This has been a productive summer for me. My sister, who kindly gives all my manuscripts a final reading and critique before I send them off to be line edited, is now reading the novel I accidentally began last November. I have inadvertently started a second book featuring these characters, which, only a week ago, I had no intention of writing.
I had no intention of writing book one either, but there it is. These characters won’t let go of me, so now I’m storyboarding a new plot.
But enough about that.
Today, we’re continuing our discussion of characters and characterization. Ordinarily, I keep the ensemble narrow, limiting point of view to only one, two, or three characters at most. I keep the supporting cast limited to four or five, as that’s all I personally can keep separate and unique.
Also, I keep my stylesheet/storyboard updated whenever a large change occurs, such as a character’s name being a duplicate. Any number of evolutionary occurrences can happen in the first draft, and for the sake of continuity, the stylesheet is how I keep track of them.
What if your plot is in a setting where the events affect a large group of characters, all of whom must interact with each other? How do you keep the threads straight and generate sympathy for each of them?
First, writers absolutely must acquire and read novels written by best-selling authors and dissect their work. That’s the only way to discover what works for you as a reader and what doesn’t. You also discover what the public is buying in that genre.
I write fantasy novels, but my published short stories are a mix of sci-fi, fantasy, and contemporary women’s fiction. I read in all genres.
What I really want as a reader is a damn good story, and I don’t care about the genre.
Give me a novel that rings my bells and rattles my world. After that first reading, I will sit down and dissect that book line by line, trying to see what hooked me. I may have bought the book for the blurb and the cover, but it was the characters who sucked me into their world.
So, let’s talk about books with large casts of characters. How does one keep them separate, prevent the reader from becoming confused, and ensure the plot rolls forward at a good pace?
Several years ago, I read “Nine Perfect Strangers” by Australian author Liane Moriarty, and I talked about it on this blog. The book details the experiences of nine people booked into an exclusive Australian health spa and three staff members.
Moriarty’s characters are immediately engaging. They sucked me into their world in the opening pages. I couldn’t set the book down, as I wanted to know everyone’s dark secrets. I was hooked; I had to know what led each person to book themselves into that very unusual health spa.
By the time I reached the truly startling conclusion, I looked forward to the informational epilogues just because I didn’t want to let go of the characters.
Moriarty introduces us to the cast by opening with Yao and his experience as an EMT and introducing us to Masha as she suffers a heart attack.
Ten years later, the story picks up when nine people meet at an exceedingly remote health spa. The brochure advertising it promises to change their guests’ lives, guaranteeing a complete transformation in only ten days.
All the reviews are glowing, but none explain how such a change will be accomplished. Each guest arrives with secrets and personal reasons for wanting to be remade into something better than what they believe they are. Several chapters in, Masha is revealed as the benevolent antagonist, and Yao has become her disciple.
Structurally, the novel is a bit jerky, and the ending is a series of infodumps.
But it works.
Liane Moriarty’s characters are captivating because, at the outset, she establishes each as an individual in physical appearance, personality, history, and endows them with a mystery.
Each character is a “fish out of water.” They are thrust immediately into an unknown and possibly dangerous environment.
I had no trouble following who was who. Every character has an unmistakable surface persona, an outward personality that is different from the others, and their names are unique.
Soon after meeting them, we see glimpses of weaknesses and fears, the sorrows and guilts that drive them.
The nine guests have each signed contracts prior to arriving at the wilderness spa. When it becomes clear that the rules they have agreed to obey are iron-clad and strictly enforced, each guest becomes angry and afraid.
Yet, they are willing to continue because of what they hope to gain on a personal level.
All the characters’ stories combine and connect to make a larger, powerful story of personal transformation.
So, what did I learn from reading that novel?
I had a reaffirmation of sorts; the reassurance that no writer can follow every writing group rule and no book that does would be worth reading.
Info-dump-epilogues often follow Moriarty’s endings, but only an experienced writer or another editor would notice (as I did) or care.
This little bunny-trail habit is a trait I’ve observed in all Moriarty’s books. The lingering epilogue is her fingerprint, a style of storytelling that is immediately recognizable as hers. In some ways, the imperfections of her structure add to the flavor.
To keep our imaginary people unique, it’s crucial to reveal snippets of their character arcs with each scene. Then we must blend those secrets into the evolving plot. Moriarty is a master at this.
Her narratives are smooth and easily readable, and for me, the lingering backstory dump at the end of her novels isn’t a deal-breaker.
Every successful writer has habits that are technical wrongs, habits that don’t fly when offered to a critique group. Yet, these patterns persist in their work over their career because they are part of that author’s creative process.
I love discovering how and where a successful author commits a large technical no-no but doesn’t derail the story. It reinforces my belief that good writing and great characterization require developing a voice and style.
Most readers read for fun and are forgiving of the flaws that we who write and edit for other writers notice. Good prose, compelling storylines, and strong character arcs engage the reader and overcome most writing wrongs.
Previous posts in this series:
This post: Character Development: Managing the Large Cast of Characters
Next up: Character Development: Point of View