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09.01.2015 02:55    Comments: 0    Categories: Writing Characters      Tags: craft  large casts  characters  randy ingermanson  

Most novels have a few primary characters, a larger number of secondary characters, and then some walk-on characters.

 

A typical novel might have between 1 and 5 viewpoint characters. It might have another 5 to 10 characters whom the reader knows reasonably well. There might be another dozen or more walk-on characters that the reader won’t remember.

 

But what if you’re writing a monster novel with a huge cast? What if you’ve got 10 or more viewpoint characters, dozens of secondary characters, and hundreds of walk-on characters?

 

How do you keep your reader from getting lost?

 

This is not hard to do, if you follow a few simple principles for managing your cast of characters.

 

I’ve recently been reading Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy, which covers the years from 1911 to 1989 and has several generations of central characters in five main families, one each from Wales, England, Germany, Russia, and the US. Follett also takes the reader on excursions to Siberia, France, Spain, and elsewhere. Every location has numerous supporting characters.

 

This is a huge project spanning about 2600 pages, and the cast is enormous.

 

How does Follett keep his reader from getting hopelessly lost?

 

Let’s look at the beginning of Book 1, because it illustrates the main principles he uses to manage his cast.

 

The story begins with Billy Williams on his 13th birthday—the day he is to begin work in a coal mine in the grimy Welsh mining town of Aberowen (a fictitious town based on the one Follett grew up in).

 

Billy is woken up by his father, and then for the next several pages, we see him getting out of bed and going through his early-morning routine. We see his room and his house.

 

Next, Billy spends several pages having breakfast with his parents and grandfather. We learn that Billy is terrified of going down the pit into the coal mine. His older brother was killed there years ago in an accident. We also learn that Billy’s family is extremely political and religious—his father is a leader in both the local labor union and the local Bethesda Chapel.

 

Follett introduces roughly one new character per page for the entire first chapter—a long chapter of about 22 pages. By the end of this chapter, Billy has faced down his fears and we know him well. We know that he is honest and brave. We know a number of his family and friends and we know that the mining company is corrupt.

 

In this chapter, Follett has given us a foothold in the story world. He’s shown us one small town in Wales and one family. If this were a normal-length novel, he’d stay with this town and this family and focus on them for the rest of the story.

 

But Follett wants to show us two world wars, three assassinations, a Cold War, and many of the other important events of the 20th century, so he can’t stay with the Williams family much longer. Now that we’ve met them, he can move on, but he doesn’t go far.

 

In the next chapter, Follett takes us a mile up the road to the enormous country house of Earl Fitzherbert, the wealthy man who leases land to the coal mining company.

 

Indirectly, Fitzherbert is responsible for the misery of the Williams family, but he doesn’t know this. He thinks of himself as a decent person who only wants things to continue as they are—the status quo has been pretty good for him. The problem is that massive change is on the horizon. It’s 1914, and Europe is about to explode into war. Fitz sits in the House of Lords, so he has his finger on the pulse of international politics.

 

In the next few pages, we meet Fitz’s sister Maud and his Russian wife Bea and some of the servants.

 

Fitz has an immediate problem—King George is coming for a weekend visit and his housekeeper is too sick to plan the event. Luckily, there’s a spunky housemaid, Ethel Williams, who has been working with the housekeeper. Ethel steps up to handle the planning.

 

Fitz is soon impressed by Ethel. She’s only about twenty, but she’s spunky and smart and beautiful. Over the course of a dozen pages or so, they plan the King’s visit. By the end, Fitz is attracted to Ethel and begins thinking thoughts he has no right to think.

 

Ethel, of course, is the older sister of Billy Williams. She’s very intelligent. Having grown up in a political family, she knows how to argue a case. She’s a religious girl, but she can’t help noticing that Earl Fitzherbert is an uncommonly attractive man.

 

So just like that, Follett has two strands of his story running. He’s got the Welsh strand with the Williams family. And he’s got the British strand with the Fitzherbert family, which lives much of the year in London.

 

Furthermore, these strands are in conflict. The working-class Williams family will never see eye-to-eye with an earl on politics or religion. And if the earl seduces a working-class girl and gets her pregnant, that’s not going to end well for anybody.

 

By the end of the long Chapter 2, we have met Earl Fitzherbert’s best friend, Walter von Ulrich, a German aristocrat who went to school with Fitz. We learn that Walter is secretly in love with Fitz’s sister, Maud. We’ve also met Walter’s cousin Robert, an Austrian aristocrat hiding the dangerous secret that he’s gay.

 

We’ve also gotten to know Fitzherbert’s wife Bea, a Russian aristocrat from St. Petersburg. And we’ve met Gus Dewar, son of a senator from New York.

 

But we still haven’t met the Russian part of the cast, a pair of working-class brothers in St. Petersburg. We’ll meet them in due time and learn that their father was executed by an aristocratic Russian who happens to be the father of Princess Bea, the wife of Earl Fitzherbert.

 

Once we’ve met the Russians, the bones of the story are in place. We’ve got five families, Welsh, English, German, American, and Russian.

 

Those five families are going to intertwine for the next 70 years. They’ll be exactly in place to see most of the great events of the century—in Parliament, in the Kaiser’s highest council, in the Kremlin, and in the White House.

 

These families are in constant conflict. Some of them are wealthy, some impoverished. They fight on opposite sides in two world wars and one Cold War. They flirt, seduce, and intermarry—usually to whoever their parents think is the worst possible choice.

 

That’s how you write a novel with a huge cast. It’s a tough job, and Follett does it about as well as it can possibly be done.

 

Let’s now look at the key principles he uses to make it work. There are only three of them:

 

Focus

 

You can only focus on one thing at a time. Follett spends lots of pages focusing on each family in turn. Each family has one or two central characters, and Follett treats each one as if he or she was the main character in the novel.

 

This is important in any novel, but in one with a huge cast, it’s critical. You’ve got to put your reader inside the skin of the viewpoint character, no matter who that is. You’ve got to keep your reader there until the scene is over.

 

Pacing

 

The reader simply can’t remember a horde of new characters if you introduce them all at once. If you bring on five new people on one page, your reader is going to get lost. You must control the pace of new character introductions.

 

Follett brings on new characters at a rate that is rarely faster than one new person per page. That’s about right if the reader is going to have any hope of keeping them straight.

 

Intertwining

 

Even with a large cast, you still can have only one viewpoint character at a time. But you can always put some of the other viewpoint characters into each scene. Follett does this relentlessly, even using wild coincidences to pack more major characters into as many scenes as possible.

 

You may worry that using coincidences will seem contrived and silly. Yes, it will to readers who don’t read this genre. But readers who like novels with large casts expect that there is going to be some contrivance to keep the same set of characters on stage.

 

No, this is not terribly realistic. Yes, it’s okay for this category. Every category has its conventions that break reality.

 

Those are the three tools you have for managing a large cast—focus, pacing, and intertwining.

 

Few authors ever attempt a thousand-page epic. But many authors write their novels in series.

 

If you’re writing a series with many characters, you can use these principles to minimize the confusion.

 

Your readers will be grateful.

 

 


About The Author

 

Randy Ingermanson is a theoretical physicist and the award-winning author of six novels. He has taught at numerous writing conferences over the years and publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, the largest electronic magazine in the world on the craft of writing fiction, with over 11000 readers.

 

Randy is best known for his "Snowflake Method" of designing a novel. The "Snowflake" page on his web site has been viewed more than 514,000 times over the years.

 

Randy believes that prepublished novelists fall into four distinct stages, Freshmen, Sophomores, Juniors, and Seniors. Each of these stages has its own unique needs. Have you been a Freshman longer than you think you should? Or are you stuck in a Sophomore slump? If you'd like to move up to that pesky "next level," check out Randy's acclaimed lecture series, Fiction 101 and Fiction 201. Don't settle for where you are! Take action today.


 
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