Writing Excuses 13.10: Handling a Large Cast
Key Points: The length of the story often influences the size of the cast. When you have an ensemble cast, you may need to give them all weight. Name, distinguishing characteristics, backstory, motivation? But with short stories, you often want bit players who come in, do something, and leave. With large casts, you may need spreadsheets or even a wiki to keep track. If they have a name, they need motivation, backstory, and all that. Or write one group straight through, another group straight through, then weave and blend them. Big casts often start with one character, then expand, and grow over time. You don’t really start with a huge cast on page one! Small casts, characters often wear lots of hats, and you can show they are skilled in one area, but … the story challenges them in an area where they aren’t so good. You can also use the relationships between your characters more. And delve deeper into your characters, and their interactions. Think of screen time — how do you balance and give each character enough screen time?
[Mary] Season 13, Episode 10.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Handling a Large Cast Versus a Small Cast.
[Mary] 15 minutes long.
[Amal] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Maurice] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Amal] I’m Amal.
[Maurice] I’m Maurice.
[Brandon] We’re going to talk a little bit about nuts and bolts on this episode. We want to find out specifically from Maurice and Amal how you do your writing. How you actually physically go about doing it?
[Amal] Do you want to go first?
[Mary] They’re both backing away from the question.
[Amal] I mean, the thing with me is that I have never written a novel. Like, not even as a kid, writing… The longest things that I wrote as a kid were role-playing character backgrounds, in like over 10 pages in nine point font. That’s like the thing that I did. But… So I write a lot of short stories. Because short stories are so, to me, flexible, I’ve tended to have a different approach to most… Almost every one. Except for the butt in chair part. Like I just sit and write. But I’ve… There are some that I’ve outlined, some that I haven’t. There are some where I’ve come up with the characters first, sometimes I’ve come up with the plot first and the characters kind of arose from it. The biggest cast of characters I think I ever had to manage was when I was actually writing an episode for Book Burners, which is a serial box serial, which is like TV but written. So I had a cast of characters handed to me, and keeping track of that was really interesting. It was a completely different challenge. Thinking about things like A plots and B plots, which I don’t know if I’ve ever otherwise done in a short story, at least until that point…
[Brandon] Specifically about characters. What do you do? Do you do anything? Do you like free write characters or do you just see where it goes?
[Amal] I think a lot of the time, I have a scene in mind, and I have a feeling or a texture that I want to generate out of this conflict or out of this conversation or I really want to experience this thing and make other people experience it. Sometimes that feeling comes from a character I have in mind, sometimes it… The feeling dictates the characters. Yeah.
[Brandon] When do you add another character?
[Brandon] Just when it feels right?
[Amal] Just when it feels right. Yeah.
[Brandon] Are you usually doing smaller casts or…
[Amal] Yeah. Usually the casts are not more than four. That’s… It’s really interesting to take stock of how the length of the story has tended to determine that. Although, that said, I did just recently finished a novella with Max Gladstone where there are two characters in this novella. It’s epistolary, and they’re time traveling spies. Fighting a time war. But… As one does. But so, there are two characters, and there are two background characters beyond that who are their… Like motivating them. That’s sustained over novella length. But I think that’s generally the exception to a rule of the shorter the story, the fewer the characters. Somewhere at novelette length, you start having the flexibility to like put different groups in play as opposed to just two different characters in play. But I’ve tended not to think that way, because I think most of the short stories I’ve written have tended to be structure-driven as opposed to character-driven.
[Mary] One of the things that I’ve found with both writing short fiction and writing novels, and also dealing with puppetry, is that at a certain point, you become very con… Trained to the constraints of the form that you’re working in, and will begin to naturally gravitate and move down the decision tree to make choices that fit the length that you’re supposed to be working with. Like, one of the constraints that I had when I was working with puppet theater was that there were two performers. Which meant that we were limited by the number of hands to the number of characters we could have on stage at a time.
[Amal] Oh, my gosh. That’s amazing. That’s like the most beautiful physical manifestation of this problem. How many hands do you have?
[Mary] Right. So I would naturally… I’d be like… I would naturally say, “Oh. Well, let’s think about doing Snow Queen.” Because this is a thing where she encounters a lot of different characters, but only one at a time. Whereas Aida, there’s like a cast of thousands. That’s not a good choice, because I just can’t get that many people on stage. I feel that way, that when I am… The hardest thing for me when I am jumping back and forth between short fiction and novels is remembering which metric I’m using. Because I can… Like I’m working on a novel right now that has an ensemble cast, but it also has an ensemble cast of a lot of onlookers that… And because it’s a murder mystery, I actually need to give them all weight, because you don’t know which one is…
[Mary] So, it’s interesting because everybody that comes on stage, I actually have to give the same amount of weight to. Whereas normally, when I’m doing a shorter piece or something, anyone who’s not important, I try not to give them a name, I try not to give them any distinguishing characteristics, I just want them to come in, say their bit, and get out again. Here, I have to make sure that everybody gets a name, that everybody seems to have a back story, that everybody seems to have a distinguishing characteristic. It’s a very different metric.
[Brandon] By shorter story, you mean under 400,000 words, instead of over? Right?
[Mary] Right. Yes. Yes.
[Brandon] Right. Okay. I get that.
[Mary] Yeah, yeah.
[Amal] What’s the smallest cast you’ve ever dealt with, Brandon?
[Brandon] I’ve done two person casts before, but that was in my flash fiction.
[Brandon] Lar… Anything more than… I mean, The Wheel of Time had 2400 characters…
[Brandon] Stormlight’s got something around eight or 900, or something like that. So…
[Amal] Wait. Wait, wait. Sorry, I’m having difficult… Sorry. Say those numbers again.
[Brandon] 2400 characters. Yeah.
[Amal] I hope you can hear the face I’m making.
[Brandon] The book I just finished was 540,000 words long. We cut it to like 460. But… Anyway…
[Brandon] Let’s move on to Maurice.
[Amal] So amazing.
[Brandon] Maurice. What is your…
[Amal] Like, how do you do that?
[Brandon] Sorry. We’re doing this podcast and I’m thinking, “Wow, they use very different methods.”
[Brandon] Because for me, if I’m going to track this cast, I need… I need spreadsheets for the small stories. Right? Because even the small stories, it’s going to be… I’ll generally do two or three about the same characters, and I’ll have 60 characters in… Across the series of novellas.
[Mary] You really cannot see our mouths just hanging open.
[Brandon] But, Stormlight, it’s a huge wiki with tons of characters.
[Brandon] And things like this. That’s why I have two continuity editors.
[Brandon] And whatnot. So, yeah, it’s a very different experience for me. Maurice, how do you track your characters? How do you come up with them, how do you design them, how do you…
[Maurice] So, I come from a gaming background. So basically, my rule is once I bothered to give you a name, I’m going to roll you up as a character.
[Brandon] Do you actually do that?
[Maurice] Well, I don’t roll them up, but…
[Mary] I think we’d love it if you did.
[Maurice] But, yeah, once we get to the stage where I’m naming you, then I go through all the things that I would do for any character. I’m figuring out what your motivation is, I’m figuring out what your back story is, I’m doing all those things because if you have a name… Because naming… For me, naming is one of the hardest things. So if I’m going to go to the effort of giving you a name, you come with everything that comes with being a character.
[Brandon] You actually have these sheets? Like you…
[Maurice] Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.
[Amal] Oh, wow. Really? Oh, these are cool.
[Maurice] So. Well, I mean. They look a lot like these. So I have a sheet… It’s basically divided into quadrants, where I just jot down information for each of my characters. So I can just track them that way.
[Mary] Can we put one of those templates on the website in the liner notes?
[Mary] Great. That is so cool. Because that’s… I want a copy of that.
[Amal] Like I’ve done that for my characters in retrospect. For, like, for my own fun sometimes. But… Come up with a character. This is also within the context of role-playing, but role-playing free-form online. And sometimes, just enjoying taking a character sheet from say World of Darkness or something like that, and just turning that character who is fully rounded and stuff into a character on a sheet.
[Maurice] Well… All that being said, what the… Probably the largest cast of characters I’ve had to deal with was for my urban fantasy trilogy, which I’m calling… I basically call my accidental trilogy, because I never intended to write a trilogy. But it was all based on the Arthurian saga. So in a lot of ways, that work has been done for me. I can just take all the characters and then just sort of… Well, here’s how they’ve traditionally been portrayed. Now let me just do my tweaks and… How would they plug into the hood, basically. But that was a lot harder than I thought it was going to be. I mean, it’s not the numbers you have, but it was still a couple dozen characters per book, which is larger than I had ever done before. Tracking them was tough.
[Brandon] I throw those numbers around to be awe-inspiring, but usually there will be like 30 main characters. Right? Maximum. But… That’s what gets really tricky, is remembering this character’s motivations and things like this. I… usually, when I’m writing these books, I’m writing one group straight through. Then I’m writing another group straight through, and another group straight through. At least to a kind of breakpoint. And then weaving it together. Then you have to do all these passes to make sure that the different stories blend together in a way that’s dramatically and pacing wise works. It gets very complicated there, but I find that if you jump each scene to the new characters, it always feels like you’re stopping and starting and things like this. So…
[Amal] Brandon, can I ask you a question? Do you find that with these really large casts, that that… Like thinking back to what Mary was saying about the constraints kind of dictating what kind of story you tell. Do you find that you sort of have to tell a big… Okay…
[Amal] But that because you’re choosing to tell a really big story, that you have to have a commensurate number of characters? Or can you imagine a situation where you have that number of characters for a small-scale story?
[Brandon] I have no idea how you’d do it. I suppose we can imagine it. It’s certainly a challenge that you could put up before people. With me, I grew up reading epic fantasy. I wanted to write epic fantasy. I was reading these stories with these huge casts, like Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern and Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time. I would read these books, and when I sat down to write, I just naturally started doing this. The big problem was, and I tell this to people a lot, was I jumped in, just trying to write that large cast from page 1, and I failed spectacularly my first few tries. What I realized is a lot of these casts grew organically over time. The author didn’t say I’m going to have 2400 named characters in The Wheel of Time or whatever. Robert Jordan told a story about one character who interacted with a lot of people, and did some expanding on who these people were, and then started telling their stories. I think the form is very important to this. When I write a Stormlight book, which are the really big ones we joke about. Most of my books are kind of normal length. But when I write these, the 500,000 word ones, I actually plot them as a trilogy, with a short story collection included. I write them as three books and a short story collection, which I am interweaving as I go. I put together… The idea behind it is that when you pick this up, you’re not just going to get a story, you’re going to get a lot of stories, all woven together toward a big goal at the end.
[Mary] But you can talk about the difference between the way you are handling the stories in the short story collection versus the way you are handling the larger casts.
[Brandon] Yes. Ethnically.
[Mary] Does it… Do you go into those differently, or do you use the same…
[Brandon] Definitely. Absolutely, differently. It’s the same setting. Like, the most recent one, there is a short story in it about a lighthouse keeper. His family has kept this lighthouse forever. A disaster has just struck. He is going through the town, helping people with the problems from the disaster. It just goes to the four different people. Really, he’s collecting their wood so he can keep his lighthouse burning. But you interact with a ship captain whose ship is not there anymore. And help out the sailors, but end up with their wood. You go here to the woman whose farm was just completely destroyed. But their shed was broken, so I got some more wood. Then he goes up and stokes the flame to the lighthouse. That little sort of story has no connection to the big story, except for the fact that the disaster happened in the big story. The main characters, their job is they can like stop this. They can work with this disaster. He can’t. He’s the lighthouse keeper. So it allows me to just tell these different types of stories, all in one package. That was a huge tangent.
[Mary] No, no…
[Amal] No, I like that.
[Mary] Actually it wasn’t a huge… That was exactly on point. Because this is… The thing that I like about that example is that one of the things that I find with a lot of fiction… A lot of processes, that it’s a very fractal thing. That you’ve got something that you do on this big scale, and it looks totally different because the scale is huge. But when you start drilling down into it, on a scene-by-scene basis, you’re doing exactly the same things. In this scene, I can only have this many characters, because this is how many words I have.
[Brandon] Well, it’s beyond that. There’s a sort of reader, at least me, maybe writer, brain space. Right? Like I can track maybe four or five characters in a conversation. If there is more people trying to participate in this conversation, I have trouble bringing them up enough to remind you that they’re there. I’ve got to arrange these situations so there is a smaller number in each given scene.
[Mary] Yeah. It’s like I totally forgot Howard is even in the room.
[Brandon] Oh, yeah. Howard, put your pants back on.
[Brandon] Let’s… We haven’t even stopped for the book of the week yet, and we’re [inaudible approaching the end, so…]
[Mary] Sorry, this is a very interesting conversation for us.
[Brandon] Let’s talk about To Steal the Stars.
[Screech! Oh, my gosh!]
[Mary] So. We both want to talk about it?
[Amal] You can start.
[Amal] I learned about it from you.
[Mary] That’s fair. So this is a podcast. It is an audio play called To Steal the Stars. It’s coming from Tor Labs and Gideon Media. This is one of the best acted and best produced…
[Amal] And best directed.
[Mary] And best directed and best written pieces of audio drama that I have ever heard. I say this as someone who used to perform in it, review it. This is phenomenally good. It is hitting all of the right science fiction and character buttons for me.
[Amal] I was thoroughly unprepared for how hard I would fall for this. If you describe to me what the contents are… Like, even the genre of this audio drama, I’d be like okay, cool, that sounds interesting, but I wouldn’t necessarily dive into it. People describe it in a lot of ways. People will talk about it as noir, as a noir thriller heist, as a near future noir thriller heist thing. All cool, all fine. But, it doesn’t prepare you for how incredible the characters are, how tight the pacing is, how… And just all of those beautiful grace notes of the directing. Like, I can’t get over the fact that there’s a part where two people are having pillow talk, and it actually sounds like normal people. Like, it just… It’s so hard to do that. It’s hard to do that on the page, fiction wise, it’s hard to… I mean, representing people in intimate situations is chancy at the best of times. But this was the best of times, and also the worst of times. It’s just amazing.
[Mary] In context, I’ll let us segue back in. One of the reasons that I think that it’s really good for you to listen to is because as radio theater, each character has to have a completely distinct voice. It’s not just the actor. It’s the way that they are approaching the words, the way the script has been written. Each character has a distinct motivation, they have a distinct characterization. Some of the episodes have very small casts, some of them are quite large, with multiple voices all happening at the same time. It’s a really interesting way to start thinking about an aspect of a cast which is the way characters actually speak.
[Amal] I think it was also all recorded in an actual hangar… Or not in a hangar, necessarily. But it was all recorded in one space, and they were… The actors were allowed to occupy that space and spread out.
[Mary] Oh, really?
[Amal] Yeah. So it wasn’t in a studio the way we are. So the reason… Part of the reason the audio is so fantastic is that you get the sense of people’s movements through a very large, echo-y space. They’re evoking a top-secret hangar, basically, where secret objects are kept. You really get the feel of how these voices enter and leave the space, of how close people are, how far they are apart. And the performances have more room to breathe. So it’s… Ach. It’s just so good. It’s so good. And it’s going to be a book that comes out… I think November 7th? Of last year, from when this is airing?
[Mary] I know, it’s time travel.
[Amal] So it’s out now.
[Brandon] All right. So we are almost out of time. Even though we just did that. But I wanted to throw one more question at you guys. Which is, let’s focus on the small casts. I’ve talked about the large casts. How do you make a small number of characters wear a lot of hats, if you’ve got a very limited cast, or a very limited space, to do so?
[Mary] So I’m doing a story right now, which is basically two characters on a heist. Normally, heist stories have a huge number of characters. So what I have them doing is that I have them each with a primary expertise. Then, I have given them each area of competence that is… They’re okay at, but they’re not great at. What that does is it allows me to… The nice thing about having a character who has multiple hats is that you can demonstrate how this person is really skilled, but by having them encounter things that they’re not so good at, you can actually ramp up the drama significantly.
[Amal] I think the smaller the cast, the more it becomes important to take into consideration their contrasts to each other, to have one character’s strength be the other’s weaknesses, or to have them complement each other. Which is the same thing, actually. But, yeah, so, just to… The fewer characters there are in the story, I think the more loadbearing the relationship between the characters needs to be, and the more nuanced and encompassing it has to be. The more characters you have, the more variation you can have on those lines.
[Maurice] Yeah. When I’m dealing with smaller casts… Actually, it’s a problem that I didn’t realize was even a thing until I started doing the massive urban fantasy, which was the whole issue of screen time. When I have this large cast, it’s like, how do I manufacture enough screen time for some of these characters, who… I’ve bothered to roll up and create these characters, they now need screen time. How do I balance that? But in a smaller cast, I have this space, and again, they get to occupy this space, so they do have sufficient screen time. So now, what are we going to do with that? Because you now have to occupy all of this space all on your own. So, for me, I’m thinking of my story, The Ache of Home, which is up on Uncanny Magazine. Cast of three. Each of the characters are so completely distinct. I could tell who’s talking without any dialogue tags, basically, because each one is so distinct. Each one has a different role. Like, even my main character, she is… She’s a single mom. She’s struggling in the neighborhood. Yet, she also has this magical ability to tie in with the green. When her co-protagonist, is this gentleman, he’s recently out of prison, but his tattoos tell the story of his life. He can peel the tattoos off, they become magical objects.
[Amal] Oh, that’s so cool.
[Maurice] They’re just… So they have all this screen time, and frankly, I just have more time to just delve deeper. I think ultimately that’s what it is. I have more room to delve deeper into these characters and their interactions.
[Brandon] Awesome. You were going to give us some homework, Maurice, that’s kind of along those lines?
[Maurice] Oh, yes. Very much along these lines. So, it’s out of my dialogue class I teach. I call it, it’s a talking heads exercise. Again, one of the roles of dialogue is… By the end of dialogue… Dialogue, you have characterized… You use dialogue to characterize… To develop characterization. So one of the goals is that by the end of… You should be able to write characters with such a distinct voice, I shouldn’t need dialogue tags to tell them apart. I was thinking about that when you were talking about the audio plays. Very much… It makes you very conscious of that. How do my characters sound, distinct from one another, even in those brief interactions? So that what I… So the exercise is. So you have a married couple. They bump into each other at a coffee shop, when neither one was supposed to be there. One’s supposed to be at work, one’s supposed to be doing their other thing. They bump into each other at a coffee shop. So, obviously, they have an agenda and they have a secret they want to hide and the other one’s trying to get that out of them. Write that scene.
[Brandon] Write that scene with no dialogue tags?
[Maurice] With no dialogue tags.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.