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

Dramatica Melanie Anne Phillips Chris HuntleyFrom 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 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. 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

  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. ingmarhek says:

    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

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