One of the first responses I usually get when I tell people that the cast of my WIP has over 30 characters is “wow!” quickly followed by “I don’t know how you keep track of them all.” As I’ve been outlining and, thus, juggling said characters and their roles/arcs, I’ve been thinking a lot about the best ways to handle such a large cast, especially since I haven’t seen many examples. Most stories don’t, won’t, can’t, and shouldn’t have so many characters—they aren’t meant to deal with so many people and, more importantly, would be weakened by having a larger cast. I’ve only come to have such large casts in my novels because I write family sagas, which don’t necessitate having dozens of characters but certainly lend to having a larger-than-average cast. Nevertheless, even if your cast is 10 or 15 characters, that’s still a lot of people to keep track of as the story progresses and it can be overwhelming. So how does someone go about handling a larger cast? There are 7 things that have helped me not only keep track of my multitude of characters but also make them all into compelling, important members of the story.
1 – Make Them Distinct
This may seem obvious, but in practice it’s very difficult at first to make a larger cast of characters distinct from one another. It’s hard enough to make small cast distinct! That’s because character development is a lengthy process and our brains are generally lazy—meaning we’ll return to similar personalities, aesthetics, tropes, backstories, and scenarios when someone new joins our story. Soon enough, everyone will be missing a parent, dressing in sepia academia clothing, and being called different variations of the same name (I joke, but, you get the idea). So if you happen to have a large cast—one that may overwhelm you or a reader— take extra care that each character looks, acts, and speaks in a unique way when they show up on the page. Try to make each character’s name distinct from one another and add variety to the cast by including different age groups, professions, interests, appearances, styles, childhoods, and cultural backgrounds (even if your story takes place in a small area). Go back to your original ideas and see if character’s personalities or backstories overlap too much, and if they do, tweak them to add nuance. Each of these little steps will help you make each member of your cast into their own person.
2 – Understand Their Roles
No matter how large a cast you have, it’s important to ask the purpose they serve in a story—especially if they play a larger part in story events and aren’t just the barista at a local coffee shop. This adds clarity for you, as the author, to know how to include each character in a meaningful way. By roles, I don’t mean tropes, although it may work for your individual story or writing style to think of them that way. Rather, ask questions like: how does this character advance the story forward? What do they add to the story that no other character adds? What is their purpose in relation to the protagonist or the antagonist? What does their presence reveal about the storyworld? If you don’t have a clear idea why a character is useful to your story, do some development and tweaks until you develop a clear idea. Then, once your entire cast has clear purposes, you’ll be able to weave their individual stories together in a way that makes sense and adds depth to the story as a whole.
3 – Create Connections (But Not Too Many)
A huge part of making a large cast work is creating connections between them: family ties, friendships (both positive and negative), working relationships, rivalries going generations back, accidents, joining the same organization, going on the same quest. Often, having a variety of types and levels of connection make the story most interesting and most realistic, but only having a common goal or event that brings a cast together can also work as long as it’s significant enough to form bonds. However, too many connections can veer into seeming contrived or convenient—think of all the times where a story reveals the villain is the protagonist’s parents but it’s only to try to make the conflict more potent, not because there’s any significant reason for them to be family beyond the drama. Try to strike a balance between having enough ties to bind a cast together without tangling them up in a million strings; unless you do want to write a family saga or a story with family saga elements, try to avoid all characters being related to one another. To use another metaphor, use enough eggs in the story batter to keep it together, but don’t add so many that it turns into a quiche.
4 – Stay Organized
Keeping story elements organized is a good idea for any type of writing project, but it’s especially important for stories that take on a larger scope. That’s why I’m a huge proponent of keeping some sort of organized lists, boards, or folders full of character information that you can reference as you’re developing and eventually writing them. Personally, I like to make spreadsheets to keep basic character information like name, appearance, age, MBTI type, and Enneagram types in an easy-to-access location and also develop character boards using Pinterest to help me keep my cast organized, but there are tons of other options. The point is less about how you keep your cast organized and more about actually keeping them organized. Even if you’ve had your characters for years, you’ll still probably forget their full names, heights, or eye color at some point or another—and the more characters you have, the more trouble you’ll have. Organization can spare a lot of confusion and double as a character development tool. It’s a win-win.
5 – Prune, If Necessary
Do huge lists of characters make me giddy? Yes. Does that mean I should never remove characters who no longer are necessary to my WIP? No. Removing characters from a story—especially if they’ve been included for a long time—is never fun, but when you have an already large cast, it’s even more important to be honest and take inventory of if you really need all of the characters to be included. “Need” doesn’t have to mean bare-bones necessity—you can keep a side character who doesn’t directly aid the protagonist but reveals important information about the storyworld, for instance, and you can even include a few stray side characters that are there just because you like the dynamic they bring if it comes down to it. But sometimes, as you assess character roles, their purposes will shift or characters will merge together into a new character; sometimes, characters are simply obsolete. Don’t be afraid to prune them. I’ve had to prune my casts too many times to count, and it’s always so much better for me and for the story once I do. A story will suffer if you try to force too many characters in where they don’t belong and don’t work; it’s much better for you to suffer a little now than suffer the full consequences of a bloated story a few months or years down the line.
6 – Introduce Them Strategically
This piece of advice is for the prose-creating portion of the story: introduce each character strategically. Most story advice follows this principle anyway—you make sure your hero shows up in the first chapter, you introduce important characters sooner than others, you foreshadow the villain, etc. With a large cast, though, it’s not just that you need to introduce important characters quickly or save suspense for the villain—you need to make sure not to overload your reader with 5 new people showing up in a new scene. There’s no hard rule to follow when it comes to just how many people you can introduce at once, but it’s a good idea to a) stagger new characters who show up in the same scene or in back-to-back scenes and b) make sure that most scenes—especially during the beginning parts of a story—do not try to juggle 10+ important characters at once. For instance, let’s say your story is a family saga (yay) and your protagonist has 10 siblings who all play important roles. First, you should do your best not to introduce all 10 of them at once, and certainly not in the first chapter. Give each of them a place and time to make a fitting entrance. Second, write scenes where one, two, maybe even three/four of the siblings interact with the protagonist at one time, but try not to have all 10 of them vying for attention in every scene once you introduce them. Mix up the combinations of when and how they appear, not just to add interest but to avoid over-crowding. Some good examples of this are Murder on the Orient Express (individual chapters to interview each of the passengers, small scenes with interactions between one or two of them) and Lord of the Rings.
7 – Give Yourself Time
This is probably the most important piece of advice on the list. Character development takes time; developing a lot of characters takes a lot of time. When I mention that I have 30+ characters in a story, I did not decide on that number one day and start developing all of them at the same time. The cast grew slowly and organically—at first, I had around 7 or 8, then 15, and only when it became apparent that other people were also important to the main themes and plot did I allow more and more characters to take up more space in the story. If you do decide you want to write a grand family saga and know you want a really large cast, realize that it will take you years—yes, years—to cultivate a strong cast of that size. And if you’re writing a story with a cast that keeps growing, don’t panic! You don’t have to figure out how to make all of them distinct and useful and interesting all at once. Take your time, be thoughtful, and enjoy the process. The same goes for anyone who only has two or three characters. The process of character development is long and often frustrating, but with patience it can be rewarding, surprising, and joy-bringing.