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.
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:
- 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.
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!