Friday, January 19, 2018

9 Tips for Crafting A Large (And Well-Developed) Cast of Characters

On the last #ChatWithHannah video, I was asked about creating a large cast of characters. I found myself wanting to really delve into the topic because it's one that has always fascinated me.

As somebody who struggles to remember the names of classmates or differentiate between people I meet randomly throughout the week (yes, I am a terrible person and I'm sorry), it's always been funny to me that I can create and maintain large casts of characters without much issue. How is this possible?

Well, apparently my brain has come up with all sorts of tips and tricks that I didn't realize existed until I started thinking about it. What are these tips and how can you use them? I'm glad you asked:
1. Decide on main characters or POV characters. Can you have a book with 20+ characters? Yes. Can you have a book with 20+ main characters or POV characters? Maybe if you wanted to explode your brain, sure. To avoid damage to your neurons, ask yourself: Who's story is this? Figure out which of your characters is the main character. If you're telling the story from one POV or multiple, decide which characters get to be POV characters. These are the ones that will get the most on-page development throughout the story. They are the focus. That being said...

2. Feel free to develop and give backstories to all of your characters. Yep. All of them. Figure out where they came from, what drives them, who they like, who they don't like, what their habits and quirks are. However, keep in mind that not all of this information will go into the book. It's just for you. It will help you differentiate between all of your characters and also give them a richness that wouldn't be there if you didn't have any information on them at all.

3. Decide what info goes into the book and what just stays in your brain. Obviously, you can't include every character's backstory. Heck, you probably won't be able to spill all the details of your main characters, either. So ask yourself: Of all of this backstory and development, how much of it matters to the main character(s)? How much of it matters to the plot? If the information isn't necessary to developing the main characters or the plot, it probably shouldn't go in. Unless it helps with world building. But even then: If the world building doesn't connect to the plot or characters in any constructive way, then it may not need to be there.

4. Keep character profiles. Yep. For each character keep a page that includes things like: Their fears, their strengths, their goals, their connection to the main character, and their connection to the plot. You can also include MBTI personality types and the like if that kind of thing helps you. Pinterest boards are good, too. This is something that I use for select characters. Because I have four POV characters (and because they're all very different), I kept track of them using character profiling so that when I needed to slip into their mindset, I could simply look through their document and Pinterest board to remember who exactly they are. After writing from their POVs enough times, this became unnecessary, but it was very helpful for starting out (and will be helpful when I go back to edit).

5. Check for extraneous characters. Having a large cast of characters is fine, but there is such a thing as too large. There's no set number that, when surpassed, is too large (don't ever let somebody tell you that there is). Rather than a number, it's a symptom. This symptom shows itself in shallow characters or characters that don't serve a purpose in the story (or serve the same purpose as another character). So go over your cast and ask: Do all of these characters have a unique purpose and perspective on the story? Or are they just ill-disguised duplicates of each other? If the answer is no to the first question and yes to the second, well, you'll have to send somebody packing.
OR you could merge a few extraneous characters into a single necessary character (yes, this does happen...I know one writer who merged 3 characters into one upon realizing that 2 of the characters were largely unnecessary).

6. Remember that villains are part of the cast, too. Often writers spend a lot of time developing the protagonists and their friends, but not the villain. Why would you do this? The villain is important to the story (just as much so as the hero), so make sure that you develop him/her as much as you develop the others.

7. Don't forget the character arcs. For all of them? Yes. But remember: There are different types of character arcs. Positive character arcs (where the characters triumph or change for the better), negative character arcs (where the characters lose or change for the worse), and flat character arcs. Okay, I made that last term up, but I'm referring to the writing of a flat character. Flat characters are not, in fact, always a bad thing...they're just characters that don't change over the course of the story. Think Indiana Jones, Lady Catherine de Burgh (if you didn't read that in Mr. Collin's voice then you're failing at life), Argus Filch, a lot of side characters in Shakespeare's work, etc. The larger your cast, the more necessary it is to have a mix of all of these character arcs. Your main and secondary characters will have the largest arcs while tertiary characters (no, I actually didn't make that term's a real thing. Look it up) will have smaller arcs.

8. Take notes as you write. The larger your cast, the harder it is to keep track of everyone. Even if you have character profiles, your characters will change slightly (or hugely) throughout the story due to character arcs. So at the end of each scene where a change happens to a character: Take note of what's happened. That way the next time you go back to write that character you can remember where he/she is plot-wise, emotion-wise, and even health-wish. There's nothing more embarrassing that having a character stabbed in the leg in chapter 8 only to have her miraculously healthy in chapter 10. Yes, I've done that before. Spare yourself the pain.

9. Give them tags. This is for your own sanity as well as your readers. Give each of your characters at least one tag that differentiates him/her from the others. It can be a word they use all the time, a hand gesture, an article clothing, eye color. Check out this post on character tags, then apply it to your characters to help you keep all your characters separate in your own mind as well as your readers.

Oh, and bonus tip: Read books and watch movies with huge casts of characters: Harry Potter, LOTR, The Prydain Chronicles, PandoraHearts, Star Wars, the Avengers. There are tons, so study how each character is unique and how each is portrayed. This is super helpful and also gives you an excuse to have a Star Wars marathon....Not that you ever need an excuse, but still.

How large is your current cast of characters? The Stump of the Terebinth Tree has a grand total of 4 main(ish) characters, 4 secondary characters, 10 tertiary characters, and 5 quaternary characters (okay, you caught me...I did make up that last one). Sooo I have...*scrunches up face* *does math* *almost dies* 23 characters. Decent sized cast, but not nearly as big as some.

I'd love to hear about the tips that you have for keeping track of your large cast of characters!

Related articles:
Character Tags: What They Are and How to Use Them

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  1. Actually, flat character arcs is a legit term. It's probably a sign of how good you are at analyzing character development if you came up with that term on your own. Great minds think alike... :D Anyway, great post! I've been watching a lot of Haikyu!, which is an anime with a HUGE cast of characters who are all very distinct from one another, even the minor characters, so I've been toying with the idea of writing a story with a large cast. It sounds like a tiring but fun endeavor.

  2. I've had 31 (named) characters appear in my story so far, but it is going to be a series so the cast is destined to get bigger. These tips are really helpful, but 5 can be a bit heartbreaking: I've had to take out several characters because I changed the plot and they no longer had a purpose. It's worse than character death.

  3. This is great! I have... I don't even remember how many characters in my story currently, so this is great timing!

  4. I love it! And relate way too much lol

    My sister and I have developed a cast of characters... and then placed them in eclectic families with complicated stories and completely developed siblings, created future counter parts for basically every character,figured out almost all of their loves stories, picked out unique pets for each one... we may have gone a bit overboard XD

    It was initially a middle school mystery with three characters from 9-12 years old. Now it's three entire family histories and we have yet to solidify the plot of the first book. (:

    But it's great. We walk around talking about how this person in real life looks just like that book character, but this other person we know acts like them. We confuse people sometimes haha

    ANYWAY, great post!!!

  5. I've been struggling to maintain my relatively small cast of characters (2 pov characters, and roughly 7 characters that are in almost every scene + other minor characters that jump in now and then). Tips 8 & 9 were really helpful. It's soo easy to forget if someone was injured or angry at another character in the last scene/chapter.

    Also wanted to say I bought Skies of Dripping Gold last week and loved it. I immediately connected to the characters, and now I'm making everyone I know read it to.

    Thanks for yet another great post.

  6. I know that they aren't for everybody because of their, ehm, adult themes, but for those who don't mind too much, A Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) is a perfect example for juggling a huge cast. George R. R. Martin does an excellent job of making every character feel fully fleshed-out and minor characters with barely a name can remain at the fringes of the story only to play a small part in a significant moment.

  7. I have roughly at least 15-20 characters in my Middle Grade novel, and really only 6 main characters who need a POV(yes, it's multiple POV for mine). It's also become a bit tricky because now I've realised I need to fix certain scenes in chapters that switch POV without realizing it. Which is also sad, since that means sacrificing some side character who, while are important in one way, really don't enhance the plot in the end. Your post was awesome and just what I needed including the Mr. Colin's joke. I'm guessing the TV series is what you saw... XD

  8. My current WIP has 9-12 major characters. How 9-12 you might ask? Mistaken identities. That's all I'll say for now. I'm also toying with the idea of taking on a massive novel with four POV characters and goodness knows how many others. When I say massive I have a basic 250,000-word outline. We'll see if that goes anywhere...

    Typically, I keep a list of character traits and quotes that reflect their personalities. Going off of point 9. "Give them tags." I also write a list of speech tags for each character because I stink at writing dialogue, but I like it when characters sound different. So it always helps to identify your writing weaknesses and develop them from there.

  9. Read fiction with a large cast and changing POV. I learn most about writing like this: picking up a book, reading it, putting my brain in question mode, then using that to hone my own skill sharper.

    Some of my favorites in this "large cast" area are actually fanfiction! I'd recommend "Rekindle the Stars" by user "teawithmugi", even if you don't know anything of the original work (PreCure franchise). It's a large work (recently passed 500k words), and has a 100+ named characters cast that is kept well up with, which is quite a feat, even with the massive original canon to fall back on. It helps if you know something about PreCure going in, but isn't necessary, as the AUness is cranked up to !! (the original series are saturday morning little girls' anime, Rekindle the Stars is a post-apocalyptic dark epic adventure) and I'd probably enjoy it even without any knowledge of PreCure. One of teawithmugi's strengths is that they handle the large cast well, and use the different characters' similarities and differences to create tension and foils. Take the two "good" factions' leaders, Mirage and Ace: the former is a well-intentioned extremist who thinks a better world is achieved through fighting fire with fire and weeding out fate, godly intervention and any evils to the point of silencing disagreement, whereas the latter is a child literally born out of a disembodied half of a psyche, who thinks she is a chosen one because of that and thinks all her selfish power games are justified because it is her destiny to lead.

    Another is the large AU world, so much that the world is almost a character unto itself. From the ruin city ruled by a self-serving mad princess, to the city of mirrors at the end of the world that will tempt you with mirages and kill you with desert heat if you walk astray, to the great cliff keep of a big bad, there's a thought-out, sprawling, uncontrolled, living feeling of reality to it - that feeling remains even during story arches about the heroes confronting a literal cackling jester holding power over a fairytale country by bribing two sentient glaciers and blackmailing a girl that writes things into existence.

    I do admit the story is a challenge of a read, what's with having to keep up with the numerous threads of it and overlapping smaller and larger story arches. However, I do think there's a lot to glimpse and to learn from that, and my own current longrunning challenge for myself is to create such a worldbuild: one that appears sporadic, organic, real, but one I can nonetheless hold all the reins of. I doubt it's gonna happen: I tend to litter plot bunnies left and right, and some of them will get away to breed more no matter what I do to them, and that does limit my control. Maybe I will never find a balance of chaos and control. I do, however, think that if I develop my cast like I have done so far, the world will eventually take form around them. It's a reverse mold: I'm seeing what it made, and, from that and more ideas, I'm fleshing out the mold, bit by bit.

    This ended up long-winded and weird :-P My hot tip to any writers of stories like this, would be to read that kind of fiction, and ask yourself questions as you read. Create theories, let them florish. Think of moralities, philosophies, opinions, and such. Analyze, vary, think "how I'd do this differently?", go wild, get noncanonical, and take a leap from another person's work and to creating your own. Let your thought wander. Break down, take what you like, discard, build upon, play with tropes. All fiction is borrowing a few threads from here, others there, breaking them, then weaving an unique piece, that is creativity to me. Maybe this is just my approach, maybe it's unique to my aspie brain, but if I ever learned something, it's that you can learn to be a better learner by knowing how others learn. Somehow even this became long-winded and likely stupid, but I have no shame :-P

  10. This is very helpful when writing a large fantasy series that probably has 100 or more characters running through it at various times. XD My favorite thing of all to help with this mind-melting process? Character sheets - Wikipedia page style. They are life-savers.

  11. Great advice as always, Hannah, and major geek points for using one of my favorite Captain Jack gifs.I would just add, use one name per character, at least in narration, and even in dialogue keep the nicknames to a minimum. It gets really confusing really fast if each character is referred to three different ways. Obviously in different situations different names are appropriate. Just because your character is a soldier doesn't mean his mom is going to call him Lieutenant Jones, unless she's teasing him. But never switch names for no good reason.
    For anyone struggling with characterization on a big or small scale, I highly recommend the book "Character and Viewpoint" by Orson Scott Card. It's short, easy to read, and very helpful in terms of figuring out how much detail each character needs. He actually uses Indiana Jones as an example of a good character with very little development.

  12. Dying at Lady Catherine de Burgh... and I did read it in Mr. Collins voice. Thank you.

  13. Thanks for the post, it was really helpful. I'm trying to write a book with about 8 POV characters.


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