As writers, we’ve read and heard all about only using the exact number of characters we really need, and for a standalone novel, that’s excellent advice. But what if you like to dabble in something a little different?
It’s my blog, so I’ll volunteer myself as the example here. I’m a series writer. By nature, my books come to me in related groups. All of my novels also take place within the same universe. A whole universe–that’s a load of characters with limitless potential for crossovers and callbacks.
The tips I’m sharing are some that have helped me wrangle this massive cast. Maybe that’s not the way you write, and that’s okay! These suggestions will work for any number of characters you might have on your hands. So, let’s get started!
1) Visual Representations
Visual cues are an easy way to cement characters in your brain. If you haven’t saved any images that make you think of your characters, that’s a great place to start.
Now, I know not everyone loves spending hours scouring Pinterest for the ideal face shape or hair color or even whole person to perfectly encompass every minute detail about a character.
I’m not asking you to do that.
Chances are, though, that your character does bring forth a certain something. Maybe it’s a familiar eye color or a particular type of hat. Whatever it is, grab on to that something that makes you say, “This is Sir Jamison Crabcake,” and save that image in a place you can go back to it, if you need it (see suggestion #2 for a possible place to put it).
Pause to say: if you do like to search Pinterest with the finest tooth comb for the perfect people, that’s a great route, too–and we should probably be friends because I do that a lot. Follow me on Pinterest so we can obsess together!
Back to the point: visual representations give your brain a nice way to hang onto your characters. Now you’re not just thinking about Sir Jamison Crabcake. You’ve also got a little picture associated with him in your mind. Every time you imagine Sir Crabcake, even if you’re not aware of it, your brain will recall that image. Science!
2) Story Bible
I said I’d keep it simple, and I promise this tip can be as simple as you want it to be. Your story bible is yours and only has to fit your needs.
But here’s why it’s so important:
This is my cast of characters so far for The Black Wolf Series alone–and you can’t even see them all. I’ve blurred and cropped to protect my readers from spoilers about this series and about the next couple of casts I’m going to focus on.
It’s never too early to start planning and dropping breadcrumbs about the future–which means I’m often one step ahead of myself in terms of my writing plans. I use my story bible to track these breadcrumbs so I can look back when it’s time and say, “Oh, that’s right. Asher first showed up as an unnamed cameo in Born Wolf. I need to reference that in this next scene.”
But even if you’re never going to write about your characters again, making a place where you can keep a list of them–and any pertinent details you need to recall, like hair color or sibling names–is vital to your WIP.
If you want to go full force–and I totally recommend trying it, at least once in your life–a quick Google search will give you a ton of options, but to get you started I’d point you in the direction of K. M. Weiland, who has a great resource with 100+ questions you can go through to flesh out your story bible.
3) Talk To Your Characters
True, you might like seem like a crazy person, but that’s okay. You’re a writer, you’re already crazy.
This goes hand in hand with your story bible, but it’s not necessary to record every single conversation there–unless you think you can use the info later! I just mean keep a dialogue open with your characters. Let them run through your head as often and as freely as you can.
As communication with your characters becomes more natural, you’ll get to know them better and it will be easier to hand-pick the one you need to talk to right away.
It’s like friends in real life. You probably know at least some of the quirks and habits of the people you spend your time with. The same goes for your characters. The more time you spend with them, the faster you can answer simple things, like how they take their coffee or whether or not they’re a morning person. You’ll also know the answers to more pressing questions, though, like who else in their lives they might have a conflict with or how they respond under pressure.
All of these things differentiate one character from the next. Knowing the details about each of your characters is as helpful as knowing the names and preferences of your real life companions. It’s natural to associate certain things with certain people. Doing this with your imaginary friends rounds them out and keeps them separate in your brain.
4) Explore Their Relationships
This is a total duh since it’s a huge part of your writing process anyway. But, again, I encourage you to think of your characters as living and breathing both on and off the page. When you’re not writing about them, let them thrive in your mind.
This suggestion is a little different from the idea of talking to your characters because it’s not about your interactions with them. It’s about their interactions with others.
The relationships you observe in real life between your family or friends help you identify and characterize the people around you.
The same is true for your characters. Let’s say you know Sir Crabcake is Lady Gingersnap’s brother. Perhaps Lady Gingersnap is adored by all and laughs with others about her uptight, anxious older brother. Or maybe she and her brother are very close, so she defends him against those who don’t understand him. Or what if she’s ready to stop looking after him and plots to set him up with the exuberant Dutchess Donut Stick who has the natural ability to handle Crabcake’s neurotic ways.
All of these are great options–and knowing the relationships between your characters gives you a natural web of links from one to the next. If you don’t see a link between characters, you know to ask yourself why. Have they met? Should they meet? What would happen in either case? What conflicts or obstacles would arise out of any of these ideas?
Building that web out in your mind–or on paper, if that’s easier–will help you interconnect all your characters. This gives you a way to recall who’s who and where they all belong. It also opens you up to explore what might happen when any of them interact.
5) Free Write A Group Scene
I find this especially helpful when I’ve been away from writing particular characters for a while.
Even a weekend away from writing them can set me off my stride, giving my characters an opportunity to wander out into the universe on their own. So when I come back to them–or anytime I feel like my characters have snuck out on me–I’ll do a quick free write of a group scene.
Sometimes it’s only five minutes spent throwing chicken scratch down on notebook paper. Other times, I end up typing six pages on the computer. There’s no rule here. The only thing you’re going for is a way to bring all your characters together. That’s it.
If you have a specific setting in your WIP you’re really familiar with, try gathering everyone there. In The Black Wolf Series, the pack hangs out in the kitchen a lot because they’re constantly stuffing their faces. I set all my free written group scenes there, even if some characters would never be caught dead in that space. Hell, that can be part of the fun!
Once you’ve crammed everyone together, just let things flow and see what happens. Some folks might be in love, others might be fighting or avoiding someone. Maybe old friends are new enemies and gossiping to everyone else about each other. Whatever happens happens.
It’s not likely that any of this free writing would end up in your story–but I have gotten a few gems of dialogue or action out of these sessions, which is fun. It’s also not about writing your best work or even writing real sentences. Just bring everyone back together, on the same page.
And finally, a bonus tip: if all else fails, take a deep breath and handle it the best way you can.
I have one character I forget about all the time, even though she’s kind of a big deal in my universe. Why does she slip my mind? Simply because she can’t speak. At some point, one of my other characters will politely remind me I’m ignoring her and I find a way to bring her back into the fold.
Don’t stress. It’s all about the joy of the journey–even if you occasionally, accidentally leave one of your comrades on the back deck, sipping a cocktail alone. Your characters will forgive you. I promise.
There you have it. Five simple ways to handle a large cast of characters.
Now it’s your turn! Tell me your tips and tricks for wrangling a wild crowd of personalities. What’s worked for you? What hasn’t?
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