Today we begin a series on character creation. A large cast of characters can be difficult to write well. We want each character to have an evolving personality. The reader wants to know them as friends, to see them to grow in a positive or negative way as the events of the story unfold.
I try to keep the ensemble narrow in my work, limiting points of view to only one, two, or three characters at most. I keep the core cast limited to four or five, as it takes a lot of effort to show more people than that as being separate and unique.
Any number of evolutionary occurrences can happen in the first draft, and the plot will often change from what was originally planned. I use a stylesheet, also known as a storyboard, to keep track of the plot and the characters.
- I update my stylesheet/storyboard whenever a significant change occurs. This avoids errors such as a character’s name being a duplicate.
So, let’s talk about books with large casts of characters. How do other authors keep large casts separate and prevent their readers from becoming confused? How do they do this and ensure the plot rolls forward at a good pace?
Several years ago, I read “Nine Perfect Strangers“ by Australian author Liane Moriarty and 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 understand what led these people to book themselves into that exceedingly unusual health spa.
- 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.
The story picks up a decade later when nine people meet at a remote Australian health spa. They’ve all been lured there by word-of-mouth and brochures that promise to transform their lives. They are guaranteed a complete transformation in only ten days, which seems impossible.
- All have deeply personal reasons for wanting their life to be changed for the better.
The characters are wary, as the reviews they have read are glowing, and so are the recommendations by their friends. But no one will explain how such a change will be accomplished.
- Each guest arrives with emotional baggage.
So—everyone steps onto the stage with reasons for being there. This sucked me in and made me like or dislike each guest from the outset. And whether I liked them or not, I wanted to know their secrets.
- Several chapters in, Masha, whom Yao rescued from a heart attack in the opening pages, is revealed as the benevolent antagonist.
- Yao has become her ardent disciple.
The pair was exceedingly mysterious. I couldn’t tell exactly what their relationship was, and it intrigued me. Was Yao her lover, her henchman, or both?
- How had Masha and Yao come to form this strange partnership? They had only met in the line of duty because of her heart attack.
- At the outset, I had to know Masha’s secret and how she had become this guru.
- I needed to know what she and Yao were up to.
This novel demonstrates that one doesn’t have to follow every literary rule to make a great, engaging narrative. Structurally, the plot is choppy, and the ending is a series of infodumps.
But it works because Moriarty establishes each character as an individual at the outset. Each one is infinitely relatable, and their personal stories are layered into the plot-arc, forming an onion-like narrative. I had to read, had to keep peeling that onion, eager to get to the core.
- She gives them each a vivid personality, a physical appearance that is only theirs, and a unique history.
- Each guest embodies a mystery that unfolds as the plot progresses.
The guests are immediately thrust into an unknown and possibly dangerous environment. The food they are offered is high quality but not what they are used to and varies from guest to guest.
PLOT POINT: The nine guests are required to ingest certain vitamins and minerals that Yao and Masha prescribe for them.
- Their diets, vitamins, and medicines are carefully tailored to what Yao and Masha have determined are their individual needs.
- The diet of fruits, cereals, and vegetables is not universally loved.
- An exercise program is also enforced.
These stresses impact each character’s evolution, some for good and others, not.
Even later in the middle of the narrative, I had no trouble following who was who, as each character has an unmistakable surface persona.
- This means each character’s outward personality is different from the others.
Soon after meeting the cast, Moriarty gives us small glimpses of weaknesses and fears, hinting at the secrets each character brings with them to the spa. As the story progresses, we learn more about the sorrows, guilts, and regrets that drive them.
The nine guests have each signed contracts before arriving at the wilderness spa. When it becomes clear the rules they have agreed to obey are iron-clad and strictly enforced, they become angry and afraid. Each guest reacts in a way that is true to their established personality.
- Some vent their rage, some rebel, and others accept it as what they signed up for.
- Yet, each character is willing to continue because they are desperate to heal a void in their lives.
Characterization is a core aspect of a story. When I am revising a first draft, I try to discover and reveal snippets of their history, gradually melding those secrets into the evolving plot. My stylesheet/storyboard helps me stay on task.
Even if you don’t make a stylesheet, I suggest you create a personnel file for each character. This will help you understand what makes each one different from the others.
A personnel file should contain:
Character Names. I list the essential characters by name and the critical places where the story will be set.
About: What their role is, a note about that person or place, a brief description of who and what they are.
Personality traits: Are they sunny and upbeat or dark and brooding? Are they somewhere in between?
Physical appearance: Coloring, hair color, eye color, short or tall, physical build. Are they smartly dressed, or uncaring of clothing styles?
Their problem: What is their void, their core conflict?
What do they want? What does each character desire?
What will they do to get it? How far will they go to achieve their desire?
What secret will they take to their grave?
Don’t worry if you do things in a way that might not be technically correct. Books like Nine Perfect Strangers prove that good prose, compelling storylines, and strong character arcs engage the reader and overcome most writing wrongs.
In my next post, we’ll talk about the fine line between villains and heroes and how flaws and imperfections in our characters can improve the narrative.