A wonderful post from David Farland’s Daily Kick in the Pants newsletter. If you would like to receive his daily newsletter go to his website and create an account: http://www.davidfarland.net/members/. Or you can go to the “writing tips” section of his website to find them.
There are real advantages to writing a book with a diverse cast. For one thing, you can attract a wide audience—male, female, old, and young—more easily with a large cast than you can if you’re writing to one target audience such as teenage girls. That’s why, though Twilight sold remarkably well, it still hasn’t ever overtaken Harry Potter. Rowling cast a wider net.
Most large fantasies do the same—things like Game of Thrones and Wheel of Time, but you’ll also see this happening with epic historical novels a lot, too, and even with thrillers.
But there are so many pitfalls and drawbacks to writing with a large cast. Will the readers remember who each character is? Will they connect with them? Will they enjoy the whole novel or will they read only one story line and skip the rest?
You want to take advantage of the strengths of having multiple protagonists while avoiding the pitfalls.
So here are some tips for writing stories with a large cast.
1) Narrow your focus to just a few characters. For a novel, you can really only focus on three or four characters. Each time that you add a new arc for a viewpoint character, the length of your story doubles. This is because each time that you add a new major protagonist, that person now has to have scenes and relationships with all of the others. Literally, the novel doubles the length of the story. (See the book Story by Robert McKee for a longer discussion of the phenomenon.)
So make an intelligent decision as to who your viewpoint characters are going to be. To a large extent, the age and sex of your protagonists is the single largest factor that determines who your audience will be. If you’re going after teens and adults, for example, you want to make your protagonists are teens and adults, not children, and not great grandmothers.
Do you just want to pull in a female audience—write about a female protagonist. If you want a male audience, write about a male protagonist. Sure, there are readers who don’t care about the sex of the protagonist, but statistically there aren’t many.
If you’re trying to draw in both males and females, you’ll want to have a pretty equal number of protagonists of each sex.
So if you’re taking short stories and bringing them together to form one longer work, you may want to look at combining your protagonists from two or three stories into one. For example, let’s say that you have one middle-aged protagonist named Jonah Robb in one story, and you have another middle-aged protagonist named Conrad Hegel in another. You might look at the stories and ask yourself, could I rewrite this in such a way so that Jonah and Conrad become the same person?
2) Next, when writing large novels like this, look for ways to cut characters or deemphasize some of them. Consider each character’s story arc. Is the little boy in your story really so important that he needs a story line? Is he really that interesting? Or will your audience be far more interested in the teen girl’s arc? The truth is that when you choose to write in a mediocre plot line, you sap the strength of the story that is really driving the book. Don’t do it.
3) Next, let the readers know who is important in your story. As authors we tag a character as being important through a number of tactics. Here’s a list of them.
A) Viewpoint characters are important. If we bother to write a story from the point of view of a character in chapter one, the reader will expect to follow that character throughout the novel. (I know, I violated that rule in The Runelords. I was signaling to the reader that this isn’t your standard fantasy where everyone will live happily all the way through.)
B) Any character who is given a name is tagged as being important. Thus, if a doorman is given a name, we might expect him to take an important role in your story later on. Otherwise, he should remain just “the doorman.”
C) Any character who is powerful becomes important. By that I mean, any character who is powerful enough to change the outcome of a story is important to the reader. Thus a powerful villain is important, but so are resourceful protagonists, characters who act as guides to the protagonists, love interests, sidekicks, contagonists, and so on.
D) Any character who is put into extreme pain, particularly emotional pain, is probably important to the story, simply because he/she is someone that we will feel for.
E) Any character who is extremely likeable, anyone who is struggling to do the right thing, is important, for the same reason as above.
In other words, as you begin telling your story, you can use the above ideas to decide just how important a character will become and whether they are worthy of becoming viewpoint characters in your novel.
As you decide who your cast will be, remember that readers of different ages and different sexes are usually looking or different emotional payoffs. I’ve written about emotional draws before, but let me put it this way.
Statistically speaking, the strongest draw for a teenage girl is romance. More of them will be drawn to romance than, say, drama or mystery. So when creating that storyline, make sure that you target your readers by focusing on the kind of story that they want. A fifty-year-old woman reading the book may be attracted by mystery and drama, so you might want to have a viewpoint character for her who is involved in intrigue. A teenage boy will be attracted to adventure, so you make sure that his role focuses on that. A middle-grade reader will be interested in wonder, humor, and horror.
So when you’re looking at a potential viewpoint character, just ask yourself, “Is this character’s story a good fit for my needs?” If not, you either have to change the story or drop that viewpoint.
Of course, just because a character isn’t a good fit for a larger arc, that doesn’t mean that you need to drop them completely. A minor character who appears for a bit in one novel and then wanders off to live happily ever after can offer some great relief to the reader. It assures them that your series has an end, and that you can write satisfying conclusions.
Once you’ve decided who your cast will be, you as a writer need to make sure that the reader doesn’t forget who each character is. There are several ways to do that.
A) Make sure that we see the major characters often in your story. One way to do this is to keep your chapters short and have alternating viewpoints. If you go more than forty pages without visiting a character, you’ve probably ignored them for too long. So that means that if you’ve got four viewpoint characters and you’re alternating chapters, you may want to write short chapters—ten pages each.
You can also keep the characters visible by keeping them together physically. A lot of fantasy writers will have three people meet at an inn, then go off on different quests—only to meet at the end of the novel. This divides your characters, so that you lose focus. There are entire novels where this happens with Robert Jordan, for example. He may feel that he needs to spend book six in a series with two characters, then spend book seven with two others. So readers who are more interested in the book seven characters are tempted to just skip book six.
So try to keep your focus on a group of characters. Have them talk to each other, or maybe they can talk about or think about characters who aren’t on stage in a scene. Their conversation might be as simple as, “Have you heard anything from Alex lately?” just to remind us that we have an Alex storyline. The protagonist might respond, “Yeah, I saw him take a shotgun and head down Washington Street at sunset. Says he’s gonna’ bag himself a couple of zombies.” If you’re writing a contemporary piece, you can remind us of a character who falls out of the limelight by having your character text another, read about them on Facebook, and so on.
B) One way to make a character memorable is to tag each of your characters. By this I mean, you can give each person a distinguishing feature—such as a limp, a red trench coat, or an unusual accent—so that when you bring that person into the story, the reader can quickly identify him or her. When Alex comes limping back from his zombie hunt, a protagonist might have to listen closely to try to determine if that’s Alex’s limp, or just another cramped-up zombie.
C) Make sure that each of your protagonists has a gripping story—a complete arc, with his or her own problems and setbacks and grand designs. In order for your story to be memorable, it has to keep the reader intrigued, keep the reader hooked, so that the reader will be excited each time they come to a new segment. Remember that a gripping romance is much different from a gripping adventure or a fascinating mystery. You can have different types of stories woven together into one large tapestry.
D) Last of all, make sure that you start each scene and end each scene with powerful hooks. When your reader gets to the end of a scene and wonders, “Oh my gosh, how will Alex ever escape the zombies!” The threat needs to be strong enough so that the reader will look forward to it while he reads the following chapter about how Zina has fallen for the incredibly charming zombie lord, and you’ll want to keep them reading during the following chapter as Doctor Paulsen tries to determine just what kind of virus it is that has infected mankind and turned them all into zombies in the first place, even as her own daughter sinks further and further under the grip of the plague.
In short, there are some great reasons to write those big sprawling epic novels that weave together the stories of dozens of characters, but you as an author have to work hard to keep your cast manageable, to hook your readers with each of the tales, and to make your characters memorable.