Since I’m just a few followers off 100 on this blog - thank you and hello to all of you - I figured I’d do a post on how to control a large amount of characters.
I’m currently on the last book of a zombie trilogy, which also has a spin-off. In the end of this book, every character that has survived will be meeting up for what will be the big event of the story. As well as them, there will also be plenty of new characters to serve as zombie-fodder.
I’ve worked out that as far as I can tell, by the end of the series, I will have written around about 70 characters.
They obviously don’t all feature together, of course, all at the same time. That’s just a bit too much. And quite a few of them have died already, or they will be dead by the end.
However, since the very least amount of characters I have in any of these books is eleven people, I’ve worked out a lot about how your cast of characters should work.
Rule Number One: If You Don’t Talk, You Don’t Exist.
A lot of people try to boost their characters by chucking another one in there, but then that character doesn’t actually have any impact apart from the odd “Yeah!” or “That’s incredible!” And then dies a horrible death which is supposed to be moving.
If your character doesn’t talk or doesn’t actually serve a purpose in your story, they shouldn’t be in there. If they’re only there to die, they shouldn’t be in there. Either mash their part in with another character, or wipe it out altogether. If you’re working with a large cast, there shouldn’t be any more than there has to be.
Rule Number Two: I’m Here For the Funeral.
If you only write a character in to die, they shouldn’t be there. This is doubly true with females. If a character is killed only to fuel the passion/rage/uncontrollable revenge seeking of another character, and doesn’t actually serve a purpose beyond that, this is called fridging. It happens a lot with female comic book characters.
If you only write a character in there to write their death scene, that character shouldn’t be there, especially if you intend to make that death meaningful. What makes a meaningful death is how it impacts the characters. If you kill off a brand new character, you can’t expect people to care about them. If they didn’t say more than three words and had no real personality, why should we care?
Rule Number Three: Bob, This Is An Intervention.
Talking. All characters should talk, as we’ve said, but often, the sheer number of characters in one area can smother the way they interact. In this case, the number should be broken down, so some people aren’t there.
Everyone should have a turn at speaking, and if they don’t have anything to contribute, they shouldn’t be in the scene.This is especially important to remember early on in the book. If you’ve just introduced eight new characters and they’re all sitting around yakking away, how the hell are we supposed to know who is who?
Rule Number Four: I Come With My Own Theme Music
All characters should have their own entrance. It defines them, and if you write it well, it can give away some of their personality.
For example, Harry Potter has just sat down in his carriage on the Hogwarts Express for the first time after finding Platform 9 and 3/4, and already, many characters have been introduced, almost all of them giving away some aspects of personality. For example:
Neville: He passed a round-faced boy who was saying, “Gran, I’ve lost my toad again.”
”Oh, Neville,” he heard the old woman sigh.
Neville is later reintroduced, and then comes the arrival of Hermione Granger:
The toadless boy was back, but this time he had a girl with him. She was already wearing her new Hogwarts robes.
”Has anyone seen a toad? Neville’s lost one,” she said. She had a bossy sort of voice, lots of bushy brown hair and rather large front teeth.
And so in just a few words, we’ve already figured out who is what. Neville, even though he’s only appeared three times, has already been sussed out as a hopeless kid who keeps losing things. Hermione has been portrayed as a bossy, eager sort of girl, which is reinforced as the chapter goes on.
The order that characters are introduced can be important as well. The first people Harry sees in the train station are the Weasley family, who later become extremely important in his life. Then comes Ron, who quickly is established as Harry’s best friend. Then comes Hermione, who eventually joins the group, and the Golden Trio is formed.
We have, however, seen other characters. Dumbledore is one of the first, as is Hagrid, both of whom become important to Harry. We have also already met Draco Malfoy, who later becomes Harry’s enemy. And we’ve also met Neville, cunningly introduced fairly early in to show that he is, in some way, important.
Rule Number Five: Quit Hogging The Spotlight, Asshole.
With so many characters, it can get difficult to remember who the main character is.
There are some ways to get around this. There’s writing in the first person for one, but by doing this you either go overboard in description and make the character unlikable, or under-do it and give a very vague impression that we can’t really hold on to. If your character doesn’t really talk that much, they can also get smothered by the other characters, and become a sort of thinking observer.
Very few authors can artfully switch character perspectives, yet still keep an idea of who is who. George R.R Martin is one of these, but even he gets confusing. Who is who? Where do they come in? Who, really, is the main character?
If you have a lot of characters, I advise against switching POV’s. Stick to your main.
Writing Tip: Never bite off more characters than you can chew. If you struggle to remember them all, write them down, as well as who is who, and if that doesn’t work, you’ve probably got too many. Everyone should serve a purpose, play a role, and have an exit of some kind. They should have a definite storyline. If your character is ambling along with no real reason for being there, you should think about if they should be there at all.