Working with a Cast of Millions

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Working with a Cast of Millions

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David Farland’s Kick in the Pants—Working with a Cast of Millions

I’ve mentioned before that many bestselling stories share a common trait: they appeal to broad audiences—old and young, male and female.

They often do this by using multiple protagonists of varying sexes and ages. For example, take a movie like Jurassic Park. We have several protagonists: one male child and one female child, an older couple, a grandfatherly figure, and an older scientist.

You can see the same pattern in a movie like Mary Poppins. We have a boy child and a girl, their parents, Mary Poppins, and the chimney sweep.

Both movies raked money in at the box office because they appealed to a wide audience, much as the book Harry Potter did.

Yet one problem that often occurs is that if you write about multiple protagonists: you’ll find that some of them can “get lost” in the novel.

A reader will be reading along, enjoying the tale of Donna and Brad, when suddenly a forgotten character breaks in, Angie, someone that we haven’t seen in two hundred pages.

The reader has to remind herself, “Oh, yeah, that woman that butcher’s hogs from back in the opening of the book. . . .”

This can annoy the reader, especially if the character disappears for a hundred pages. The problem arises when writers try to include too many viewpoint characters into a tale.

If you read fat fantasies, you’ll see that a number of authors are writing big series, and they struggle with this problem. Robert Jordan, for example, had so many characters, that some of their stories had to be parsed out into entire novels--350,000 words in length.

So a thoughtful author will arrange a book in such a way as to, generally speaking, avoid that problem, by reminding the audience intermittently of the whereabouts of important characters. Here are a few things to try:

1) Short chapters. Some authors write short chapters in an effort to make sure that each character reappears often. If you keep your chapters all at roughly six pages, and you have four viewpoint protagonists, the reader won’t ever be more than twenty pages away from getting back to her favorite protagonist.

Yet this tactic creates as many problems as it solves. It forces the story to be told in short, staccato bursts. It makes it so that you can’t have any long conversations, the kind of lazy conversations where people open up and talk about themselves, their backgrounds, and their problems.

2) Keep your protagonists together. Don’t write scenes with just one protagonist in them. Make sure that you have multiple characters in each scene.

3) Remind the reader. You can have viewpoint characters think about or talk about characters who are missing. For example, in your fantasy novel, perhaps Amos has gone into the swamp to hunt for the white alligator. One of your protagonists might worry about whether Amos is okay. He might even voice his concerns by saying something like, “I can’t stop worrying about Amos. He’s never been gone so long.”

So tell the story from the perspective of a limited number of characters. A good example of this might come from Lord of the Rings. We don’t see the world through Gandalf’s point of view, but in a couple of instances he relates long tales, where he discusses what he has seen and done, while the rest of the time he is seen only through the eyes of others.

4) Cut out extra characters if they disappear on you for too long. Sometimes if a character disappears for long, it’s better to cut him out in a rewrite. This might mean that you combine him into another character, kill him off, or simply find a way to get rid of him.

The important thing here is to keep a limit on the number of viewpoint characters. Two or three main characters is plenty for an average novel of 80,000 to 90,000 words. If you try to handle six or seven, you’ll find that your novel expands to a couple hundred thousand words very quickly.

So keep the number of viewpoint characters down to a manageable level.

In an effort to write about several characters at once, you may need to resort to all of these tricks in an effort to remind readers about their whereabouts.


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