Writing: Handling a Cast of Thousands (1 of 3)
Few writing challenges are greater than doing justice to a large cast of characters in a novel or story. In fact, the difference between simply doing them justice and handling them well is a significant level of effort in itself.
Sadly, this is one of those writer conundrums that is often best resolved with a “Don’t do that if it hurts” solution. If having too many characters is causing a headache—then don’t have so many characters! For the more obstinate and stalwart of us prepared to strike into turbulent seas, read on!
Getting a grip on your cast
Cast members are reoccurring characters who are pivotal to your story. They are people so important that the story problem cannot be solved without them. Their importance does not automatically mean they will be viewpoint characters. In fact, in certain cases it’s strategically unwise to tell the story from the perspective of certain characters. Imagine how much different of a tale Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy would have been if told from the viewpoint of Gandalf or Strider!
Aside from your main cast, there will be supporting roles, and often dozens of walk-on or cameo characters. Supporting roles are there to flesh out the world, and in some cases serve as foils for your main cast. We’ll deal with the function of foils later in the article.
Least significant, but always necessary, are walk-ons and cameos. They are every incidental character from the surly guard at the gate to the forgetful apothecary or the money-grubbing snitch. Sometimes they only exist for a paragraph, but in those fleeting moments they can perform important and irreplaceable roles in your plot: The snitch who relays the critical information, the apothecary who knows the location of a critically needed healing herb, or the guard who overhears where a missing member of the party was last going. In other cases, these incidental personalities may be only window-dressing, color in your world that the characters encounter on their way from one place to another. Even this function is important in its own way by adding depth, individuality, and a sense of place and time to your world.
Because of the limited time these characters spend in the frame, writers tend to make them more exotic, giving them odd quirks or ticks in order to make them interesting. In so doing, they sometimes unwittingly unleash a saboteur into their story.
Beware of “extras” with aspirations of star status. Because of their exotic natures, these personalities are generally more fun to write. Since the writer doesn’t take them too seriously, they don’t fret over details and just script them with the “flow.” Ironically, these characters can prove more vivid and memorable than even the protagonist! With a walk-on who is a reoccurring character, this poses an inherent danger. If allowed, they will take on a life of their own. You will find it just seems natural to keep them on stage longer, and more fully develop what was once just a throwaway character. Any writer with a significant amount of material behind them will be nodding at this point, having had one or two of these personalities haunt them.
Don’t promote these exotic latecomers to cast status. Further, avoid being seduced into doing scenes from their point of view. Your job is complicated enough without some walk-on character stealing the limelight from your protagonists. Not only will this disrupt the symmetry and balance of your story, but given sufficient foothold, these characters can even make it necessary to change your plot. Avoid this problem. Resist.
Casting couch—criteria for success
Establish the character who will be responsible for resolution of the story. Metaphorically speaking, who lands the telling blow that climaxes your plot? This task might fall to more than one character, but one of them will be the primary instigator. The instigator is your “anchor” character because everything comes down to his or her success. The anchor is the glue in your story. His/her progress toward the end goal sets the measure and tempo of your story. Often the anchor also serves to bind the other personalities in your story to the overall conflict or problem. It’s important to know if this character will fill a viewpoint role. No rule says the anchor must be your viewpoint protagonist. However, when the protagonist does serve in this catalytic capacity, it tends to make relationships between characters and the story goals easier to follow.
How many viewpoints will be necessary to adequately entertain your reader? In general, the answer is always ONE. Some authors insist on deluging us with viewpoints and data. Watch out for too much of what is questionably a good thing. Views done from alternate characters should be limited to what effectively tells the tale. Give us the necessary perspectives to enjoy the flavor of your world. Unless your tale is truly epic, more than four rotating viewpoints is overkill. It spreads you and your reader too thin. Exercise restraint. Resist.
If your story involves several primary cast members who will be split up during the course of your story, multiple views may be needed in to keep the reader current as to the happenings in each group. Note that when multiple views become necessary, the switching should be consistent from the beginning of the novel or story. It demonstrates poor planning when you simply pick up a brand new viewpoint in the middle. Geographic complications aren’t necessarily reason enough to add another viewpoint to your story. Each view added, exponentially increases the complexity of your narrative.
A viewpoint character carries a heavy onus. Their history needs to be more developed, their goals, needs, and desires fleshed out and resolved through the course of the novel. Each new perspective essentially creates a new plot thread that must wind through the story and be tied up at the end. This bookkeeping, pun intended, is part of handling a fully realized viewpoint character.
Whom you select to be your viewpoint characters is critical. There is more to a viewpoint than simply whose eyes you are looking through. This character is a window into your world. Is this character’s perspective different from your other viewpoint choices? It is always good to select distinct archetypes for your narrative characters. Example archetypes are the pessimist, the optimist, the wise-cracking jokester, the worldly pragmatic or the innocent naif. Your characters may be amalgams of these traits, but chances are they will gravitate to one of these poles. Each viewpoint voice should be as distinct from the others as possible. Not only does this make them easier to tell apart, but it provides variety and depth of view.
Having distinct archetypes as viewpoints provides helpful narrative opportunities. The naif might ask a question in a situation where the pragmatic wouldn’t. On the other hand, the pragmatic’s cynical and paranoid nature will make him alert to a detail the naif would overlook. Capitalize on such personality traits and use them whenever possible. By staying in character, these viewpoint protagonists give you a means of pushing the plot forward and elaborating story detail.
Think-ahead caveat: if you have information you wish to conceal from the reader, don’t choose a viewpoint character who is easily privy to that knowledge. The reasons for this are many and manifold, and any justifications you make for pulling this boner will undoubtedly push the belief envelope. Resist.
Viewpoints, interactions, and the group dynamics
We touched on archetypes and how choosing distinctive viewpoints can be leveraged to provide story details. Archetyping serves another important role in group dynamics. This goes beyond just your protagonists, but every one of your cast members. Over the course of a novel, your cast must carry the story. The plot cannot sustain the same pitch and tempo, you must vary the pacing to prevent monotony.
When referring to pacing, we are talking about the characteristics of the narrative itself. Spots of humor should ease tense moments. Speedy, bang-bang-bang scenes should be interspersed with time for thoughtful reflection. Cast members with the proper distribution of traits can help you toward this end. In comedy, you have the jokester and the straight man. Together, they generate energy, where apart they do not. In Star Trek, Spock and McCoy worked in a similar dynamic. Spock represented logic and repressed emotion, where McCoy stood for the humanitarian and liberal views. Their opposing natures were used to do everything from revealing bits of plot to providing comic relief.
In Shakespearean studies, they call this interaction of opposites the concept of the “foil.” Important characters have mirror roles who provide contrast and serve to reveal that personality’s hidden characteristics. The technique of “juxtaposed opposites” provides rich opportunities for exploring character, for having thoughtful and humorous situations, and can give scenes more spark and attitude.
Beyond dynamics—the nuts and bolts of character groups
As already discussed, handling groups is largely a matter of casting. You make your task easier by creating distinct story personalities who are easily distinguished by their dialogue, description and narrative voice (if they are a viewpoint character).
Even if you make all these choices correctly, you are still left with the mechanics of handling them. These basic rules are a foundation that we’ll build on when we go into more detail in the article on the topic of advanced group management.
- Unique names. One of the simplest ways to help keep characters distinct is to make sure your cast members names don’t start with the same letter. Further, try to avoid alliterations that make two names sound similar. Example: Hector and Lector—sure they start with different letters, but the reader is bound to confuse them anyway.
- Use name/synonym tags—but not too many. To avoid repetition, it’s quite common to use tags. Tags serve a role also as a descriptive tool if you use physical characteristics as part of your tags. George is a warrior, he has blue eyes, red hair, and he’s really big. So, not only is he George, he’s also “the warrior,” the “blue-eyed or red-haired warrior,” and sometimes just “the big man.” Make sure that each character’s synonyms are distinct enough from the ones used for your other cast.
- Identifying traits. The larger your cast, the more important it is that they have as many distinctive characteristics as possible. These characteristics, like the tags, help when you need to describe situations where several characters are interacting at a time. These “handles” allow a form of descriptive shorthand as your reader becomes familiar with your cast. Such traits can be as simple as hair or eye color. They can be a distinguishing gesture, like fingering a braid or stroking a beard, or a piece of clothing or jewelry that is always prevalent in the character’s attire.
With large casts, it also becomes necessary to establish traits that distinguish them in dialogue and in action. Speech patterns, tone of voice, and general attitude become extremely important. These don’t need to be complex traits—it can be the character who speaks in a whisper, or always talks in sentence fragments or run-ons. It can be a raspy tone, or a sonorous musical voice. This is where creativity really comes into play. Select traits that are vivid and easy to describe, steer away from vague ambiguous details.
- Know your annoyances. We talked about foils; now let’s touch on friction. Practically everyone is particularly sensitive to something. It keeps things popping when characters have habits that annoy other characters. Fighter Joe hates high-pitched sounds, and also happens to be adored by the rather shrill and hopelessly talkative mage, Donna. Amazon Jane is disgusted by that sword wielding clod George when he picks his nose—what’s he digging in there for, GOLD?. It’s a simple technique that characterizes, and can be both visual and entertaining.
- Actions speak louder than attributions. “He said” and “she said” work. Sometimes, however, names just aren’t good enough when you have five or six characters in a dialogue. In that case, tags and gestures become a necessity. Use them in place of attribute tags where possible to keep characters in action and distinct in the scene. Facial expressions and body language also become of paramount importance for the reader to have a clear idea of what’s going on.
- Get physical. When handling groups, another tool is physical contact. Touch is a powerful form of communication. Holding hands, a caress on the face, a punch in the shoulder, a kiss—all of these forms of contact are both visual and sensory, and also imply emotion.
- Use all of a character’s senses and sensations. Another way we know we are with your viewpoint character is when we are told of their physical condition. If you look to the example above, you see that taste can be used for emotional impact as well as strengthening the reader’s sense of “being there.” Smells are powerful tools as well. If I describe the rich buttery aroma of popcorn — well, if that doesn’t bring to mind an image, you probably don’t like popcorn. Remember that we have physical reactions to emotions and describing those reactions are far more immersive than just saying a character is angry or sad.
- Use partitioning whenever possible. When setting a scene, try to move characters around so that only two or three are in the frame at the same time. Conveniently move the others off, or have them doing something else so you can focus on the characters most concerned with the dialogue.
Handling groups of characters will always be a particularly difficult chore. However, by using refined casting techniques, you can make these entities more distinct and “alive” in their interactions. Being mindful of people dynamics can spice up scenes and put more attitude into the relationship your readers have with your characters.