A Cast of Thousands . . .

We’re getting far enough along now that we’re looking at our cast of characters and trying to figure out who’s needed and who needs to go; who we’re missing and who we wouldn’t miss if they walked off the page and never came back. My theory of character casts is that you basically have four kinds of characters. This is not a rule, it’s not even a tool. It’s just the way I sort characters.

So four kinds of characters.

1. The Good Guys
This is my protagonist and the people who will die for her. It’s usually a short list, and includes her best friend, her love interest, and possibly one or two others. If everybody is willing to go to the mat for Our Girl, she’s not in any danger. This is why so many romance heroines are orphans.
So for this book, it’s Cat and Keely, our two protagonists, and Harry and Rafe, the love interests/protagonists of the major subplots.

2. The Bad Guys
Otherwise known as the antagonist and his or her minions (minions, heh), the key here is that they out-man and out-power the Good Guys.
Our anatgonist and minions will remain a secret for now. But at the moment there are three of them and one dies in Act Three, so that’s not good. The more minions, the more danger our Good Guys are in.

Yellow Minions

And the minions have to be powerful. Good hearted twinkies in goggles won’t do it.

Orc Types

The Support Staff
These are the people whose actions influence the plot in important ways, important enough that taking them out would cause damage to the plot. Not cause the plot to collapse, they’re support not main players, but they’re necessary to the story. At last count, we had eleven of those, but stay tuned, we’re not done yet.

The Wallpaper
These are the people who act as setting. If your protagonist is a waitress, she’s going to be working with other waitresses, bus boys, cooks, talking with repeat customers. You need these people as setting, to show how she interacts with her setting, but if one of them walks off the page, no story will be lost. So far we have twelve with names.

Think of the protagonist/antagonist characters as the framework of a building, the part that makes an empty space a structure. Then the support people are drywall; you put a hole in that, you’re gonna have to use some spackle, but the house won’t fall down. And then the setting people are wallpaper; they have no structural role whatsoever, they’re just decoration.

The key, then, is to make sure your major structure is strong and balanced (there’s that conflict box), and that you haven’t drywalled over a door or added an extra layer that makes the structure difficult to navigate, and that the wallpaper doesn’t make the place so busy that people can’t find the light switches.

I think I’ve run that analogy into the ground, so let’s just leave that there.

So at this point we’re looking at protagonist/antagonist balance, and the roles of the support players, making sure they really are necessary to the plot. The wallpaper is the easy part: just don’t call so much attention to them that people think they’re going to be important later, as in, stop describing them in detail. (Reminds me of collaborating with Bob; when I told him he was going to have to stop killing people because it would upset readers who’d become attached to them, he said, “Then stop giving them names.”)

It’s a fine line to walk: put in enough characters so the main characters are living in a fully formed world without putting in so many people that the key players get lost in the crowd which pulls the reader out as she tries to figure out who the hell Rebecca is. (Rebecca must be important, she has black hair, blue eyes, and a name!)

And then there’s the problem of the supporting character who becomes more interesting than the protagonist or antagonist (I wrote this dog named Fred once . . .) so you have to go back and make sure your Good Guys are GREAT Guys . . . .

Peopling your stories is a lot more than making character lists, but making character lists can help keep your people from overrunning your stories.

17 thoughts on “A Cast of Thousands . . .

  1. I’m writing a mystery series, so there’s a new cast of suspects (and corpses) in each book, but I keep falling in love with at least one of the suspects, who’s cleared and then becomes an ongoing character in a later book and gets added to the series bible. I’ve only got three novels in the series so far, but it just happened with a short story (novella, really) which is #3.5 in the series, and I’ve got another short story in the works between book #4 and #5, so I’m wondering if by the time I get to #10 (if it continues that long), I’m going to have 50 beloved (at least by me) secondary characters, each of which needs at least one scene in the book, which isn’t going to leave a whole lot of pages for actual, yanno, story. I know this isn’t an issue for anyone who doesn’t write a series, but it struck me that it’s yet another way for characters to start overrunning stories.

    1. Just remember – they don’t need to make an appearance in every book (hey, look, there’s a convention in Las Vegas and 3/4s of them are meeting there is ok once in a while too) and for the love of God and all that’s holy, don’t marry them off in every single book. A writer I followed out of Loveswept does that with her suspense novels. I don’t get romance as the main point of these particular stories so the coupling off in every single books started feeling forced a dozen or so novels back.

  2. I like how you break things down. I never thought to sort characters this way. This makes so much sense. Now you can see who can pull double duty and who isn’t pulling their weight. Thanks for this!

    We love Fred! 🙂

  3. Perfect analogy. Can see why you were such a great teacher. Analogies like this make things relatable & memorable.

    In one of my philosophy classes back in college, we were studying Plato & Aristotle. Off & on, when we were trying to understand a concept one student or another would say, “So it’s like….” and the professor would always say “No. Plato is saying….” and just repeat what was in the books. A very dry, literal woman. And this was in an informal, discussion type class. After a while, we all stopped trying. Nice lady, but really gave meaning to the expression “By the book.”

    Can’t imagine your students ever saying that about you:)

    1. Really? Of all authors to resist using metaphors with. Sort of like the cave in Plato’s Republic?

      Sorry, OT, but that just boggles my political-philosophy-major mind.

      1. Totally with you on that, Gin. Such a missed opportunity I think. Could have been a really fun class–nice, small group intended for more discussion & quite engaged at the beginning of the semester. Not so much by the end.

  4. Perfect categories here. They emphasize the problem I have in my own writing. I can do ## 1, 3, and 4, but #2 – Bad Guys – eludes me. I can’t write believable bad guys, especially evil guys. I don’t understand them. Perhaps I should stick to good or neutral guys who for some reason want the opposite of what the protagonists want. If both parties try hard, the obstacles arise by themselves. Right?

    1. It beats having to come up with natural disasters for your protagonist to survive. You can hear the readers now: “She must hate her character. Last month, he had to live through two Class IV hurricanes, and an earthquake, and now it’s tornado season?!” 🙂

  5. “I can’t write believable bad guys, especially evil guys. I don’t understand them.”

    Bad guys are often bad because their perception of the world or values are very different, either from the norm or from the protagonist. Evil doesn’t have to be universal. Example: The guy who hates dogs and takes one to the pound. Not everyone would view his actions with the same feeling of horror as the heroine does. What makes the act something most people would view as evil is the use of his power and lack of respect for another person’s values. People vary in what traumatizes them.

    So make your bad guys by examining the good guys values.

  6. “…you have to go back and make sure your Good Guys are GREAT Guys . . . .”
    This makes me think of the movie Say Anything when Corey (Lili Taylor) tells Lloyd (John Cusack), “Lloyd, you’re a great person. I’m a good person, but you’re a great person.” And I think Lloyd is a GREAT character, not just a good one. Great characters hold the boombox over their head…I don’t think simply good characters would.

  7. I love Fred. The darling ladder-climbing, bra-snatching dog… That book is great, Jenny, but Fred was definitely my favorite character. 🙂


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