A Cast of Thousands

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

After Jim’s post on subplots yesterday, I started thinking about some other issues that face new authors. One issue I still grapple with is what I call the ‘cast of thousands’ problem – the decisions that have to be made regarding the number of major and minor characters that populate a novel’s landscape. When considering this I often ask myself, at what point does a book get bogged down with too many characters?

One mistake new authors often make is to introduce too many characters, leaving a reader confused and (in many instances) bogged down in subplots created to sustain the ‘cast’ the author has created. In the final edits to my first manuscript, Consequences of Sin, I discarded at least two extraneous characters and (I think) the story was the stronger for it. Still it can be difficult to decide when the ‘cast’ has become bloated… So here are a few of the considerations I try to take into account when it comes to characters.

  1. Identify the principal protagonists whose storyline provides the core of the overall story arc. I find that a weak story often has at the heart a weak main protagonist whose objectives are unclear. In my view it is critical to establish up front who the key characters really are and to constantly evaluate their role in the story. Sometimes a character I thought would be significant turns out to play only a peripheral role and I have to be strong-willed enough to let them go…which leads to the next point…
  2. Be willing to cull characters (no matter how attached to them you have become). Just because you have grown fond of a character is no reason to keep him/her. Perhaps they need to be ‘x’ed from this story and set aside for use in a later book. An author cannot just hold on to their characters for the sake of it. For me a good way to double check this issue is to outline all the characters and their goals/conflicting objectives/purpose and re-evaluate each of them to ensure I have the most effective and streamlined cast possible.
  3. Nix the cute characters that provide little more than background to the story. Minor characters can add richness and depth to a book but too many (especially with detailed back stories) can become little more than background ‘noise’.
  4. Be your character’s harshest critic. Constantly ask yourself – is this character necessary, believable and (importantly) fresh? If a character is little more than a stereotype or a cliche then, as an author, you have to question what they add to the story.

So what issues do you think are vital when it comes to the issue of deciding the number of major and minor characters you include? Is there a point that (for you) a ‘cast’ of characters becomes too bloated to be sustainable?

8 thoughts on “A Cast of Thousands

  1. Good points, Clare. What I often find in a first draft is that I can combine characters. It may be that a certain character isn’t quite carrying his full load, but I need some aspect of him, so looking for a way to merge him into another character sometimes helps.

  2. Along the lines of what James said, I use archetype characters when the character isn’t as important to the main plot. For example, in my books I’ve frequently used Ellen’s café as a setting. Ellen has several employees, but most are implied or referenced as “a waiter” or “a chef.” When I need one to say something, I usually give the dialogue to Carla. In a similar fashion, if I’m looking for a church member to offer assistance, that role goes to Bumble Bee.

    But while we’re on the subject I’ll mention a problem I’m debating how to deal with. In my WIP, I have a character who is a strong candidate for being dropped because at times she just seems like an appendage to another character. The problem is that she is also an enabler for the main plot. She has skills that it doesn’t make sense that the other characters would have. I see her as both essential and redundant.

  3. Sometimes the story can dictate the size of the cast. A thriller like a Clive Cussler or Vince Flynn could not be done with only ten characters. It needs all the people to make such a big story work.

    I tend to have large casts because of the types of stories I like to write. In my last book, I have about 27 characters, including four main characters. These are some things I’ve learned along the way about managing big casts:

    1. Start small. Don’t introduce more than three characters in the opening of the book. The reader is just getting their feet wet into the story–it’s hard if you throw 17 names at them that they have to remember (that was in a piece I critiqued). The reader doesn’t know who all these people are; they haven’t had any time to get involved in the story and now have to remember lots of names as well.

    2. Though there may be more than one main character, there should only be one primary main character–the one the story revolves around. In an earlier project, I made the mistake of giving equal weight to four characters. When it came time to write the synopsis, I couldn’t leave any of the characters out because of the way the story was written–and I had too many in the synopsis. A primary main character doesn’t mean the others are less important, but that the story is focused on the one character.

    3. Listen to your instincts. If it feels like a scene has one too many characters, then take one out. I usually have 4-5 characters per scene; at six, I start forgetting one of the characters. And, when I was wrestling with subplot problems, the one thing that jumped out at me was that I was having to add characters to make the subplot work but that they weren’t elsewhere in the story (nearly all my character culling came out of this area).

    4. Not every character needs to be named. Anyone who is named should have a very specific role in the story that no one else can fulfill. Because of the second rule, I’ve never needed to combine characters into one.

    I also think omni is a better choice when the cast is really large. It makes it easier to manage the cast and bring in details that help the reader. Both first and third are more intimate, and it’s a lot harder to show everyone. I just read an urban fantasy in first with a large cast (probably 15-20), and the author had a terrible time managing them. I’m midway through the book, and I’m still going, “Who are these people?” I could literally not remember who they were. Yet, there are thrillers with larger casts than this book, and I don’t have the same problem.

  4. I’m with Jim. I’ve wound up combining characters by taking the most critical parts of their roles and producing one person who can fill all the requirements. I’ve also outright eliminated a few after the first draft who I liked but served no real purpose. And I’ve had a couple that started out as third-string walk-ons only to become critical later. I think the bottom line is that it’s easier to take stuff out than it is to put stuff in later.

  5. Jim and Joe – combining characters is something I often do too – and it’s amazing how that can often solve the issue. Timothy, it is always a tricky proposition trying to decide whether to keep a character or not especially one that plays both an essential as well as a supplemental role. I’d go with Linda’s point re: instincts as to whether to keep the character. Linda, you make some great points – your approach of starting small is a great one, though as Joe says it can be easier to take out than put in!

  6. So true- I just finished a book with a cast so large it was virtually impossible to keep them straight. At the very end, a character reappeared who I could not for the life of me remember (and I read the book in a few sittings, over the weekend). Flipped back to discover that he’d been introduced on page 15, then the reader doesn’t encounter him again for nearly 300 pages. Confusing. And his role turned out to be pivotal…

  7. The author Stephen Pressfield took care of a situation of needing extra depth without creating too many characters by creating a blanket character that has carried over into all of his novels. The character becomes the tutor, wise man, soldier, uncle, mentor of his main character throughout his many and varied stories.

    I am working on a similar character for my own work. Currently it is a toss-up between a hyper alert Persian-American secret agent named Kharzai and a diaper wearing steroid popping neon orange bunny rabbit with a penchange for Hip-Hop Music and bubble gum named C-Lyve.

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