On Writing: Managing a Cast of Thousands

Sunday, October 30

Someday, I will write a book that does NOT have a cast of thousands. Some day. But for now, that seems to dog me with every book I write. Here then, is a trick I devised to not only help me keep track of the characters, but to help the ones that need to be memorable BE memorable.

When one’s novel is populated by hundreds of people, not every one of them can stand out, nor should they. It would be exhausting and overwhelming. Even worse, it would risk diluting those characters who truly were important. It is perfectly acceptable to have some characters in one’s novel simply be part of the backdrop, the bodies that populate the room for realism’s sake while the true drama unfolds among a select handful of your characters. For those walk-ons and stand-ins, its okay, necessary even, to use quick broad strokes, perhaps even, dare I say it—stereotypes—since their actions have no bearing on the plot.

Because their actions have no bearing on the plot.

Those words are key.

It’s essentially a matter of selecting the right tool for the right job, and complex characterization isn’t always the right tool. In pursuing some abstract concept of “good writing,” it’s easy to get so wrapped up in wanting every character to be meaningful, that we lose sight of the simple fact that it isn’t necessary. Or even desirable. Brilliant characterization for every single human being in a novel would be exhausting and would not even serve the story.

So for the His Fair Assassin books, I’m constantly juggling a cast of thousands. I need a sense of a full royal court worth of nobles, but I also need for the reader not to get swamped or bogged down by all the players. I want them to feel real enough that they add texture and richness to the story, but at the same time, I can’t allow them to swamp it, either sheer numbers or from being too vivid. And any vividness needs to serve the story overall, not threaten to run away with it.

*I* also need to not get overwhelmed by all the players.

These are more than simply walk-ons, but not true secondary characters. And there are a couple of traitors hidden in there, so they need to be on-screen enough that the readers don’t feel cheated when their identities are revealed.

So as I was staring bemusedly at the mss page, trying to decide how to make all these people stand out—for both myself and my readers—I came up with this little system.

I took a 3 x 5 index card for each character and put their name on the top: Baron Geffoy
Then I picked three characteristics for that person: jovial, opportunistic, nurses grudges.
Then I added a hidden core to that person, that was the core motivation for both his personality traits and actions. For Geffoy it was: impotent

Next I listed a handful of dominant physical features that would help me key into that character, but that would also act as tags to help anchor the reader in that character: pale read beard hides a weak chin, blue eyes watery from too many evenings spent drinking wine, barrel chested.

Last, I listed two or three mannerisms that this person used: stroking his beard, shifting eyes, rocking back on his heels

I was surprised by how much this helped me get everyone straight in my mind, and helped delineate them on the page. Especially since, at face value, many of them had similar characteristics. For example, many of them were arrogant, as nobles often are. But I learned that one of them was arrogant and dismissive, while another was arrogant and calculating, which totally informed how they interacted with others and helped me nail their speech patterns.
It also helped be sure that all the information I divulged about these characters went to building a cohesive impression.

So anyway, I thought I’d pass that trick along in case anyone else was struggling with a similar problem.

To recap…

Name:

Three Characteristics:

Hidden Core:

Dominant features:

Mannerisms:

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