Fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart.

15.50: Juggling Ensembles

Your Hosts: Brandon, Victoria, Dan, and Howard

Our listeners have asked about how we handle managing a large cast of characters. This is something we’ve all struggled with, and sometimes we’ve failed at it pretty spectacularly. In this episode we talk about how we turned our failures into learning, and what we do today to keep our ensembles in line and our stories on track.

Credits: This episode was recorded by Dan Thompson, and mastered by Alex Jackson.

Homework: Take something you’ve written, something with a cast of at least three characters, and change the point-of-view and/or main character.

Thing of the week: This is How You Lose The Time War, by Amal El-Mohtar and Max Gladstone.

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As transcribed by Mike Barker

Key Points: How do you manage a large cast? In outlining, include the characters who are NOT going to be in the foreground, who are going to be left out. Start with a few, and then expand out. Don’t try to treat all point of view and ensemble characters equally. How do you connect multiple different POV’s in different places into a cohesive narrative. Common bits, e.g., dialogue. Groupings and teams! Don’t exceed the reader’s threshold for people and lines. Make sure every member of your ensemble serves a purpose in the story. I use multiple POV’s for different places. Make sure your story is big enough to justify multiple POV’s in different places. Switch to the POV who is in the most pain. Be careful of cliffhangers. Make sure the reader can follow your narrative, don’t shift too many perspectives and timelines at the same time. How can one primary viewpoint character interact and build relationships with a large ensemble? How do you develop relationships without sending all the other characters out of the room? Don’t treat all characters equally. Treat your ensemble cast like a group of real people. Use shorthand and cues to remind the readers who certain characters are. Sometimes caricatures work. Give the readers space for their imagination. One or two weird idiosyncrasies of character go a long way.

[Mary Robinette] Season 15, Episode 50.

[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Juggling Ensembles.

[Victoria] 15 minutes long.

[Dan] Because you’re in a hurry.

[Howard] And we’re not that smart.

[Brandon] I’m Brandon.

[Victoria] I’m Victoria.

[Dan] I’m Dan.

[Howard] And I’m Howard.

[Brandon] We have questions from you guys about how to manage a large cast. This is tricky. I was not good at this early in my career. In fact, I have a story, I think I told you guys before, but when I first sat down to write the first Stormlight book, this was in 2002 before I sold any books, I failed because of the large cast. I wanted to do a big epic, like George RR Martin, like Robert Jordan, that had a large cast. I, even though this was my 13th novel, still crashed and burned trying to write this one. It didn’t work until I had been handed the Wheel of Time and had to get up to speed on juggling a large cast very, very quickly. 2600 named characters in the Wheel of Time. That was like going to the gym and being like, “All right, personal trainer…”

[Howard] How many point of view characters were in the Wheel of Time?

[Brandon] 50, I think. Somewhere around there. How many main viewpoint characters? A dozen or so is what I would say. Maybe two dozen, depending on how you count main. So there were a lot.

[Howard] Using your gym metaphor,


[Howard] There are people who go to the gym and overhead pressing 45 pounds, boy, that is a lot. Then there are the bodybuilders overhead pressing 450 pounds is also a lot. What you’re talking about here really is the ultimate bit of heavy lifting. I don’t… I haven’t counted how many point of view characters there are in Schlock Mercenary, because the point of view is the camera instead of the character. But I think I realized around 2008, 2009, that my nascent outlining process needed to include which characters whose names I know, whose backstories I love, am I going to leave out of this book except for we get to see them in the background so that we know that they’re not dead. Because unless I did that, my brain would latch on to the fact that oh, we haven’t talked to so-and-so for a while, I should put them in a scene. That was a disaster. So, for me, large cast was about taking the huge cast, and then for an entire book, setting a different set of limits.

[Victoria] I mean, this is interesting. So, in the Shades of Magic series, I think I have four point of view characters in the first book, eight in the second, and 12 in the third. I like an expansion project. I like the idea that we can root in a few first, and then expand outward from there. I think it allows for focus. I also, though, and I think this will come up a few times, I’m a really big fan of not treating all point of view characters equally. They do not all get the same amount of pages. I have a primary cast, a secondary cast, and a tertiary cast. The primary cast always gets point of view time. But I’ll throw in some secondary and some tertiary just to break it up. I don’t think you have to treat all members of the ensemble equally from a perspective.

[Brandon] Do you get fan anger from that? Because I get a lot of it. From not treating my tertiary characters… People will read it and they’ll write me notes and say, “I feel like I’ve been promised much more from this character, because my brief glimpses of them were so evocative. Why are you ignoring this character? Why do you hate this character?”


[Victoria] You know, that’s one you can’t win. Like, I love writing characters who are on page for maybe a page or two, and feel holistic enough, complete enough, that you can imagine that they’re the protagonist of a different novel. I want all of the characters in a book to feel like they have legs in that way. But no… I mean, I get people who are like, “I want more of this person.” I’ve been lucky in that I don’t get the anger of it. Maybe when I… It’s because in each subsequent book, I shift that a little bit and I give more space to the ones that I’ve established. I like having this almost ripple effect, where if a person is a secondary character in one book, they will have a primary status in the next book. So I’m almost seating them, letting you get accommodated to their presence in the room, so that then when I focus on them more, you already are like, “Oh, yeah, I know that dude. I’m really excited to learn more about them.”

[Howard] That was the second season of Community, we’re introduced… In one of the humanities classroom scenes, we’re introduced to Fat Neil. Where John Oliver says, “Oh, Fat Neil.” Neil says, “Neil is just fine.” Then it’s two or three episodes later, when we get Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, where Neil’s character arc is super important, and the fact that people are calling him Fat Neil is super important. But for that episode, he’s… I thought… When I first saw that episode, I thought, “Who’s cameo’ing? Why is that person important? He just now showed up, we called attention to him, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him before.”

[Brandon] So, one of the questions here is how do you connect multiple vastly different POV’s into a cohesive narrative, especially when some characters might be in totally different places in the world.

[Howard] Common tone modulation. It’s a cheat that I use all the time, where I will take words from somebody’s dialogue at the end of a scene and I will work them into someone else’s dialogue. They are literally an entire galaxy away doing something different, but I have picked this tiny thread that shows that there is a similarity between the two of them and away I go.

[Victoria] I like the groupings. I like physically grouping different teams. I like to think of them as my A Team, my B team, and my C team. Because we… Like as readers, we are trained that if you start showing different teams, we’re waiting for the coalescing. We are expecting that at some point in the narrative, the teams are going to begin to physically cross, or they’re going to begin to come together. I think that it is… There’s a threshold for reader balance, where they can hold a certain number of people and lines in their mind at a time. You have to be very careful not to exceed the threshold for reader balance. That’s why there are whole sections of George RR Martin books which focus on a narrowing slice of the cast. Because to ask them to hold all of the cast in their mind for a long time… One, you’re diluting the impact of any one of your cast members. So I always encourage when people want to have a large cast to make sure that every member of your ensembles are serving a purpose in the story. But I love a good physical grouping.

[Dan] See, for me, the question about how can you handle multiple POV’s when they’re in very different places… That’s when I use multiple POV’s.

[Victoria] Exactly.

[Dan] Right? Because if they’re all in the same place, then I’m just going to stick with my main character, and we’re going to follow her. But in the Partials series, this is how I eventually started using multiple POV’s. The first book is all Kira. The second book had to have a second one because we needed to know what was going on and she was in a different part of the world. Then, by the time we got to the third, I think I have five or six POV’s because that is how I can show the different parts of the world. So, for me, this is less a question of POV than it is of is your story big enough to justify having people in all these different places at once.

[Howard] One of the most important things I learned recording Writing Excuses with Brandon and Dan during season one back in 2008, was the discussion of… I can’t remember whose writing book it was, but the idea that the point of view character that you want to switch to is the one who is currently in the most pain. Because I’m writing comedy, and pain is funny. That is, it is a conflict from which I can always exact a punchline.

[Brandon] Another thing that’s useful here is determining just how you use cliffhangers and not, particularly if there’s going to be large spaces and large gaps. Different authors do it different ways. I’m not going to say there is a right and a wrong way, but I’ve found as a reader that having to keep track… Like if you… If the author doesn’t tie it up somewhat neatly, before leaving this character for a long time, it’s going to be much harder, because you’re going to feel like this is dangling over you. Now sometimes you can be neat and still have a cliffhanger. Right? You can sometimes be like, “All right. This character, this thing’s happened, you only have to remember they have fallen off a cliff.” But if you have to remember they have fallen off a cliff while there in a political negotiation that has not finished and their loved one is over here with… And keep track of all that, and you’re going to leave them for 100,000 words and come back, then you’re setting yourself up for some failure.

[Victoria] This is really interesting. I learned this lesson through timeline. I tell a lot of alinear narratives, and I also have multiple perspectives in them. So I have multiple perspectives, multiple timelines. I learned that basically my reader could tolerate shifts between perspectives or shifts between timeline. Could not tolerate a shift from perspective and timeline. So if I wanted to follow a character’s present and then into the past, I needed to come back to the present for I switched to somebody else’s present. It’s a matter of sandwiching. It’s a matter of understanding that threshold for pain that a reader has in terms of like being able to keep track of the narrative. It’s the worst reason to lose your reader is that they can’t actually follow your narrative. They’re like, “There are too many threads here. Those quote

[Howard] That is a great exploration of the difference between prose and other mediums. Because in comics and TV, visual medium, we can make this sort of jump and take the reader with us because we have text and we have video and we have audio and all of those things can be used to cue the change.

[Victoria] And you have palletes and you have everything.

[Howard] Color palette… All of those things can be used to telegraph it. But, yeah, in books, I really like the idea that you’ve limited yourself. You need to switch between all of these things, you’re just not going to throw all of the switches at once.

[Victoria] You have to be very careful which switches you throw in which order, or else you genuinely will end up with a very confused reader.

[Brandon] Let’s talk about a book this week by one of our favorite people ever.

[Victoria] This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Max Gladstone and Amal El-Mohtar, is one of the strangest, most beautiful examinations of perspective. I think it fits perfectly into this theme. It is an epistolary love story between two characters, Red and Blue, two women on opposite sides of an alinear, intergalactic, inter-spatial, interdim… Inter-everything time war. They begin leaving letters for each other. It is almost impossible to describe, and that is all right, because it is only… It is novella length. I read it on a single plane ride. I would recommend to everybody just carve out an hour or two in their evening or in their morning or in their lunch, at some point, and just sit with it and just devour it. There is something so powerful about it.

[Howard] Structurally, it’s fascinating because you have two third person limited points of view and you have two epistolary points of view. So there are four POV, and they alternate very… Mechanically is the wrong word. Formulaicly. There is a formula for the delivery of these POV’s. On my second iteration through that formula, in that book, I realized, “Oh. That is letting me perfectly keep track of where I am. That is brilliant.” They used the pacing structure of chapter breaks to tell me who was talking and when and why and how.

[Victoria] It’s a master class on a lot of the things that we discuss.

[Howard] It is so awesome.

[Brandon] So…

[Howard] This Is How You Lose the Time War, by Max Gladstone and…

[Victoria] Amal El-Mohtar.

[Howard] Amal El-Mohtar.

[Brandon] So, another question we have on POV takes this a slightly different way with these ensemble casts. One of our listeners has a character who is going to be the main viewpoint character. This character needs to interact with a lot of different people and build relationships with all of them. How do you give time to a large ensemble when you’re using one primary viewpoint character and you need to characterize all these different people? One of the things this listener says is, “How can I isolate certain relationships for development without always having to send the other characters out of the room?” Which actually is a thing I think about a lot. Because I find that personally, I don’t know if it’s the same with you guys, if I have too many characters in the scene, I will naturally start to forget about some of them, and they just won’t participate. If I get beyond about four or five people, characters start slipping, and I’ve realized I have to create scenes where if I have more than that, I have to use other tricks to tell the story.

[Victoria] Two things for me. Hierarchy. I don’t treat all those characters in that ensemble equally, and I don’t think in a relationship or any group of five or six or 10, that we all would have equal relationships and equal time. Two, one of my own personal favorites. I write characters who hate each other. The nice thing about writing characters who hate each other is that they’re not terribly enthusiastic, even if they’re on a spaceship or on a boat, they’re not really great at being in the same room as each other at all the same times. So, remembering that in any group of 10, most of those people probably don’t like each other equally and are going to gravitate into their own almost small subgroups. You have to remember to treat your ensemble cast like a group of actual people.

[Howard] I would ask our listeners to think about a time when you’ve been super happy that a friend of yours has fallen into a wonderful relationship. You are now the POV character for their love story. How do you write that? Because that’s… If you have a single POV in your novel, and other people are falling in love, that is exactly what you’re describing.

[Brandon] One of the other things here is the larger your cast gets… This isn’t always the case. But the more often you’re going to have to use shorthand to give readers reminders on who certain characters are. Some of these characters who don’t get equal time with all the others, you’re going to have to be okay the fact to just aren’t going to have a lot of time to develop them. A great writer can take a short amount of time and characterize someone in a really interesting way. But then one note of that is going to stick in the reader’s mind, and you have to remind them who that character is when they come back, and not violate what that note is.

[Dan] So, the novella that I wrote for Magic, the Gathering, has a fairly large cast of… By the end of it, six or seven main characters. They’re… I did this trip with them. I gave them… Here’s one or two identifying traits that will just be shorthand, because they’re not main characters, they’re there because they need to be there and they’re flavor. It was really fascinating to me to read the editor’s notes, because one of those, who’s just a very thinly drawn character with one or two traits, that was the editor’s favorite character. He’s like, “I love every scene that this guy’s in. His characterization is so strong.” I’m like, “That’s because he’s a caricature.” But that works. Don’t feel like it doesn’t work.

[Victoria] I’m going to say as well, I think that we don’t always give readers enough credit or space for their imagination in these things. We feel the need to dictate all the details of characters, when the truth is, like, sometimes you really just do need a few cues and shorthand, and allow the reader to fill in, and kind of fill-in like smoke, spread out into that space. I am somebody who I’m not great with spaces, personally, and so I love the visual cues shorthand. I will use an article of clothing, I will use a color, I will use a piece of jewelry, and that will be the thing that tethers an entire primary cast in my readers minds to each of those characters. Yet, when I look at the fan art that comes in for the series, they’re all identical. There’s just enough there that they get the main pieces of it.

[Howard] Back in September when we talked about writing under deadlines, I mentioned the importance of falling back on craft. Dan, what you’ve described, that is absolutely a craft trick. You know you’ve done it right when your editor can’t see the trick.


[Howard] You know this is a very well painted cardboard cutout. But a trick of the eye, from the reader’s perspective, ah, it’s fully fleshed out.

[Victoria] Also, to that, beyond the physical details, giving one or two like kind of weird like idiosyncrasies of character can go such a long way with characters that don’t spend a huge amount of time on the page.

[Brandon] It really can. It can be really, really handy. Sometimes I feel bad about doing it, because I’m like, “This character deserves their own book.” But these are the things you have to do, if you want to have a large cast.

[Howard] This character deserves their own book, but I deserve to be able to write The End and turn this in for money.

[Victoria] Yep.

[Brandon] So, we’re out of time, and this is our last podcast with Victoria.

[What? Oh!]

[Victoria] I’ve had so much fun, though.

[Brandon] But we’re going to give you a last homework.

[Victoria] Yeah. So. This is a good old favorite of mine. I want you to take something that you’ve written, preferably something with an ensemble cast. Let’s say a cast of at least three. We’re not… It doesn’t have to be a whole gathering, a whole gaggle. Take a cast of at least three, if you have a viewpoint character, or even in your mind a main character in this group, I want you to pick one of the other two or four or six or however many you’re choosing from. I want you to think of how you would tell the exact same story, and, by shifting the leadership role, shifting the primary and secondary and tertiary roles around, so that this new character, hopefully a minor character you’ve chosen, is now at the center of the narrative.

[Brandon] This has been Writing Excuses. Victoria, thank you so much.

[Victoria] Thank you.

[Brandon] You’re all out of excuses, now go write.