Novel writing: Dealing with a large cast of characters

For whatever reason, the list of characters in your book keeps expanding. It is getting so bad that you need a spreadsheet just to keep track of them. If you are struggling, think of what your poor reader might be going through.

Imagine going to a party where you know no one. Everyone introduces themselves but after a while all those faces and names blur together. This is exactly how your reader will feel, but they won’t have the help of actually looking at the people in an attempt to remember who they are. All they have are the clues in your writing.

One of the advantages to writing with a large cast is your story can appeal to a wider audience of men, women, young and old.

But there are also many disadvantages such as will your readers connect with the characters? Will they remember who they are?

It is up to you to decide whether the advantages outweigh the disadvantages and whether your story really needs such a large cast. If you do decide to go ahead with a large number of characters, here are some tips.

1.) Don’t introduce them all at once. Introduce your key characters and flesh out their personalities before introducing more characters.

I actually ran into this problem when reading a mystery. Four characters (friends of the man who was murdered) were introduced at the same time. They were roughly the same age and had similar occupations (as they were also his colleagues). I never really could keep them separate was I was reading, which made it hard to figure out which one of them was the murderer.

It would have been helpful if the characters had some feature that stood out – a limp, an unusual accent or maybe an identifying article of clothing. If you do give your characters one of these features, make sure to mention it (but not overuse it) to help your readers connect with the character.

2.) Make your readers care about the characters. And be certain there is a good reason to add each character to your story. You will need to think of each character’s story arc and whether it will enhance or distract from your story.

As you write, only give names to people who are important. If the doorman doesn’t play a significant role, he doesn’t need to be introduced with a name.

3.) Don’t name characters with similar names. You don’t need a Jon and a Ron in the same story. Also you won’t want a whole bunch of characters with names that begin with the same letter. So no Jenny, Jermaine, Jasmine and Jane all in the same story.

4.) Focus on only a few characters. The main story should focus around just a few characters and not the whole cast. If your story focuses on twenty individuals even the most diligent reader will get confused by the multiple storylines. Or if you do want a large cast, you can pair groups of them up. Think of Lord of the Rings where Legolas, Gimli and Aragon were often together as a group as were Sam and Frodo and Merry and Pippin.

5.) Make sure we see the major characters often. If you are writing with a large cast and have several groups you are bouncing between, make sure you don’t go too long without mentioning the other major players. If you go say 30-40 pages without mentioning or visiting a character, it is probably time to do it again.

Working with a larger group of characters isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it will take a lot more work for both you and the reader. Make sure the payoff in terms of story progression and resolution are worth it.

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