Artwork from my amazing girlbro Lauren, a Christmas gift that made me cry many happy tears
Watching your writing style, abilities, and preferences change is a fascinating thing. As with art, I have to step back and compare a novel from a year ago to a novel I’m writing now to see where things have changed. Editing is an arduous process, and my least favorite part of the journey from writer to author. I’ve done it once before, but I had help. This time I have a commentary by a friend and my own wits, as well as actual rules (not guidelines, rules) regarding how it should be done. After all, this book will soon leave my hands and enter the wide, wide world of proofreading, formatting, and publishing, and it needs to be ready. I wrote Paper Crowns three years ago, and I wrote it in a month. You have to understand that I don’t usually write novels in a month unless it’s NaNo/JuNoWriMo. In fact, I never do – although the sequel, Paper Hearts, was also written in a short time.
Coming back through it, one thing in particular has stood out to me –
The cast is extremely small, featuring Ginger, Halcyon, Salazar, Astryn, Azrael, and Maven. Side characters include Malgarel, Asterope, Badger, Cernunnos, and Bob the bookstore cashier. Out of this cast, only three are female. It’s a small cast to begin with, and the ratio of male to female is strangely unbalanced. While there’s nothing I can do about it now – this is the story, take it or leave it – I had not yet learned how to juggle large, colorful casts. I also hadn’t learned how to write more than two interesting female characters per novel.
Today, most of my casts are huge, with one or two ‘focal’ characters, ten+ main characters, and a plethora of minor characters who have their own roles to play. While I prefer writing male characters to female characters, I’ve learned to keep my female characters three-dimensional, interesting, and necessary. (And I love them.)
The Dying of the Light dramatis persona
- Saizou (focal character)
- Shi (focal character #2)
- Haka (Shinsengumi Commander)
- Kirikizu (The Prince-Regent’s assassin)
- Tsuki (undercover rebel + Saizou’s childhood sweetheart)
- Kiba (Tsuki’s lifelong bodyguard)
- Shotgun (outlaw)
- Winter (mercenary-turned-religious warrior)
- Oscar Sleimann (scientist)
- Hiro (Tokyo Yakuza)
- Riza (hacker mastermind + rebel)
- Honey (bar-owner + rebel sympathizer)
- Kai (cyborg + rebel sympathizer)
- Matahachi (redeemable antagonist)
- Otter (Shinsengumi beast-tamer)
- Alucard (bioengineered angel of death + tiny son)
- Virgo (bounty hunter)
- Shimo (bounty hunter)
- The Prince-Regent (villain)
- The Dog (The Prince-Regent’s feral ‘pet’)
- Yuu (yakuza, minor character)
- Kido (yakuza, minor character)
- Yamaga (guard, minor character)
- Matsu (guard, minor character)
- Lt. Takuan (Shinsengumi Lieutenant + Haka’s babysitter)
Each of these twenty-five characters ties into the others, their stories inseparably interwoven, and it remains necessary to keep attention on each of them. I first experimented with a large cast in Dark is the Night, and it worked out so well I decided I loved it. I wanted to keep on writing large casts, because there’s endless fodder, endless connections, and endless potential. Balancing a cast this large without it becoming unwieldy isn’t easy, and comes with a large set of potential ways to flub it up.
There are several tricks I’ve learned for keeping a large cast manageable.
KEEP THEIR NAMES FROM SOUNDING TOO SIMILAR
You don’t want a cast where five of the characters are named John, Josh, Jerry, Jules, and Jane. You need to shake it up and give each name a distinct sound so they don’t end up shuffled together in the mind of the reader.
MAKE SURE EACH CHARACTER IS ACTUALLY NECESSARY TO THE PLOT
Sometimes I’ll get a great idea for a character, but when I move to place said character in a novel, I’ll realize they don’t belong. I’ll keep the character in my mind and place them in another novel when the time is right, but if you have a large cast, don’t clutter it unnecessarily with characters who do nothing to continue the plot and keep the story moving.
MINOR CHARACTERS ARE PEOPLE, TOO
I have a huge thing for minor characters. They’re underappreciated, underrated, and frequently cardboard cutouts stuck in a story so it feels less empty. Give minor characters quirks, identifiable signs that help them stand out. You want everything to be interesting, not just the main characters. If you can write a minor character that makes people go I wish I knew their story, you’ve done an excellent job.
ALLOW EACH CHARACTER TO STAND OUT IN THEIR OWN WAY
This novel is a futuristic Samurai version of Robin Hood, so obviously it already had a basic casting blueprint. We have Saizou (Robin Hood), who basically just wants everything to be all right. (It isn’t.) We have Shi (Much) whose face was destroyed in the war, and he now wears a mask to cover his disfigurement. He didn’t sign up for this. We have Tsuki (Maid Marian) who was given to Matahachi (Guy of Gisbourne) as a ‘housewarming gift’ from the Prince-Regent (Prince John), but at night Tsuki goes into the city to gamble money away from thugs and spread it throughout the daimyo. You want each character’s role to be not only necessary, but interesting to keep up with.
You don’t want to write a character the readers aren’t interested in. You don’t want to write that character that readers skip over because they want to ‘get back to the interesting part.’
SWITCH UP THE FOCUS REGULARLY
Some chapters will focus completely on Saizou, and some chapters I’ll split between Virgo and Shimo, Saizou, Tsuki and Kiba, Kirikizu and Haka, etc. Personally, I think it’s a mistake to change POV when you’re juggling a cast like this. I wouldn’t write Saizou in third person and then write Riza in deep first person. That just adds to confusion. When writing a cast this large, keep it simple and stick to one point of view.
What are your thoughts on handling large casts?