Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Juggling a Cast of Characters

So I think I’ve mentioned that I’m juggling a cast of thousands in the Medieval France YA. I need a sense of a full royal court worth of nobles, but I also need for the reader not to get overwhelmed by all the players. I want them to feel real enough that they add texture and richness to the story, but at the same time, I can't allow them to swamp it, either sheer numbers or from being too vivid. And any vividness needs to serve the story overall, not threaten to run away with it.

*I* also need to not get overwhelmed by all the players.

These are more than simply walk ons, but not true secondary characters. And there are a couple of traitors hidden in there, so they need to be on-screen enough that the readers don’t feel cheated when their identities are revealed.

So as I was staring bemusedly at the mss page, trying to decide how to make all these people stand out—for both myself and my readers—I came up with this little system that I thought I’d share.

I took a 3 x 5 index card for each character and put their name on the top: Baron Geffoy
Then I picked three characteristics for that person: jovial, opportunistic, nurses grudges.
Then I added a hidden core to that person, that was the core motivation for both his personality traits and actions: impotent

Next I listed a handful of dominant physical features that would help me key into that character, but that would also act as tags to help anchor the reader in that character: pale read beard hides a weak chin, blue eyes watery from too many evenings spent drinking wine, barrel chested.

Last, I listed two or three mannerisms that this person used: stroking his beard, shifting eyes, rocking back on his heels

I was surprised by how much this helped me get everyone straight in my mind, and helped delineate them on the page. Especially since, at face value, many of them had similar characteristics. For example, many of them were arrogant, as nobles often are. But I learned that one of them was arrogant and dismissive, while another was arrogant and calculating, which totally informed how they interacted with others and helped me nail their speech patterns.
It also helped be sure that all the information I divulged about these characters went to building a cohesive impression.

So anyway, I thought I’d pass that trick along in case anyone else was struggling with a similar problem.

To recap…


Three Characteristics:

Hidden Core:

Dominant features:



Deva Fagan said...

This sounds like an excellent technique. I have a rapidly developing list of characters in one of my WIPS and I very well may use it! Thank you!

Katy Cooper said...

Genius! (As usual.)

Story Weaver said...

Katy stole the words right out of my mouth!

Robin L said...

Aw shucks. Hardly genius. More like necessity being the mother of invention...

Story Weaver said...

"necessity is the mother of invention"
I've always loved that phrase and your the first person I've met who knew it besides me. (And I'm always tempted to say "yes" when they go, "ooh, did you make that up?")

Dave Johnson said...

I'm having the same problem with the Medici court - the need for lots of bodies in the halls, but a few must stick out. I'll try your technique (that way if my final draft sucks I can blame it on you - haha).

Vonna said...

So I spent this morning applying this technique to my WIP. For me, the best part was the Hidden Core. I found out so many things that I had not previously articulated. Great fun. I also found out that I had twenty-four characters in my book. EEEK!

Robin L said...

Story Weaver, I thought it was Benjamen Franklin who said it first. Turns out it has an ever earlier origin than that. Plato!

Dave, ha! And that court backdrop thing is a killer, isn't it?

Vonna, thank you so much for reporting back! I found that hidden core thing pretty powerful too, in that it gave an entire layer of subtext to everything the character did. If only to me, but I can't convey it if I'm not feeling it, so I figured it was an important first step. Yeay that it worked for you!

And I think I may have even more than 24. Honestly? I'm afraid to go count them....

kathrynjankowski said...

This is great! I'm going to try it with my characters this afternoon.


Robin L said...

Good luck, Kathryn!