing where you have two characters playing the same role (particularly when they consistently show up together in the same scenes), you can often tighten your cast by eliminating the repetition.

>>Read More About the 8 1/2 Character Archetypes

Rule #4: Identify Which Characters Play a Role in the Climax—and Prioritize Them

Another way to determine whether your large cast is justified is by following all of your characters to the end of the story. What is their role in the Climax? As the ultimate payoff of all foreshadowing in your story, the Climax dictates what elements deserve a place in the previous acts. Characters who have no role in or impact upon the final climactic encounters are probably characters who are not strictly necessary to your story.

On the other hand, those characters who do significantly play into the Climax or the scenes leading directly up to it—these characters are ones you should be taking very good care of throughout the story. These are the characters who matter to your story.

As such, they need to be properly developed throughout the story—preferably in all three acts. Even in situations where you’re unable to give these characters a lot of screentime throughout, they should at least make an appearance and/or a sizable contribution in each act.

Rule #5: Keep a Firm Grasp on Which Character Is Your Protagonist

One common pitfall with large casts of characters is losing the forest for the trees. However, the larger your cast, the more important it is to ground your story with a solid protagonist. This is the character with whom your readers will relate; this is the lighthouse in the storm. More than that, the protagonist is the character who ultimately defines both the main conflict and the theme.

If you’re uncertain which character is your protagonist, look again to the Climax—specifically, the Climactic Moment. The protagonist is the character who initiates and/or is most strongly impacted by the final resolution of the conflict and/or represents the final thematic outcome. As such, this character needs to be given prominence throughout the story, specifically at the major structural moments. Even the largest cast can be grounded when placed within a solid structure that keeps its primary focus on the protagonist.

Now, it’s true many prominent examples of large casts—including Martin and Marvel, aforementioned—don’t really seem to follow this rule (although arguments can be made). In my opinion, their stories, despite their many good qualities, ultimately suffer as a result. Rowling (at least in the old days) is a stalwart exception, whose clear protagonist, and thus thematic, throughline perfectly grounds her mammoth casts.

Rule #6: Chart Each Prominent Character’s Personal Goal and Personal Conflict With the Protagonist—and Every Other Pertinent Character

Even after you’ve conscientiously examined and streamlined your cast down to its optimal fighting weight, you may very well still end up—as I often do—with a story that features dozens of prominent speaking roles. So how do you manage them?

Start by managing the characters’ throughlines. Remember: your minor characters’ most important distinguishing factor is their relation to the protagonist. It’s not enough for minor characters to simply be present in the story, nominally either for or against the protagonist’s goals. These characters should have distinct, concrete goals of their own. These goals should have a specific relationship to the protagonist’s goals and, in turn, to every other pertinent characters’ goals. And, naturally, you’re always going to get a little extra honey on your bread if you’re able to engineer a whiff of conflict even between allies.

Understanding your minor characters’ goals is the single most important step you can take in making sure every character—no matter how many—contributes to the larger story, rather than just being a benign space filler.

Rule #7: Space Out Character Introductions

Once you’ve got your cast planned and you’re ready to get down and dirty with the actual writing, unique challenges emerge. One of the first has to do with how to introduce readers to so many characters. The rule of thumb is simple: space out introductions.

Sometimes this takes planning. You will  have to carefully engineer your early scenes to:

  • create plot-pertinent events that
  • allow you to introduce as many important characters as early as possible
  • with pertinent characteristic moments
  • and without lumping them all together too quickly.

There is no one right way to do this. But a good place to start is by making certain each character you introduce has a stake in moving their first scene forward in some way. A careful use of setting can also be useful. For example, if your story is about an army company, you can avoid introducing everyone right off by separating them. Maybe in the beginning, the captain is in his tent with his adjutant, then one of the soldiers comes in with a message, before finally the captain goes out to talk to the rest of them.

Rule #8: Lump Similar Characters Together by Characterizing Them as a Group—and Appointing a Spokesperson

Sometimes casts end up being large not because every character is important, but because the group is important. For example, you can’t tell a war story without huge armies. But every soldier in those armies need not be personally named or fleshed out.

Even within smaller, more intimate groups, in which it is necessary to name many or all of the characters (such as our story about the captain and his company), it will often be to your advantage to create groups and sub-groups that can be either represented as a whole or represented by a spokesperson character. For example, instead of characterizing all 80 men in the captain’s company, you could break it down into squads, with sergeants and lieutenants representing their men.

Rule #9: Know What Each Character Wants and/or Has at Stake in Each Scene

Characters are no good to you if they aren’t contributing to every scene in which they are present. If they aren’t there to do something, then they’re just in the way. (There are exceptions to this, obviously, such as large-scale events such as weddings, which require supporting characters merely to observe.)

If you’ve done your homework (see Rule #6, above), then you already have a good idea what each character wants and therefore what is at stake for each character in any particular scene. Now you get to put that knowledge to work. Instead of a one-on-one argument between protagonist and antagonist while side characters merely look on, now you have the opportunity for a complex representation of conflict and theme, with every character invested in what’s going on.

And if it turns out a particular character really doesn’t have anything to add to the scene’s conflict and progression? Well, it could be that person isn’t necessary to this scene (or the story?) after all.

Rule #10: Employ Dialogue Tags and Action Beats Judiciously in Multiple-Character Conversations

And now we return to one of the most obvious challenges of large-cast stories: multiple-character conversations.

Let’s say you’ve pulled off the kind of scene we talked about in the previous section: a confrontation that involves not just the protagonist and antagonist but every character present. How do you juggle all that dialogue without confusing readers?

Frankly, it ain’t always easy. But you can help readers avoid confusion by judiciously using dialogue tags (he said). Action beats (she clenched the edge of the counter) are even better, since they also offer the opportunity to keep readers grounded in the setting and other sensory details.

The more characters you have present in any scene, the trickier the choreography gets. But as long as you know exactly what role each character is playing, you will have a much better chance of keeping things as focused and powerful as possible.


Stories with large casts of characters offer many challenges. Even the simplest story requires dozens of complex working parts; the more characters you add, the more you exponentially increase your own challenges. However, when done well, large casts bring depth and heft to your story. Make sure you’ve considered the above rules, then gather your characters, and start partying!

Wordplayers, tell me your opinions! Do you like to feature large casts of characters in your stories? Why or why not? Tell me in the comments!

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About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.


  1. Robert Billing says

    I tend to see this cinematically. Even though there may be two dozen characters in the whole novel, it’s rare for me to have as many as five “on screen” at once. For example the opening scenes of the Jane novels have:

    1) Jane talking to one other person on starline (interstellar radio.)
    2) Jane talking to two people on two channels.
    3) Jane, the doctor, the cop (who becomes her sidekick), a dead body and two people on starline.

    I tend to introduce new people at a rate about three per chapter.

  2. Peter Jackson’s interpretation of LOTR hews to this very closely. The lead characters pair off and pursue separate adventures at the end of the first movie, but because they are solidly in place, the second-tier characters are easy to plot. Unlike Game of Thrones where alliances are constantly shifting, Jackson keeps most everything clean and on course. Thus, when the climax happens, it makes perfect sense and finishes well. I wish the denouement had been as thoroughly fleshed out as the rest of the series, but I imagine everyone was a little tired by then. Still, the LOTR trilogy embodies exactly what you said here.

    I just wish he had done the same with the Hobbit instead of milking it for more cash.

  3. Thanks, Katie. One other point (or did I miss it?): Keep the names significantly different! I had my MC’s sister called Vesta and his sweetheart Virna. Early readers complained they got confused, so I changed the sister to Eli.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes! Glad you brought that up. I usually try to start every character name in the story with a different letter.

  4. In my story the protagonist (who wants nothing to do with the quest or goal) is teamed up with or led my another character that doesn’t like him very much, but they both have the same goal. The bad guy doesn’t really appear until nearly the end of the story.

    So who is the real antagonist?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Take a look at what is consistently standing between your character and his goals throughout the story. Whatever you find, that’s your primary antagonistic force.

  5. I tend toward large casts in my historical fiction westerns. In my latest release, BONE, I have 10 protagonists, 17 antagonists, and 16 supporting or what I call ‘Day Players’ (from film and TV meaning they have dialogue). So far, BONE has been one of my top sellers (working on western # 13). Most of my characters are repeating or cyclic, since I write series. 17 is the most antagonists I’ve ever had, but it was a gang of outlaws and I wanted the bad guys to outnumber the good guys (sword of Damocles). My WIP…BONE’S LAW will include many of the protagonists this time, however will only be 7 and of course a whole new set of antagonists, don’t know how many yet since I am a pantser. If it sells…keep doing it until it doesn’t.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Sounds like your antagonists fall into the “group” approach then. It works great for streamlining necessary large numbers.

  6. “War and Peace” has some 400 named characters (and of course thousands of unnamed ones). It has been said that “Russia” is the protagonist, not any of the individuals making up that country. Likewise, Napoleon’s army rather than Napoleon himself would be the antagonist.

    Do you have any ideas on having the protagonist be something larger than a single person?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Stories that focus on a “protagonist larger than a single person” are extremely tricky to do well–which is why we all stand in awe of Tolstoy to this day. These are almost always stories that step back from the characters to take a more distant or big-picture view. Actually, they’re a lot like history, if you think about it. We look back on the “story” of humanity’s history and see its overarching themes without selecting any one memorable or catalytic person as *the* protagonist. But organizing that chaos of overwhelming information into a cohesive throughline takes a massive amount of thematic understanding. Honestly, I couldn’t do it. :p

    • marion landan says

      America’s expansion westward has often been the protagonist in a story (rather than an individual being the protagonist). A vital spirit can be a protagonist.

  7. I write science fiction and fantasy, and when I did the initial world creation for my sci fi series, I gave my aliens four-person (or sometimes three-person) relationships. The first one I wrote was a YA novel, first person POV from the 14-year-old main character, and it wasn’t too difficult to limit the cast of characters. The next one I wrote, however, I wanted to interweave two plot threads — one involving adults (adults in original MC’s family) and one involving an evolving 4-person relationship with the original MC.

    I went through three major rewrites before I straightened things out in my head and settled on the main character (Brad, a major in the Federation Guard), the three aliens he ends up involved with and made the relationships among the young people a subplot. After some struggle, I managed to limit (!) the POV characters to Brad, three aliens, and the antagonist.

    This was the first time I’d attempted to write from multiple POV’s. In the end, I wrote the initial two chapters to Brad, and the next three from the POV of each of the aliens in turn, then one from the POV of the antagonist. I had originally intended to switch POV’s only at chapter boundaries, but this ended up being too restrictive. I ended up switching in some cases between scenes.

    One of the things I ended up doing when I revised was to collect all the scenes from a given character’s POV together and read through them for consistency of voice.

    I tossed two complete versions of this story before I got to the final configuration ( above).

    Fortunately, one of my sons was in the army at the time, and I picked his brains in order to be sure that the details of my alien army stuff felt realistic.

    I, too, see my story unrolling on a screen in my head.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Four-corner conflict is an excellent model for focused but complex character and plot development. John Truby discusses this brilliantly in his Anatomy of Story.

  8. These are good rules. There’s a lot of thought behind every point you make.

    I think writers and readers are attracted to new characters because newness is interesting. The new kid in town is interesting too. But there has to be a reason for a new character, or we lose interest, just as we lose interest in a real-life new kid in town if newness is all they have going for them. If we lose interest in a character, we may lose interest in a book.

    Sitcoms and other television shows use new characters a lot. The main cast may stay relatively stable, but peripheral characters are introduced in every episode and serve as plot centers, mirrors, antagonists, friends, or whatever. New characters give a little jolt to to the dynamic of the show, like a gun on the other side of the door or any other trick.

    Thank you. Great post.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      There’s a huge difference between how the writer and the reader experiences a story. Readers usually buzz through a story in a matter of days, while writers can spend years working through the book. The result, as you indicate, is that it’s much easier for us to get bored with a tightly focused cast. We’ve been with these people forever; sometimes, we just want fresh blood! But it’s important to remember that this is not the same experience our readers will have–or, indeed, that we want them to have.

  9. This is timely. I counted the number of named characters as of 2nd draft and it’s grown to 30+, a bit more than I expected.

    There’s still the central protagonist. This was just a side effect of having several characters’ backstories converge toward one ending, to show instead of tell those places they came from. Each does has some little relevance to the plot.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, once you start including families and such, cast numbers can quickly multiply. There’s a reason so many protagonists are orphans! :p

  10. Although I am not currently writing for a large cast of characters, this is a very helpful article. You distill it down into manageable headlines and chunks. Thanks!

  11. Lila Diller says

    I personally tend toward smaller casts. I just went back to my Style Guide for my series, and I have 36 characters mentioned in three books so far. They don’t all have speaking parts yet. The main point is that they aren’t all in the same scene ever. They’re regulated to separate sections of setting. Three in one family, two in another, four in one character’s workplace, five in the others’. They never all interact, and several groups (especially of co-workers) have spokespersons.

  12. The advice about using some spokes-people for groups was helpful. I have a relatively small main cast in my current WIP, but they’re traveling with a caravan and I’m not sure I’m getting the sense of the larger group across.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Depending on what group I’m trying to represent, I will sometimes dramatize two or three characters, just to get a more rounded view.

  13. THANK YOU! I have three project that are all stuck at the same point, because of the cast size. You have helped me see some possible fixes. As always you’re the best!

  14. My large cast is one of the things I hate about my wip. I’ve tried and failed to significantly reduce my 50 named characters, including 3 dogs. I thought it would be easy to at least lose the dogs’ names, but it’s hard to show the protagonist loves his dogs and then never thinks about them or uses their names. Most of the characters were named because the betas were confused by the number of nameless characters who affect the plot.

    On the plus side there are only 2 POV protagonists. On the down side it is a social mileau epic fantasy: there are a lot of antagonists and a lot of relationship characters. I think it would be substantially easier if I used an omnipotent narrator, then I could tell more and show less.

  15. Like Tiffany, I’m not dealing with large casts of characters, but I found this article very helpful for character work. Thank you!

  16. Thanks for this article. I am working on a series, which started as a single story, and the secondary characters took over with their own sequels (currently working on the third and have seven plotted). I thought I had too many characters, but after reading everyone else’s comments, I feel much better now. I ended up having to draw a family tree to manage the relationships among the main antagonist family. My beta readers were quick to point out the problem of working out who was talking in a multiple-character conversation. It seemed so clear in my head, but they weren’t convinced. Then my editor picked up the two characters with similar names, which wasn’t a problem until everyone was in the same room.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      In some stories, such as Rowling’s originals, family trees only add to the complexity and realism.

  17. Hi K.M. Weiland, thank you so much for this article on large casts of characters, it was so very helpful. Ginny Monroe, of the unpublished screenplays #Masterplayer #Seamaster

  18. Very interesting question and even more interesting and informative answer. I am writing a story which covers three books and there are lots of characters. Many of them do start with the same letter but for a very important reason. (deliberate genetic identifier) However I have made them very different sounding names. And I already limited the names in groups of characters to those key ones who speak/lead. The others in the group do as they are told or they argue and discuss things in narrative spanning a sentence. eg “They all looked confused and there was clear dissension in the ranks.” All to eliminate the need for much excess character development and addition of names to confuse the reader that doesn’t add to the plot or protagonist’s circumstances. You can’t have conflict between nations and not have huge supporting casts of characters. Very helpful thanks.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Yes, often if you change up the sequencing of letters in the latter half of a name, it doesn’t matter so much if you repeat the first letter.

  19. Larry Keeton says

    What a timely post for me! Just finished a scene with eight characters staring at a dead POW hanging from a rafter. The critical information and tension elements were diffused by the large number despite the use of dialogue tags. Based on this post, can see a different approach that will achieve the a better result without confusing the reader, much less the writer! Thanks.

  20. Great article, K.M. My biggest takeaway is characters should represent theme and plot.

  21. I prefer to have as few characters as possible because I struggle with balancing them all properly and making each one “count.” So the fewer I have to work with, the clearer I can see each one’s role.

    For the bulk of my current WIP (YA historical fiction about the Holocaust), I have 9 characters. Then I have 2 extra characters who only appear at the very beginning, and 2 more who only appear at the very end. But for most of the story, it’s just the core 9. Which I am thinking I might cut down to 8, because there’s one dude who’s not pulling his weight . . . but . . . we’ll see.

  22. I think I lean on the side of “weight” — if a character is a ship’s captain, then she has to have a crew below her, and people she answers to above her. I often have three main characters who are interwoven as a single braid to the plot, so the captain might be part of a Kirk / Spock / McCoy trio (I’ve never conceived of a story where I didn’t have such a scenario). They’re the inner circle, the nucleus of Venn diagrams for their spin-off relationships (families, love interests, enemies, etc).

    And if McCoy is the chief medical officer he must necessarily have assorted medical personnel in his staff, but he’ll probably mostly interact with Head Nurse Christine Chapel (spokesperson). And McCoy must leave sickbay in another doctor’s care when he’s on away missions, so Dr. M’Benga, the deputy chief medical officer, must necessarily exist. If there’s a medical mystery McCoy can dispatch Chapel or M’Benga to look into a particular lead.

    I sometimes wondered if I was too utilitarian in my approach, especially as I tend to do “just in time” manufacturing of characters — they show up when the plot requires them to — but I feel a little vindicated with this post. Although, I usually do plan for the thematically significant characters. Or I consider which characters who already *must* exist (Chapel, M’Benga) that I can use to illustrate a theme rather than create a new character — I call that the Law of Conservation of Character 😉

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Actually, Star Trek is a good example of how a tight core of main characters represents a much larger cast.

  23. November’s novel for this year had a cast of nine characters. I think the question here is, is nine too many?

    Only a few of them are important, but I didn’t want there to be a really small group of people on the boat. I’m open to any feedback.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Truthfully, one could ask is “is four too many?” just as easily as is “sixty too many?” It really depends on the story and how each character is impacting it.

  24. My cast size depends on what I feel is necessary. For example, the cast of my series is much larger than that of a simple short story I write. I like large cast, though sometimes they can be overwhelming when trying to introduce them or execute them in dialogue. Lol

  25. Casandra Merritt says

    Is it alright if my Midpoint reveal is what causes a big external plot event (such as a battle) instead of the other way around? It would still fill these requirements: A shift from reaction to action, a big centerpiece, and a clearer understanding of the conflict.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Theoretically, yes. The Midpoint’s plot-changing revelations about both inner and outer conflicts is what’s most important.

  26. Thank you, Katie. You covered a number of points quite well.That was clear.

  27. Tiffany Martin says

    Hi. I write fantasy romance novels and see the male and female leads both as protagonists. Is that possible, or is one really something else?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If their presence at all structural moments–and, of course, particularly the Climactic Moment–is equally balanced, then yes.

  28. This is a really helpful article! I have a question that’s kind of related. How do you know which side characters to include in the protag’s climax? I have maybe around 9 characters, one of which shows up at the final battle. How do I know which eight should accompany the main? Should she bring everyone? Should she go alone? Only bring her best friend?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      That really depends on the story. Again, I’d go with the rule of “as few as possible.” But if they all need to be there to make the plot work and theme come home, then there’s no reason they shouldn’t be.

  29. Andrewiswriting says

    Great post. It’s one of the things I’m trying to master, getting the most out of a large cast. And I must confess, it’s taking some work to master.

    I have a sprawling, Potter-esque kids’ fantasy, with many kids, many teachers, many bad guys, many players from myth and legend, and many many bit players, and at the moment I’m editing the second book.

    There are characters I want to set up for later instalments (when they’ll become crucial), while doing that Rowling bait-and-switch thing, where she hides Quirrel in Snape’s shadow.

    Trying to get scenes and characters to do double or triple duty, moving along the main plot while slipping in their clues and this little thing that you won’t notice now (if I’ve done it right), but later will make you go, “ohhhhh,” is the thing I’m still learning.

    I guess there’s not much point to this post, other than to say, ‘great post, I need this.’


    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Rowling’s an amazing model for this kind of thing.

      • Nadia Syeda says

        I loved her books. Sometimes, I’ll admit, they could get out of hand and they certainly broke quite a few rules, but I loved them anyways. I think that’s what all books should aspire for. To be loved despite their imperfections because what they have to offer outweigh their flaws and weaknesses. Kind of like people, I think.

  30. Kate, would love to see an example of how you’ve charted out #6 in one of your own works if that’s something you could share.

  31. Veronica Perez says

    This is my problem at the moment and I’m so glad I found this post. Very helpful information. I can already see where I can eliminate some characters. I just bought your Creating Charater Arcs book and workbook. Can’t wait to dive into it!

  32. I have a practice that helps me, many of the secondary Characters I file ( in my reference files) under setting, not characters. The over talky diner waitress, the dour Bank teller; even if they do have substantial dialog or plot carry. It helps me reference the five main support characters and one MC in their level of importance. The taxi driver goes with the Taxi, i.e., setting.

  33. For multi-character scenes, I picked up one useful writing technique from P. D. James: place the dialogue marker before the dialogue!

    As in:
    John said, “Whatever John said.”

    Instead of:
    “Whatever John said,” John said.

    It helps the reader cue up the right character before processing the line of dialogue. In P. D. James’s books, there is often even a paragraph break between the attribution and the dialogue:

    John scratched his head, looked at the open book, and said:
    “Whatever John said.”

    It’s probably not technically correct, but it slows down the flow just a tad, enough to grasp who is speaking before they actually speak. I find James’s books especially clear and easy to follow, even though they are mysteries and usually have many important characters.

  34. This reminds me of your ‘Three ways to maange a huge cast of characters’ article. Though this one gives a whole set of different options. Number 2 and 3 from that post are also valid options in my opinion.

  35. Theresa Oliver says

    I completely agree! The only thing I would add is to keep a separate Cast of Characters list to refer back to. This is especially helpful when writing a series. I also include settings and pertinant locations in the list, too. Doing this helps you to keep everything straight as you write. Thanks for your great advice!

  36. On this topic, I have a question. If you are writing a series (more than 5 books) with this large cast, does the protagonist of the main story arc need to be the protagonist of each book? Obviously, the main protagonist would need to feature prominently in each book, but is it acceptable for him to step back at times and for another character to take on the role of protagonist for a single book in the series?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      The short answer is that this is tricky. If the character is truly the protagonist of the entire series, then readers may grow impatient if he is sidelined for entire books. However, I have seen it done with middling success (Stephen Lawhead’s King Raven trilogy comes to mind).

  37. I’m writing an MG urban fantasy heptalogy. Since it was MG, I did introduce one character at a time, however, I’m now working on Book 2, which starts with protagonist and friends are bringing back a group of 6000ish to their community of 4000ish to live together. The caravan is returning, so that’s eight named characters, a few unnamed mentioned, and one very crowded scene.

    This helped me see I’m not completely nuts. (I do know the purpose/archetype of all named characters, even if I use different words Campbell’s monomyth strategy uses.) It helped me get a bit of a handle of how to deal with the craziness about to happen when community meets other community, but it still feels like I’m hanging on by my fingernails.

    Any chance you have advice for Book 2 of -ologies? Not just a series, but continuing story through multiple books? The only example I can find is Jean Ayel’s Earth Children series, but she spent half of every book flash-backing/back-storying every previous book, which I found quite annoying.

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      My approach to series is to treat the info from previous books in the same way you would backstory in a standalone: introduce it only when and as it’s needed for the new story to make sense.

  38. Kendra Rasberry says

    I should have mentioned in my email to you that my characters are split into groups. How would that work in my scripts?

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      If the groups are operating separately in different scenes, then each group essentially becomes its own subplot with a much smaller cast. See also Rule #8 in the article above, which talks about characterizing groups *as* groups rather than as individuals. This is a trick that easily streamlines large casts.

  39. This was an amazing post! It helped me answer a lot of questions I had that were bothering me. Although I would appreciate some clarification if you would be so kind!

    I am currently creating a story that follows a girls scout organization that covers up several white collar crimes (crimes in general). There are two girl scout troops, but the main group the story follows has about 17 girls. The other troop has 18. Meanwhile, i have other supporting cast members like 2 boy scout antagonist groups and supporting characters that are outside of the scouts.

    For the main cast, I’m most definitely introducing characters slowly, I’m also planning on splitting up the main cast into an A and B team. Then eventually introducing 3 main representatives for the secondary girl scout troop to avoid anymore clutter for the main casts story. However, I don’t yet know the best solution for introducing the boy scouts.

    There are about 5 supporting cast members (One of them I do not plan on introducing until my season 3 which will only follow 2 characters).

    I’ve been told to make cuts of characters, but the way i create these characters take a long time due to me having to have a perfect mental image of how they act and what they look like in order for me to get attached to them. That way, i can interpret them into the story with significance.

    The main questions I have on this from me to you are, 1) Do you think taking out some characters are necessary? 2) What do you think is the best way for me to introduce the Boy Scouts group? 3) Do you think some characters wont be remembered even with the effort i put into them? And 5) Do you think symbolism, metaphors, etc are important to a story like this? I’m not very good with those types of things but I’d do anything to enhance the experience of the reader.

    Honestly, I’d love any extra advice or even questions from you, you seem like a very well spoken brilliant writer, and I enjoy reading the the words you put out to the public! If you’ve gotten to the bottom of this comment, Thank you for taking time out of your day to reading this!


    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      It really depends on whether each character is important to the story in his or her own right. At first glance, I’d say this seems like an over-large cast that can probably be consolidated into much smaller groups.

      As for introducing the Boy Scouts, I would look for characteristic moments that introduce the characters in interesting ways that also introduce their importance to moving the plot forward.

  40. sanityisuseless says

    Agh… there’s one character I have that’s really interesting but dosen’t fit into the plot at all… stop making me feel guilty!


  1. […] The 10 Rules of Writing Large Casts of Characters […]

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