“It is perfectly okay to write garbage—as long as you edit brilliantly.”
– C. J. Cherryh

2 Ways to Manage a Large Cast of Characters in Your Novel

On the recommendation of a coworker, I started reading Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy. The books are apparently known for Follett’s meticulous historical research, but when I first opened Fall of Giants, I was wondering why no one had warned me about the seven-page list of characters.

Seven. Pages. Of character names.

Cast of Characters

Not only were there fictional characters on this list, but there were also historical figures who played  some role in the story. I almost put the book down before even getting started.

Fortunately, I didn’t, and I’m now about 100 pages in, and still able to keep track of all the characters who have been introduced, even though the story has already covered three different families and geographic locations.

Follett isn’t the first author to load on the characters; J. K. Rowling’s made a habit of writing huge ensemble casts in her books, and Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 dedicates a chapter to every named character, with only four repeats, not to mention all the characters who don’t have names. War and Peace has a staggering 580 characters, if Wikipedia is to be believed.

So if you plan on writing the next Lord of the Rings trilogy, how do you write a cast of characters that won’t overwhelm the reader?

How to Keep Your Characters Straight

Here are two points to keep in mind if you’re tackling this venture.

1. Don’t introduce everyone at once.

Have you ever been to a party where you only knew the host? If you are introduced to more than a couple people at a time, it’s fair to say that you’re not going to remember their names.

In real life, you at least have the benefit of being able to recognize faces. In literature, that luxury doesn’t exist.

If you slowly introduce your key characters, and flesh them out in their own personal characterization bubble, they become more memorable, and once you start getting to know one or two of them at a time, it’ll be easier to remember them further into the story when new characters are being introduced.

2. Make your reader care about your characters.

If you give your readers a reason to care about the people populating your story, they’ll remember them.

Remember that caring about the character is not necessarily the same as liking the character. Villains aren’t usually the most likable characters, but they are often the most memorable because they serve a very specific role in the story. Purpose makes a character more memorable, so make sure you give your characters purpose in their appearances.

What about you? How do you manage your list of characters?

PRACTICE

Write a scene introducing one of your main characters in the context of being surrounded by other important characters. After fifteen minutes, post your practice in the comments, and leave notes for your fellow writers.

About Liz Bureman

Liz Bureman has a more-than-healthy interest in proper grammatical structure, accurate spelling, and the underappreciated semicolon. When she's not diagramming sentences and reading blogs about how terribly written the Twilight series is, she edits for the Write Practice, causes trouble in Denver, and plays guitar very slowly and poorly. You can follow her on Twitter (@epbure), where she tweets more about music of the mid-90s than writing.

  • 3. Interrelations

    The more your characters are tied to each other, the more easily identifiable and memorable they become. I try to tie many characters to the main characters.

    • Katie Hamer

      I agree. This is also very true to life. It’s the connections we make between people i.e. it they’re coworkers, siblings, neighbours etc that make them memorable. It’s difficult to remember people in isolation.
      Whereas the main characters would be known for their actions, the minor characters would be known for their reactions, and their connection to the main characters.

  • EW Greenlee

    My sister said this reminded her of the mythological trilogy I wrote with a large cast of characters. I purposely mentioned a few characters in the beginning of book one only to be revealed at the end of the third book. I embedded numerous clues that flash readers never caught. Then my readers wanted more stories on them so now I have sixteen more planned. The fourth is completed and to be released this September and the fifth around 40K words in process.

  • Christine

    The children spent Saturday wandering around in a daze. They walked the dusty street – there was only one– and stopped in front of the few houses. They exchanged shy smiles and sometimes words with the locals, but mostly they just drifted, lost in vast emptiness. Tilley, the family servant, followed them around wondering if she’d ever get used to it.

    The next day folks from town and the few homesteads around gathered at the little town hall that served as church on Sundays. Someone told Tilley an itinerant preacher would be speaking. Mistress, being High Church back in England, sniffed at the rustic service. Master seemed distracted, his mind likely full of this new farming venture he was about to undertake. Tilley appreciated the simple message. The children sat politely.

    A few times she glanced around and saw several young men looking in her direction right then. Was she such an oddity? Was it because she was a servant? Well, they needn’t think she was so inferior. She sat up straighter and turned back to the Minister, careful after that to keep her eyes on the speaker.

    After church quite a few folks gathered at one home for what they called a “carry in dinner.” Every family brought food and set it out on the table, then folks all took plates and helped themselves. Quite a few young men – and even some older ones, nodded to Tilley and spoke in a friendly way. Evidently she’d misjudged them.

    “I’m glad to see you have proper china, Mrs. Nethercott,” Mistress said politely. “But why are there so many more men here than women?”

    “Bachelors. They always come in for Sunday service. Poor fellows keep themselves company and do their own cooking all week. They’re only too happy to get away for a decent meal and an afternoon of visiting on Sunday. Especially when they hear there’s a young…er… newcomers.” Mrs. Nethercott smiled.

    As plates were filled the crowd divided, the men seating themselves in the living room to visit amongst themselves while the ladies spread themselves around in the kitchen and dining room. Tilley listened and enjoyed the friendly chatter among the ladies until one of the local women asked Mistress if she’d done any cooking in England.

    Mistress stiffened. “I had servants,” she replied rather crisply.

    Mrs Turner asked her in a kind tone how she thought she would manage on a homestead cookstove. Mistress told the group firmly, “I shan’t have to worry about that. Tilley here is an excellent cook.”

    The women fell silent. “Shhhh,” Mrs. Dobson whispered to Mistress. “Don’t broadcast that in this crowd.” Quite a few ladies smiled and exchanged arched glances, then looked toward the living room. Tilley couldn’t help but notice conversation among the men had ceased, too.

    She glanced toward the group of men and saw a dozen pair of eyes looking back at her, full of a hungry longing such as starving street waifs might display as they eyed a fresh loaf of bread. Her face turned red as a cherry.

    (I’ll use this in my ‘someday’ book, “The Journey of Tilley Crawford”)

  • winnie

    Thank you for showing us this method of trickling many characters onto a scene. I’ve always admired writers who can handle a large cast, especially when it comes to dialogue.
    Here is my totally off the cuff effort.

    Matt stepped out of the car and onto the red carpet, ignoring the stares from the hushed crowd. They were waiting for someone else, but, what the heck, it wasn’t every day he was given such a welcome. A little girl stepped forward, curtsied awkwardly, and handed him a posy of carnations. “Welcome to Little Falls,” she lisped, stumbling over the words.
    “Why, thank you.” Matt planted a kiss on her forehead.
    “I know you’re not the official guest,” a lissome young lady sheathed in a body-hugging dress sashayed forward and took his arm. “But let’s get you out of the way first.”
    “Well if it isn’t Liza.” He followed her into the hall festooned with state flags along the walls.
    “Make yourself at home while I wait.” She started walking back to the welcoming party outside.
    As he sat down on a folding chair set against the wall he became aware of Liza standing next to him.
    “Are you my daddy?”
    “No dear. He’s still on his way.”
    “Mommy says you’re my real daddy.”
    Just then a short matronly woman limped up to them.
    “Hi Mavis. Didn’t expect to see you here.”
    Her smile showed a set of snow-white dentures. “Well, I am the mayor, you know. Don’t tell anyone but it was me that slipped you in before it started.”
    Matt shrugged. So his driving right up to the red carpet had spoilt the surprise. He expected to be strong-armed out of the meeting any minute.
    “Just keep your head down,” she suggested. “And you, young lady,” she put a hand on Liza, you’ll wait outside with the rest of us.”
    “Here, you’ll need this.” Matt handed the posy back
    As he sat fiddling with his watch a young man, his face scarred by acne, walked up to him. “Anything from the bar, sir?”
    “Ginger ale for me, and two cokes for my wife and kid outside.” He should have said step-child, but Liza had already corrected him.

    • Winnie

      Sorry for mixing up the characters. It’s the little girl who came and stood next to him.

  • Jon

    This is my first go at anything like this so took me more than 15 minutes but here goes:

    Sam Goode sat down in the only empty seat at the small, round poker table in the back room of the bar, known locally as The Moon – the blue, neon sign out front flashed ‘Th Moon Ov r Th Wate ‘. Sat opposite was Eddie Mack, notorious criminal – a man Sam previously knew by name and reputation only. He was older than Sam had imagined, and smaller too. But he had a look of calm anger etched in his rough, round face that told you he was as dangerous as his reputation warned. You didn’t introduce yourself to Eddie unless you had too, and if you were lucky he wouldn’t remember you when you parted ways. No such luck for Sam.

    Also at the table were Jimmy Arthur, otherwise known as “Irish Jim”, and “Knockoff Tony” Thompson – two men Sam knew to be associates of Mr Mack. Jimmy was connected to the local travelling community and Sam thought he certainly looked like it, with his curly blond hair slightly longer at the back. Not so much a mullet but certainly out of fashion. His hands and neck were adorned with gold jewellery, large sovereign rings covering his huge, tattooed knuckles.

    Tony was more familiar to Sam. Being a ‘stolen goods connoisseur’, if you sat in any bar in the Eastside for long enough you were sure to see Knockoff Tony make an appearance, peddling his stock. He was as scruffy in his appearance as he was chubby, and as usual had dried up sauce down the front of his beige overcoat – no doubt from his daily diet of doner kebabs. His hair was a greasy mop and Sam could tell from the small glances Eddie made in the slob’s direction that Tony’s lack of personal hygiene disgusted him. Despite being a criminal gang leader and suspected murderer, Eddie Mack was a sophisticated man, always dressed in expensive, tailored suits. If it wasn’t for the high-end good’s deals Tony brought Eddie’s way, he would happily make the dirty bastard disappear.

    The man in the fifth and final seat, and sat to Sam’s right, was unknown. He held out a hand as Sam adjusted his seat and, when comfortable, Sam took it. ‘Michael Hale’, he said with an accent that suggested southern but not London. ‘Call me Mike’. Sam knew Mike was lying, but couldn’t ‘read’ his real name. Eddie didn’t know it either and Sam knew he was suspicious of the newcomer – as he was of Sam, whom he’d only met a few hours previous.

    ‘Sam Goode. Call me Sam’. Sam was nervous given the company, but he tried not to let it show in his voice. The man who called himself Mike smiled and looked back to Eddie, who had begun shuffling a deck of cards. Eddie looked up as a door opened, the same door Sam had just come through, but continued shuffling like a professional. Sam looked over his shoulder and saw the black man-mountain that was “Eight-Ball Nick” Anders walk in the room. Dressed in a black suit with black shirt and tie, and skin to match, he was like a walking shadow. But he moved with a grace that belied his six foot and six inches frame. Most people thought the big man’s nickname was because of his colour, but Sam knew it was because he had once killed a man by caving his head in with the black ball from a pool table. Sam knew this because Irish Jim knew.

    Nick Anders was the right-hand man of Eddie Mack, and was the one Sam
    had approached to see about a card game. Sam watched him take a seat in the
    corner of the room where he almost disappeared in the dim light, then turned
    his attention back to the table.

    Eddie stopped shuffling the cards. ‘Let us begin’.

  • Helen Maryles Shankman

    Thank you, what a great, useful post!

    I also do this–I try to give each character a quirk, and then I try to use the quirk whenever the character appears again in the novel. (Borrowed from Charles Dickens.)

    • Winnie

      It’s always worth while going back to the classics, isn’t it? After all they set the benchmarks for which we’re striving.

  • SBibb

    Thanks for the post, very useful. The manuscripts I’m working on have quite a few characters, and as I’ve worked through the edits, I’m finding that the “specific purpose” thing does seem to help, as well as what one of the other commenters mentioned about the relations between characters.

  • Bob DeSpy former Spycacher

    While on track to become a “writer”, and daily learning something new, I approached the large-cast-problem in a 3rd way. In the novel I am writing, apart of the fact that the main character uses several names during his lifetime, I had the need to introduce quite a large cast, both villains and heroes, even inbetweeners, which additionally are emerging in different times of his life with different names. As expected, soon into the novel, I struggled with the names, the space in time, their attributes, relations, the places they emerged and so on. It was a nightmare to find the spot in the novel where I introduced them, or even, some time, to remember whom he was. May be, because I have an engineering background, the sense of the systemic organisation kicked in, and I created an Excel sheet that, apart of allowing me to jump to different scenes and chapters in the novel by pinning key words or small summaries, I created sheets containing the characters names, their characteristic, — body, head, hair, mouth, nose,… — the time, circumstances and place they met as well as, how he/she is relevant to the main character. Since then, every time I introduce a new character to a scene, I start by giving a name on the sheet, if he gets one, or otherwise he becomes a description to which I add ore as needed during the development of the role or the novel. It also allows me to have markers that I can rapidly locate if I have a new idea that can be added to certain scenery. If I wanted to, I could automatize it by adding links from Excel to Word, which by a click, automatically position m, the cursor, in the correct line, chapter and/or phrase or even word. This, though, requires time; I want to write not play and, most importantly, it helps all right as it is now. Maybe another day.

    • Interesting solution, Bob. Hopefully, your readers won’t need a spread sheet to read your novel!

  • Bob DeSpy former Spycacher

    Mario DeRobér was not always his name; it was one of many he had. Gary, Daniel, Dumas, Bob and so many others he had, were given to him, or he used them as cover on his line of work. All he knew then was that at the time they called him Ghareeb: the foreigner. There were some flashes of memories of a former life, but he couldn’t tell if they were part of a reality, or were dreams, or his mind was invoking fantasies to give him a sense of belonging. He surely couldn’t remember anything before the day he arrived there, far less his real name. In contrast to the native’s darker skin and jet-black, curly hair, he was of fair skin with arms and face tanned from the constant sun, and light-brown, wavy hair. Of thin constitution, but with strong muscles – cultivated by the hard work – his young body was somewhat higher than those of his age, which of course was an advantage for him. He was certainly not the type who likes to be in the shadows. He enjoyed action. He walked upright; with pride, even in difficult times. Also, his walking had a frivolous sway that increased over time. He must have been in his early adolescence as some sparse, fine chest-hairs and a speck in the pubic area insinuated. Some other exciting changes were happening too.

  • Gabbi B

    I think those two tips are great and interestingly enough, they often seem to go hand in hand. After all, readers care about memorable characters…but characters can’t be memorable if they’re introduced to the readers as one in a cast of twenty others!

    http://creaology.blogspot.com/

  • disqus_OICPdFd7Bd

    Thanks a lot!
    I found this piece real helpful. Cool!
    I wanted to do something wierd like write books with 1000 characters…thanks so much!!!
    God loves you!
    Jesus bless you.
    Have a good life!

  • One of the simplest and most obvious things to do is try not to give characters names that are similar. I try not to even let two of my characters start with the same letter, if I can help it. In a very large cast, that might be hard to achieve, but then you can aim to separate the characters with same-letter names as much as possible – one male, one female; one young, one old; one involved in the Sydney part of the story, the other in the Istanbul chapters; etc. I try to vary the number of syllables in characters’ names, and the endings of names (e.g. make sure I don’t have several female characters whose names end in “a”, for example). The overall aim is to make every character, and his or her name, quite distinct and distinctive.