Writing a story with an ensemble cast? You've got a challenge ahead. A fun one, for sure, but a challenge nonetheless.
How can you ensure all those characters get the proper amount of attention? How can you balance all their storylines evenly? Let's take a closer look.
Narrow Your Point of View (POV)
George R.R. Martin’s epic fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire has a big cast. In fact, one could argue it has the biggest in the history of literature. Martin has over 2,000 named characters in his series – and it’s not even finished yet!
With that many characters, things could get confusing – well, even more confusing than they already are. So, Martin manages his cast with third-person limited point-of-view perspectives. Each chapter begins with a character’s name, and we experience the events of that chapter through the character’s eyes, so to speak.
This technique helps draw our attention to the most important people in the series. Tyrion Lannister, Daenerys Targaryen, Jon Snow – these are the key players, so we get the action from their points-of-view. Yes, there are still a whopping 31 POV characters (including the prologue and epilogue characters), and true, not all of them prove important (Areo Hotah, for instance). Still, the POV characters help narrow the scope of this massive series – at least a little.
Furthermore, it would be untenable to write such a story in an omniscient point of view. Just imagine the Hand’s Tourney in A Game of Thrones as told through the eyes of every important character gathered there. It would overwhelm the writer, not to mention the reader! That’s not to say books with big casts can’t use omniscient narration – it’s just that the limited perspective helps focus complex stories.
If you’ve got a big cast, consider emulating Martin with limited POVs.
Reveal Your Cast Gradually
For this tip, let’s take a lesson from J.K. Rowling and her Harry Potter series. When you’ve got numerous characters, take your time revealing them.
In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (Philosopher’s Stone in the UK), we begin with a small cast: baby Harry, his nasty family, plus Dumbledore, McGonagall, and Hagrid. As the book progresses, we meet more characters: Hedwig, Ron, Hermione, Snape, Neville. Many of these characters might’ve appeared earlier, yet Rowling spreads their introductions evenly, like butter over bread.
Why do this? Because it gives every character a chance to make an equal impression on the reader. Introducing the entire cast at once is an information overload.
This lesson applies to series as well. Consider all the characters we meet as we progress through Harry’s seven years at Hogwarts. Sirius Black probably could’ve appeared in book one, but instead he appears in book three. The same goes for Cedric Diggory; he doesn’t take center stage until book four. And the same for Dumbledore’s brother Aberforth in book seven.
If you’ve got a big cast in your series, consider when everyone needs to appear. It need not be immediate.
“Zoom In” on Members of Your Cast
I’m not a big comics guy, but I absolutely love Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series. For those who haven’t read them, these stories are about the titular Sandman, who’s better known as the Lord of Dreams, or Morpheus. It’s a combination of fantasy, mythology, and history that’s genuinely astounding. And it’s got a big cast.
Similar to Martin’s POV technique, Gaiman focuses each story arc on a specific character. For example, volume one, entitled Preludes & Nocturnes, focuses on the Sandman himself. The second entry, The Doll’s House, shifts focus to a young woman named Rose Walker. Though Morpheus still appears, it’s mostly Rose’s story. Volume three features several standalone short stories, then volume four returns the focus to Morpheus. But in volume five, A Game of You, the focus shifts again to Barbie (not that Barbie, another one).
This is a technique we also see in television writing. Consider the Stranger Things episode entitled “The Lost Sister,” in which Eleven becomes our central protagonist. Or Orange is the New Black, where we get a new character’s backstory every episode (usually).
“Zooming in” on different characters during a story is a superb way to spotlight different members of a cast, especially a large one. In effect, you get the focus of a standalone protagonist while still keeping the plurality of an ensemble cast.
Big casts are complex, but they need not be cumbersome. In fact, they often lead to increased conflict and engrossing stories. Try these tips with your characters and see if they help. I hope they do!