Fantasy Writing: Creating an Ensemble Cast

May 11, 2011 in Fantasy, Novel, On Writing by pacejmiller

I think these guys are from Final Fantasy

I’m long overdue for a post about fantasy writing.  Just as well, considering I haven’t touched my fantasy novel for probably a year now, thanks to other ideas and projects that keep getting in the way.

Anyway, the other night we were discussing films and books that had large ensemble casts, and just how difficult it was to manage everyone.  This is a common problem for fantasy novels, which usually have a large cast of characters, sometimes all appearing at the same time.

Indeed, this was a problem that I had encountered with my own fantasy novel, which involves a team that continuously changes in numbers, going up as high as eight or nine.  I had tremendous difficulties when more than three or four people were in a single scene — do I give them something to say, do I describe what they are doing, or do I just leave them out but allude that they are around?  If I put too many characters in, won’t things get too messy, to cluttered?

Through various discussions, I am now slowly getting an idea of how to approach it.  Like it or not, when you have a lot of characters, you must plan in advance.  Films are easier to cater for ensemble casts than books, because in film you can see the character there even though they don’t necessarily have to do anything; in books it can get awkward if you don’t know what to do with them.

The most important thing is to first ensure that each character has a personality and a narrative function.  If you can’t figure it out in your head, lay the names out and actually make a list.  What is this person like?  What is the purpose of this character and how do they drive the narrative?  Are they there to bring tension?  Are they there as a companion?  Or are they there to bring growth to the protagonist?

If you find that the character doesn’t really serve any real purpose, then do you really need them?  Or perhaps you need to give them one?  More often than not, you’ll find maybe one or two characters that serve no narrative purpose, whether just for a particular scene or on an overall level.  It’s then up to you to decide what to do with them.

Next, it would help if you can identify the scenes where a lot of characters appear at the same time and break them down for each character.  What is that character doing and what is the purpose of them being there?

It is important to bring each character to life, to give the unique traits and flaws, and give them character arcs so they can undergo some kind of emotional or personal journey or transformation.

It might seem like a tedious, overkill exercise, but when you put them side by side, the tightly crafted scenes are just so much better than the scenes where everyone is all over the place and you have no idea why they are there.

The key, as with any scene, is to pretend you are a director — create the characters, create the story, and fill in the gaps.