Crowd Noise

Don’t let them all talk at once.

Writing a story with a large cast of characters can be tricky. My books tend to have a large cast, and with each progression in the series, the cast gets bigger.

Book three, especially, has become a little out of hand, but that’s a major plot point, so whittling down the number of people/creatures would erase the entire point. I’ve had to make peace with the fact that it might get a little overwhelming for the reader in the first few chapters, simply because it must become overwhelming to my main character. The plot sort of revolves around it.

But that’s not the normal way I go about handling a large cast. In previous books, and even in a few short stories I’ve written, I’ve had to use a few tricks to keep everyone in line.

  • Give each character a true personality separate from the rest. If you can’t manage that with all of them, keep the filler characters quiet.
  • If possible, start the scene with fewer characters and have others come in a little at a time. It’s easier to manage a few people talking and then have others entering the room than to start off with fifteen distinct characters to introduce all at once. This results in an info dump, undeveloped characters, and bored readers.
  • Block it out ahead of time. On paper, on a white board, with rocks or Lego guys or Barbies—whatever it takes. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve written a scene and realized I lost somebody after the first few pages. Save yourself a rewrite and figure out where everybody is first.
  • Keep names distinguishable from each other. If you’ve got a room filled with Sue, Sam, Suki, Carry, Cordy, and Karen, you’re screwing yourself up from the beginning. You’ll forget who is who, and so will your readers.
  • Don’t let everyone try to talk all at once. Bob and Stella are talking. George puts his two cent in. Bob answers him. Gloria objects, and Stella makes a sharp remark before walking across the room to make coffee. Bob follows her and they have a separate discussion. Start with a few, then add and subtract characters. People may talk all at once in real life, but conversations aren’t managed well that way in real life either.

More than anything else, I suggest you pay attention next time you’re in a room full of people. Conversations ebb and flow between people, and the people who are the main focus fluctuate.

When you write a scene with a large group, keep to the main focus. Don’t try to cover what every single person is doing at all times. Keep your attention on what’s important. Don’t get sidetracked.

We may not always be able to keep 100% control of our characters, but we do have total control over where the camera is pointing.

Rachel is the author of the urban fantasy Monster Haven series from Carina Press. She believes in magic, the power of love, good cheese, lucky socks, and putting things off until stress gets them done faster at the last minute. Her home is Disneyland, despite her current location in Kansas.

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