Balancing an Ensemble Cast.
The more the merrier, as they say.
This is definitely my motto when it comes to writing. I adore stories with a large, diverse cast of characters. There is something wonderful about watching or reading so many different people cross paths, in order to tell one full story. I knew that when I wrote my book, I wanted it to have a large cast.
Having a lot of characters is fun, but it is also a challenge. You have to make sure everyone is there for a reason. Everyone serves a purpose, they must have connections to something within the story, and they have to have a full arc. Of course, I'm talking about the main and supporting characters. The people in the crowd do not need full backstories.
In As the Crow Flies, there are about 20 characters that need to be developed, cared for, and plotted. From the first draft to the second, I only cut two people. Others, however, had to be re-evaluated. Their purpose in the story was murky, so it was up to me to solidify why they deserved to be in there.
Here are my thoughts of developing and balancing a large cast of characters in your novel:
- Make a list of all your characters. It can be a master-list of everyone, with no division between roles or size. You can also divide into "heroes & villains", "main & supporting", etc...I tend to just make a large list of people, because so many characters grow to have bigger parts and dividing them is a headache.
-Give everyone a title. You don't have to use it your work, this is just for you to solidify what the character's part will be. For example:
Crow: The Thief
Kateb: The Captain
Caris: The Mapmaker
Apollonia: The Liar
At least in the beginning stages, this could help.
-Think about their relationships to others. This is really important when you are writing scenes with a lot of characters. In Thick as Thieves, there is a scene with nearly a dozen people and they all know each other in very different ways. Remembering how everyone knew one another (or didn't know one another) was quite a challenge. 12 characters coming together, all with lines and purposes, is a juggling act.
You have to remember what people's opinions, knowledge, and past dealings with others are. I suggest either a chart of some sort or writing it out. Another example:
Abner: because he is his lover. On good terms.
The Librarian: freed her from prison. On bickering terms.
Caris: worked with her. They are friends, but not close.
Apollonia: his mother. On bad terms.
-This next one is especially true for fantasy-esque writers. (I think it also applies to adventure, sci-fi, and the like.)
Don't be afraid to kill your darlings.
When you are writing a lot of people, in harrowing situations, chances are not all, say, 15 of them are going to survive. Not every hero makes it to the finish line.
Of course, don't go crazy with killing off characters either, but keep the readers on their toes. If everyone always escapes danger, the stakes are lowered on your dangerous, magical, adventure. The reader will lose interest if they know the character is going to make it out again and again.
I am working on this particular tip for myself. It is so difficult to kill characters off...but I think for what I like to write, it keeps the story healthy. The second draft of my book has more characters than the first, but I'm going to try and take my own advice. Hopefully I'll be able to create and balance (and kill off) a fascinating cast of characters.
What are your thoughts on large casts? Any tips you'd like to share with me?
Until next time,