And a Cast of Thousands

So I’ve got all of Nita blocked out, at least 80% of it written (probably more once I get all the pieces assembled) and then I looked to make sure that all the characters moved through the book, that I didn’t introduce anybody in Act One and then leave them in outer darkness for the rest of the story.

I have more than forty characters with speaking parts in this book.  My usual count is seventeen.  (I don’t know why it’s seventeen, it just always seems to come out to that.)  That doesn’t include the people just milling about in the background, those are all speaking parts with goals and plots lines, demanding my attention.  

That’s bad.

So Nita and Nick stay, obviously.  Button.  Mort and Keres and Mitzi (Nita’s mom) and the Mayor and the two grandmas.  Rab and Jeo. Sandy and Daphne, Mr. Shen, Mr. Alcevedeo, Fenella.  Then there’s the Hell contingent: Belia, Mammon, Max, Thanatos, Moloch, Ashtaroth, Lilith, Sadiel, Mr. Crome, Mr. Praxis, Richiel (only one scene), Phronsie.  The bar contingent: Vinnie, the Hotels.  The cops: Jason, Frank, Captain Mann.  The Pure Island nut jobs: Marvella, Cecily, the two older Witherspoons.   The Devils: Satan, Beelzebub, Lucifer.  Jimmy.  Tommy.  Lenny.  The Rev and Daniel.  Dom, the editor of the Demon Island Daily.  And that jerk who’s running Motel Styx and the kid who stabs Nick.

Okay, some of this is worldbuilding, but I’m thinking that’s too many.  Unfortunately, they’re all connected to a subplot; none of them are in the plot wandering around untethered, which means that getting rid of them is going to be a problem.  

So my plan is to push through and finish the truck draft and then look to see who I don’t really need and cut like crazy even though I like those characters.  I have to do something: my plot is looking like my house, so overstuffed with stuff that it’s hard to move through it.

It does make me think fondly of You Again: seventeen people trapped in a house in a snowstorm, nobody coming in or out.  Those were the days.

62 thoughts on “And a Cast of Thousands

  1. Dear Jenny,
    I just want to give you my heartfelt thanks for all the pleasure you have given me through the years. Ever since the Cherry Bombers you have made me laugh. The people here have also taught me how fortunate I am. Blessings to all of you.

  2. Tried to find “You Again” on amazon and have no clue which one you are referring to. Would you please share so I can get the book? Sure appreciate it! Thanks so much!

    1. We wish it was on amazon.

      It’s a work in progress, It was her version of a Country House Mystery, Jenny shared some drafts a while back.

      If you want to see, click on its tag on the right, it’s at the bottom.

  3. I had forgotten about You Again; it was fun to go back and refresh my memory of it. I hope you do get a chance to finish it after you finish this one. 😄

  4. Maybe you could keep the large cast and just include a helpful list of short descriptions of each of them, at the end of the novel, like a lot of fantasy novels do. I’ve got a fairly recent Tor novel in front of me which is around 500 pages long and has a “Listing of Persons, Places, Things, and Gods” at the end which is 14 pages long.

    1. If only. I tried to put one of those “cast of characters” lists they used to have in old mysteries in the front of You Again, and got shot down. My editor’s point was that if a reader couldn’t tell who was who without checking a list, the solution was to make that clear in the story, and for my stuff, she was right. A lot of big novels are omniscient, so dropping out of the story to check a list in the back is no big deal. I write third limited so it would be disruptive. Also lazy writing.

      Maybe I’ll try omniscient. You can get away with so much more.

      1. I am reading the Rivers of London series again, which has a huge cast–even in the first book.

        If I like an author, I tend to gobble up the books with my eyes. I often miss/forget who is who or some other details. If the writing is good, I tend to move forward quickly to get the whole story, relying on the context to get what I may have missed along the way, and enjoy the dialogue. It’s like a movie. Eventually, in the second read, I pick up details. I also miss a lot in movies that I pick up in later viewings. For me, it’s about the story and especially the dialogue.

        I hate to ask, but will–could this draft have in it, more than one book?

        Welcome to Temptation and Faking It were related. Are there two related books in this draft?

        1. I thought about a sequel, maybe four connected novellas that would make a book, because there’s so much left at the end of the book. Everything’s resolved, everybody’s moved on to new lives, but they’re still living on the island/in Hell, still working in much the same places, and a lot of the relationships are unresolved. But since my main focuse is FINISHING THIS DAMN BOOK, I haven’t put a lot of thought into it, just recognizing the potential.

          But I also have the two Riven books about a third done, and about half of Lavender’s Blue, and then there’s You Again, so starting a new book seems inefficient. Let’s clear out those WiPs, Jenny.

      2. As long as the names don’t sound the same I’m usually good with a large crowd of characters – its the joe/josie/johnny names that can begin to meld together.

      3. “Maybe I’ll try omniscient. You can get away with so much more.”

        That’s because it puts you in the position of god, which is kind of appropriate for a book about the devil 🙂

        1. But because of the distance, it makes the book colder, which is already a problem here.
          One damn thing after another.

    2. My husband always makes such a list on a piece of paper which then serves as his bookmark because he’s so bad with names. Maybe it’s an idea for a reader giveaway ;o)

  5. Good luck!
    I can’t imagine how else you would prune other than plow through and see who sticks out, but it sounds like a hell of a lot of work to me.
    Even though you have been my favorite author for many, many years, I obviously never gave you enough credit.

      1. I thought about that, but most of them won’t go. That is, they’re not close enough in goal/personality/function in the text.

        I could cut Keres and Mort because they’re part of a family plot that doesn’t really intersect, but I like them as characters and they function by showing another side of Nita. I thought about combining Mammon and Moloch, but Mammon seems ruthless but genial, where I always saw Moloch as a Steve King type. I’ll defend Ashtaroth because he’s very useful in the Max/Button subplot.

        I think I just have too much plot.

    1. If reading this blog does nothing else, it should show you that you’ve been giving me too much credit. Clearly I have no idea what I’m doing.

      1. Oh, good, we’re at that stage again. The book must be almost done.

        (When do you start the “my career is over and I’m doomed” refrain? )

    1. I’m trying to keep the number of deaths down, and it helps that any demon that gets killed just goes back to Hell, but yes, I have reached that part in every book I write where I look at the mess on the page and think, “Hmmm. Maybe a plague.”

    1. I could probably combine Mort and Keres. Mammon and Moloch. Rab and Jeo. Marvella and Cecily.
      Except they’re really different characters; they’re occupying the same narrative space–family, demon antagonists, minions, human antagonists–but they’re individual in actual character. Also, I’d miss them.

      1. I don’t think you can combine a couple of those – because they play off each other in different scenes. Is the final demon going to be both dating the diner girl & gay?

        1. Final demon. Is that like the Final Girl?
          Rab’s gay. Jeo would like to date diner girl Daphne but that goes wrong. Max? He gets shot by Button.

          1. Rab & Jeo are who I was thinking of – if you combined them I’m not seeing how it works for both subplots (sub-subplots maybe?)

            I don’t think I’ve read enough about Max but I love Rab & Jeo.

      2. And me! I’d miss them, too! I can handle 40 characters. Jeez, it’s not like your characters blur together. I haven’t had any trouble keeping track of them so far.

    1. I really don’t have a choice (g).
      I did once turn in a book that was over 110,000 words (Fast Women) and they went with it, but this one is going to clock in longer. So time to cut.

        1. Yep, I’m good with longer books. And bigger crowds. I just want this in print so I can read it! And reread it! And rereread it! Well, you get the idea.

  6. I know more than 40 people and I’m a misanthrope who really, really would rather be left alone. A book with a cast of 40 is nuthin. I can remember all of them.

    1. I’ll tell my editor that. “Some people read Dickens, for heaven’s sake, and Office Wench said she can handle it.” That should do it.

    2. And me. I couldn’t handle them if they were all in the one story space, but you’ve got a lot of story spaces there. I can handle 3 devils, 3 cops, half a dozen family members, etc. If you could prune the hell contingent by one or two, that’d be good, but I don’t think it’s vital. I haven’t had trouble following the number of people in any of the drafts so far, and that’s been most of them.

  7. It’s a different book – it’s not a country house where the bridge is out or a small town, it’s two small towns – one here and one in hell. Think War & Peace instead of Pride & Prejudice.

    I wouldn’t cut anyone at this point. When you start having readers do beta reading, someone will complain that character A & character B are basically doing the same job OR they won’t complain. And if they don’t complain, put in a character list and let us have fun.

    You’ve written a small town cast for a lot of books now – maybe it’s time to expand.

    Are you writing a mystery or are you writing a fantasy/speculative fiction book? Because spec fiction has bigger casts of characters.

    1. I think it’s a romance. (Good question, by the way.)
      But I’m not sure. There’s also the mystery, and then it’s clearly fantasy, too.
      This is probably the problem.

      1. Bah. So many books are mashups of genre nowadays that it’s only important for marketing. An urban fantasy romance mystery is perfectly acceptable, and often just called urban fantasy when the protag is female. Some great series out there that haven’t devolved to cookie-cutter pron blocking out the structure of each book, with the plot tossed in as an afterthought to justify the next sex scene. You always have a terrific voice, and this could easily become a series in the world you’ve created.

        1. It helps when you’re focusing the book, though. If you start out as a romance (which I think this does) and then drop the relationship, you’re breaking the contract with the reader, and she’s going to be annoyed.

        2. Yep. I was looking for Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniel series in the Urbam Fantasy section, and the bookstore had them in the romance section. And IA does do romances, but KD is a super slow burn – I don’t think they actually get together until the 4th book. The relationship is central to the arc, but it’s never the point of any one book, so… not a romance to me. Except nobody asked me.
          (And you want to talk casts of thousands, whoanellie!)

      2. No. It’s really not a problem. The publishers and the NYT list may have a problem classifying it but the readers, we’re good with it.

  8. First, while looking for a zine class I ran across a University of Hell Press, which looks really cool (ur, hot?). It has nothing to do with your possible overpopulation problem – but was still fun in context of reading about Nita’s World:

    Second, I’m also a Dickens fan and my favorite one, Our Mutual Friend, must have a very large cast (I’ll have to count), but I don’t recall even on first reading having any problem keeping everyone sorted out. I think that was mostly because while the multiple plot lines and characters merged, each plot line and character was so deftly described, and with such care given to naming characters, I don’t think I ever wondered, “now who the devil is x?!” And there is at least one character with 2 aliases.

    By the way, Our Mutual Friend is a romance wrapped in a comedy wrapped in a bruising and brilliant political satire – a literary Turducken!

    Hmm. Just looked at the Wikipedia page for Our Mutual Friend and the major and minor characters are all listed.

    Some of Jenny’s books have their own Wikipedia pages, but can still use some work, i.e. no List of Characters. I’m learning how to edit Wikipedia pages and took a fab class. Interesting process. The actual editing is fairly easy, but understanding why, how, and when “The Wikipedia Way” is actually quite challenging – and gave me a lot of respect for Wikipedians.

  9. I don’t naturally tend toward a lot of speaking parts (except in the Danger Cove series, which is a shared world, so I can have cameos of characters from other authors’ books, which are a lot of fun to write and also, I’m told, fun for readers). So much so that in the book that’s coming out in January, the editor insisted that I give a minor character a name — he was a cop who basically just gave the protagonist a cup of water and told her the detective would be there soon. Names (especially first names) are the bane of my writing existence, so I cheated by giving him just an initial and a surname.

  10. If you do go cutting people out, I propose keeping the “director’s cut” I humbly bow to your superior understanding of what a good book needs, but I may NEED to read the long version. In fact, I am sure I need to read the long version. Tell your editor I said so.

  11. Tell them I can handle a large cast too. In my small town, I know so many people by now (working in the social centre will do that to you) which is something I really appreciate. And particularly for you, community is such a strong topic – maybe the fact that your cast is expanding is just proof for the growing importance of community for you? Anyway, I’d encourage you to leave your people in because they’re not just talking wallpaper but have their individual voices and tasks. Don’t underestimate your readers’ abilities – they will love them all as long as the story is good.

  12. I’m all for cutting, because unlike the folks above, I was overwhelmed by the number of characters in the early drafts. Then again, I want my gravestone to read, “It could have been shorter.”

  13. Years ago when I first started reading the “Outlander” series, I came upon a great solution for big casts in books – the index card book mark! Works like a charm and writing down the names and a brief note about them helps to fix them in my mind! My treat this weekend – reading You Again!!!

    Thanks so much for sharing where I could find it!!! LOVE all Jenny’s books – have them all in 3 formats: audio, ebook and hardback whenever possible, paperback otherwise. It’s been a long time………. need Nita’s book!!!

    Sure love this blog and anything Jenny!

    Hugs, Pippa

  14. I know you’ll make it better, but I really just want to buy and read it NOW. I’d buy two versions – the now version and the later version. And probably love them both.

  15. Tangential, but I’m reading a book with a lot of head-hopping in it. And we all know that head-hopping can be terribly confusing, but here, the writer has a natural gift for head-hopping (or a great editing eye), and I haven’t yet been confused about whose head I’m in. It works.

    Books with 40 characters or more do work — a lot of work for the writer, of course, but they do work. My gut feeling is that you’ve got too much to say for just 17 characters. This book has a romance, but it also tackles some meaty societal issues, as well.

    Plus, you are doing things in threes. I can think of a couple of other books where you had multiple dopplegangers (Bet Me, with the three ladies meeting three gentlemen, and the supporting cast; and also Dogs and Goddesses had three ladies meeting three gentlemen, and needed lots of supporting cast members as well.)

    In this book, you’ve got Nick and his gang. Nita also has her gang (Button, for sure, and maybe her brother? But he feels more supporting.) In the other two books I mentioned, the villains were in the supporting cast (Bet Me had the dynamic duo, and Dogs and Goddesses also only had two), but here? Lots and lots and lots of bad guys. The Hell Contingent alone has what, five? Six? Seven? Four demons, Max, a lady demon and The Boss. And then you have the good guys and bad guys of the police department section of the drama.

    Maybe if you count them as teams, it’s more manageable?

    Or maybe you are right, and 60 percent of your cast must go.

    Well, at any rate, it’s very exciting that it’s come to the point where you are cutting out the dead weight!

  16. Personally, I think 17 is brilliant. As an exercise, I did a quick list of the characters in Faking It to see how many I could remember – in a couple of minutes I came up with 15 well-formed characters that I can picture clearly. This intrigued me, so I did a few more. From Agnes and the Hitman, I remember 16 characters, from Welcome to Temptation, 16, and from Bet Me, 20 (but that is because three of the characters came in threes!) I remember almost no names, but I can picture the characters, their personalities and their places in the plot. I love that.

  17. I don’t know; it sounds like this is a book that needs a bigger cast.

    If the goal is really about 20 characters, cutting 5 isn’t going to even make a dent, but readers who can follow 35 characters can likely follow 40 – especially when those 40 are better defined and have clearer motivations and interactions.

    I vote that you let them stay. If you cut enough to have a traditionally sized cast, the very nature of the story you’re telling will change. If the story you have is the story you want to tell, tell it – big cast and all.

  18. I have never found one of your books too long or had trouble distinguishing characters. And I have been reading them for a long time.


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