Over the last year I’ve done a large number of posts on character archetypes; you can read some of those posts here. I write these posts because I’m obsessed with creating groups of coordinating and contrasting characters. Some of my favorite books, TV shows and movies combine characters to create an interconnected web of personalities. The best examples do this casting so seamlessly that I can’t imagine detaching even a minor character without feeling like I’m losing something special.
In my opinion too many books are overly fixated on the main character; the author didn’t spend enough time creating the villains, the mentor and the sidekicks. In great books smaller characters stand out too. I think many authors fail to create more complicated ensemble casts for two main reasons:
- The author fell in love with the main character and they intentionally allowed them to overshadow the book. Of course there are some fantastic books with only one (or two) main characters, but following this template is actually harder in my opinion. Also, unless that one character has some major nonhuman antagonist to battle, you’re not going to maintain much story tension with only one character.
- The author sticks with a small cast because they don’t know how to create character chemistry and/or didn’t understand the value of creating strong secondary characters.
So if the first one is your book, I wish you all the best of luck with that approach. But if the second one is your situation here are 4 steps to help you create a great book cast.
Step 1. Study Ensembles:
Start watching TV shows and movies that feature a large number of leading characters. Make notes about how those relationships function. Don’t look at just one or two characters, study at least the top six or seven characters. Also pull out some minor but reoccurring characters and look at how the writer makes these roles special.
Now apply the same criteria to your own book. Create a map showing how each of your characters really feels about the others. What is each character’s emotional investment? Are they friendly, loyal, jealous or perhaps totally neutral? Too many neutral characters are a sure sign of problems within your group. I have a whole post on mapping character relationships, if you want to read more on that subject you can here.
Step 2. Recast as Necessary:
Now that you know how your characters feel about each other, fill in the holes. Every character should be a fully formed character. Establish emotional relationships, and social ones. Some characters should be leaders, others should be followers. Some should be loners, some joiners. Create a logical social hierarchy, and set every character in it. Create characters with unique goals and independent ideas about how best to achieve those goals. There is no point in adding new characters if you’re not crafting ones with distinctive roles and meaningful connections to other characters.
Step 3. Make The Most of Emotions:
In life no one likes everyone all the time. Give your group some friction between the characters, even between the cooperating ones. It helps if every character has some positive and negative traits. Change your relationships over time. Make sure some characters warm up to each other, while others cool down. Give your characters opportunities to fight as well as fall in love. Let them become disillusioned with a goal and disappointed in themselves or others. In other words, build emotional complexity. It’s a snooze when everyone responds to events in the same way.
Step 4. Fight The Fear of Writing Big Groups:
Many writing craft books say new writers should keep their cast small so they don’t create reader confusion. Reader confusion comes from too many similar characters, not from too many characters. By my count there are 53 reoccurring characters in the first Harry Potter book alone. They range from very minor, like the cat, Mrs. Norris, to more significant, Mrs. Weasley, all the way to the big three, Harry, Ron and Hermione. And I have yet to hear of a kid complain they have reader confusion. Have you?
Step 5. Make Every Character Count:
Minor characters can become memorable with a few carefully chosen lines. Also the names and roles of lesser characters should be frequently rewoven into the narrative even when the character is not in the scene. Think about how many times the professors of Hogwarts are talked about vs. how many times they actually interact with Harry. Understanding how to keep minor characters alive in the mind of the reader is an incredibly valuable technique for all series writers.
Remember any writer can flesh out the pages with lots of bodies, but it takes a great writer to make the pages pulse with crowds of people. Epic writers often excel at big casts, but you will find large casts in many popular books, and books with fascinating minor characters who become just as significant to readers as their protagonist partners. Regardless of what kind of book you write, creating an interesting supporting cast might be the missing ingredient in your recipe for literary success.
Check out some relationship charts from popular shows.