writing tons and tons of characters:

Total posts: [45]
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So ya, from going from barely any named characters other than the main ones, I decided to write loads and loads of characters and hell, I think this will make a difference. I already have 24 fleshed out characters.

It isn't as hard as I thought it would be for the side characters, they appear so shortly most of the time, defining them will need to be done on short order anyway, and a lot of my characterization for these minor characters may not even make it all in there by the end of the book, since their basic characterization is on the same level as my main characters. I also plan to add a hell of a lot more mooks and redshirts to the mix, just need to get on that soon.

Is anyone else doing this? If so, what challenges have you faced, and is there any cool things you have discovered that you might want to share about writing these many characters? Does the extra effort seem worth it, or do you end up making flat or one dimensional characters a lot? What is your experiences with writing these many characters?

edited 10th May '11 9:05:10 PM by jasonwill2

as of the 2nd of Nov. has 6 weeks for a broken collar bone to heal and types 1 handed and slowly
Responsible adult
Guilty as charged here. I often end up doing this because I like my worlds to feel real and fleshed-out, which means lots of different people running around.

I think the main thing I have to struggle with is making their relationships feel real and well-defined when some of them get so little screentime.
"Proto-Indo-European makes the damnedest words related. It's great. It's the Kevin Bacon of etymology." ~Madrugada
3 chihuahua010th May 2011 09:28:07 PM from Standoff, USA , Relationship Status: I LOVE THIS DOCTOR!
Writer's Welcome Wagon
-takes a glance at Kira Is Justice, where he named sixteen SIS agents and gave Fiona five personalities-

I like making characters, so as soon as I work more on a series, I'll have the chance to officially use this trope.

4 Wolf106610th May 2011 09:44:11 PM from New Zealand , Relationship Status: In my bunk
Typin' strangely
With my whacking-great cast of characters I've had to create a complex database and spreadsheets to keep track of details such as descriptions, skills, jobs, kids' names, relationships, cars, weapons etc so I can quickly look them up when I need them (rather than flicking back an unknown number of pages just to keep the type of car they're driving consistent throughout the work. (Would be embarrassing if they parked a Mitsubishi and then, ten pages later, drove off in a Mazda. Fuck, I knew it started with an "M", dammit!)

I've found that a number of them are currently rather superficial but I'm sure they will flesh out over the course of the story.

I've had to have that many characters to avoid having a small group of people all with an improbably high number of areas of expertise and experience way beyond their years as well as a superhuman capacity to get all sorts of shit done in record time while still tending to the basics and managing to stop to eat and rest.

In addition to those around whom the story centres there are others who I've mapped out as they get mentioned from time to time - "historical" references and occasional visits or assistance and I need to keep their skills etc consistent.

The relationship map is getting rather complicated as they interact, too, and I'm having to keep track of how they get on with one another.

I did a lot of initial work (once I realised I was going to need a tribe) creating the characters and filling in as many blanks as possible in the database but I can see the database being added to as things grow out of the work and the situations reveal more about the characters. Also, as they develop, the database is going to have to change to reflect that. There's already a living/deceased field, the status of which will change for some characters.

I also instinctively put them into Cast Herds before I had even heard of the trope - it was the only logical way to keep things manageable. However, it's not just one or two "spokesmen" from each herd that interact with the others. Anyone from any herd can and will turn up and have their own unique interactions with other characters from other herds.

My big difficulty, when I've got a large-ish herd and referring to what they're doing, is to avoid situations like the page quote for Loads and Loads of Characters where it starts reading like the Mouseketeer Roll Call. Finding other ways of saying "Catherine, Andrea, Helen, Artur, Bettina and I sat outside having cigarettes and coffee with Malcolm, Joanne, Sheree and Cassie", that aren't as cumbersome, can be a pain. I deeply feel that "all of us except Bryan went outside to check out the noise" is putting too much on the reader to remember which of the huge cast of characters were present prior to that point. Easy to do visually on TV or a movie as the viewer can see at a glance who's there but a lot harder when the list of players in that scene may have been last added to three pages ago.
Dangerously Genre Savvy since ages ago...
5 dRoy10th May 2011 09:49:36 PM from The Happy Place , Relationship Status: A cockroach, nothing can kill it.
Perpetually clueless
(raises hand) I'm very, VERY guilty of this. Let's see here...

That makes like, what, 60 characters so far. Twelve of them is very deeply developed, 2/3 is fleshed out, and the rest of them is as of now, superficial.

Massive amount of research and developing and weaving character developments and connections is the reason why never managed to actually start the series.

I'm not even trying to go for realism and big world or anything. It's just that it has a lot of factions.

edited 10th May '11 9:52:09 PM by dRoy

Mother of god...You turned one of the hardest and best Champions into an absolute joke. - Zelenal
hmm. I find that do one character before going onto the next works well.

All my characteriztion went like this:

  • name

  • three "arch-traits" (for example, the "arch trait" 'passionate' can include emotional, determined, and inspirational, as those are all parts of being passionate, but not all are necessarily in there.)

  • Political affiliation (liberal, moderate, conservative, something radical, ect)

  • Religion (Islamic, Christian, Atheist, Agnostic ect ect)

  • moral alignment (in terms of D&D good-evil/chaotic-lawful, but including blue and orange morality as either blue, with good intentions, or orange, with bad intentions and no chaotic/lawful assignment to either blue or orange morality)

It seemed to give me a great enough idea to get everyone in mind. The age and race haven't even entered my mind yet for most characters, as these listed traits are the most important in terms of characterization for me. The rest is superficial to me, and easily constructed. Also limiting myself to three arch-traits keep me from getting lost in tiny details when making the template.

Is that too simple? Or is it just good enough? Some of you guys sound like you put my meager two dozen to shame.

edited 10th May '11 10:04:48 PM by jasonwill2

as of the 2nd of Nov. has 6 weeks for a broken collar bone to heal and types 1 handed and slowly
7 PsychoFreaX10th May 2011 10:26:16 PM from Transcended Humanity
The number of characters you have should correspond with how long your story is. People will of course get tired of reeading about only the same two characters for a year and a short story with too many characters won't be able to go that deep into all of them.

As for myself I got four main characters, around fifty allies/rivals split into CastHerds, another fifty plot device characters and over a hundred named villains and their henchmens. But then again I'm planning for a four hundred chapter Long Runner.

I used to have trouble keeping track of all of them. But just carry around some notes of them. Doesn't even have to be so long. I just have their name and a one line description which sparks everything else about them. For example:

Nicolas- A little psychic boy who's scared of just about anything and can make his arm go intangible.

Rebecca- Precog lady with an irrational hatred towards ALL men.

I personally like having Loadsand Loads Of Characters because any kind of audience will have someone they can connect to in some way. From my experience I wouldn't actually like a story unless I like at least two of the characters. It may seem difficult to keep track of all of them at first but just give it a try and you'll be fine.

edited 10th May '11 10:27:57 PM by PsychoFreaX

8 nrjxll10th May 2011 10:30:34 PM , Relationship Status: Not war
My comics have over 700 named characters or recurring unnamed characters. I'd estimate about a hundred or so are really developed, with the others consisting of assorted Cast Filler Tropes with no importance to the plot or at least not usually. My other works aren't quite as high up on the extra quotient but still tend to have many principal or secondary characters.

My reasons for this are basically those given by people above - it makes the world much more realistic to not have The Main Characters Do Everything, and there's also just tons of factions. The first reason is easily the bigger one, though - I try to write everything from a Watsonian perspective, which means treating my setting as a real world, which means not having one set of individuals affect every major event for writing convenience. Real Life doesn't work this way, after all.

I've never had much trouble at all writing giant casts; in fact, I have far more difficulty trying to not constantly introduce new characters, even as simple walk-on parts. I do instinctively sort them into something that can be considered analogous to Cast Herds: the World of Weird characters, the aliens, the James Bob characters and villains, et cetera (yeah, my comics are a Genre Roulette).

I don't see why anyone would have trouble keeping track of all their characters. I never do, nor do I really need to keep notes on them - though I do scribble an outline when starting something new, my writing is too organic to really make that useful

edited 10th May '11 10:30:43 PM by nrjxll

I am a huge advocate for fleshing out characters as much as possible, rather than just doing background work on the main cast and leaving the rest as 'extras'. To that end, I wrote up this design template awhile back, which I fill out for every character that is named in my series. Each question 'grouping' takes about a page to answer as the original paragraphs keep getting expanded as ideas flow into more ideas. Here's the template:

What is their name? Who named them? Why that one?

Where were they raised? By whom? Who are their parents?

How old are they? How much do they remember of their childhood/younger years?

Who are their friends? Whom do they love, admire, fear?

What immortals or historic figures do they idolize?

Are they sheltered, ignorant, well-learned, world-weary?

What sorts of people do they consider beneath them?

What parts of themselves do they like or dislike?

Do they think analytically or intuitively? Are they logical or emotional?

Are they generally confident, shy, cautious, curious, indifferent?

Do they enjoy simple pleasures? What is their favorite meal, drink?

Do they like any particular music, games, smells, clothes, stories, seasons, colors?

What are their fears? What are their dreams? What are their talents?

What do they do for a living? Why did they become a member of that profession? Do they like it?

As of the present I have over 47 named characters and counting. There are also at LEAST a dozen more that I am positive I'll be adding but haven't found the time to name them and flesh them out yet, and I'm sure that number could increase to double or even triple by the time I'm finished with the first novel in the series.
Eloquence belongs to the conqueror.

I'm not going for that many. 700 seems overboard, unless it is a really really long series. Some works do get me lost in the sheer amount of how many characters there is if too many are regulars. I then cannot relate with any of them, as for me it takes time to relate to them unless they really really resonate with me, and then they are there shortly, and never appear again, or have littler and littler screen time. Shows where main characters die too often mess with me in this way too. This is one thing I am trying to avoid in writing loads and loads of characters, a dissociated feeling with TOO many characters that appear to regularly, making me not be able to keep track of anything but a few characters I even know the name of.

Example: I am a fan of Stargate Universe, but with so many damn characters I just know the names of Rush, Chloe, Young, Eli (my fav character). Then there is the one black guy who always seems kind of broody/un-talkative like he doesn't have much to live for, the one blonde medic, the lesbian Asian chick,the one guy that got zapped back to earth in the time loop/wormhole episode, and a couple of soldiers I recognize a good bit and know a little. There is also that one guy that betrayed them for the aliens that rush killed by making him be trampled by an alien herd of creatures, and finally the two average scientists that help Rush and Eli.

That is 4 characters I know the name of, 3 I don't but know well enough, 2 butt monkeys (the scientists), and two random but plot significant people.

Everyone else? Ya, don't have a fucking idea who the hell any of them are.

This I am trying to avoid, and I think I will be able to. Does anyone else have this feeling to loads and loads of characters ever? Or do I just not pay enough attention? Some other works make me feel this way too sometimes if it is too many characters all at once.

edited 10th May '11 10:54:31 PM by jasonwill2

as of the 2nd of Nov. has 6 weeks for a broken collar bone to heal and types 1 handed and slowly
11 nrjxll10th May 2011 11:13:06 PM , Relationship Status: Not war
[up]Frankly, I would say you aren't paying enough attention. But as the guy who has a 700-person character list, there's a possibility I'm biased.

To be fair to my comics, though, I've been writing them since 2003. And keep in mind, like I said before, about 600 of them are more named, recurring extras then anything else.

edited 10th May '11 11:14:22 PM by nrjxll

Maybe so, then again I AM bad at names in real life, that may be part of it. Still, I don't want my readers to get lost in it all, and I want to make a distinction between important main, and supporting characters. That is what I am most concerned with when writing these many named characters.
as of the 2nd of Nov. has 6 weeks for a broken collar bone to heal and types 1 handed and slowly
My Zombie Apocalypse story has, as perspective characters:

  • a terminally ill boy who deliberately becomes undead

  • a gravedigger who's the first to get attacked by the undead

  • the leader of the terrorist group that started it all

  • a boyfriend/girlfriend pair from the terrorist group

  • the younger sister of the boyfriend

  • a police detective tracking the terrorists

  • a merchant who gets turned undead and then decides to negotiate with the humans (inspired by Re: Your Brains)

  • a bullied schoolkid who lets the undead into the safe house to get back at the bullies

And I'm considering a couple more. Big problem for me is keeping track of the order in which things occur, since I want all the scenes in chronological order even if they involve different characters.
If I'm asking for advice on a story idea, don't tell me it can't be done.
14 MajorTom11th May 2011 10:35:06 AM , Relationship Status: Barbecuing
Eye'm the cutest!
Lets see....

  • 3 main most protagonists (Mathias Watkins, Tenchi Yamanaka, Daniel)
  • A gaggle of main recurring characters throughout the series. (Colonel Barry Smith, Samantha Watkins, Anzan, Admiral Mei Lin, Swordmaster Khornan)
  • A plethora of recurring minor characters (too many to rattle off, the running count is somewhere around 30 or so)
  • The nigh legion of named characters both one shots and seen more than once.

Yeah...Endless Conflict definitely runs on Loads and Loads of Characters.

"Allah may guide their bullets, but Jesus helps those who aim down the sights."
15 JHM11th May 2011 11:21:08 AM from Neither Here Nor There , Relationship Status: Showing feelings of an almost human nature
Thunder, Perfect Mind
Oh, dear... I'm so very guilty of invoking this trope. Here's a brief rundown:
  • Seven major protagonists
  • Eight revolving secondary characters
  • Seven "heroic" antagonists
  • Ten "villainous" antagonists
  • Four Eldritch Abominations
  • Numerous tertiary characters
16 annebeeche11th May 2011 12:21:20 PM from by the long tidal river
watching down on us
I normally have small casts with the story centralized heavily on the personal struggles of one protagonist, but now Beowulf has more characters than I have ever written in one story:

  • Beowulf
  • His mom
  • His uncle
  • his aunt
  • his cousin
  • his dad (deceased)
  • Thane #1
  • Thane #2
  • Hrothgar
  • Unferth
  • Hrothgar's daughter
  • Wealtheow (Hrothgar's queen)
  • Grendel
  • Grendel's mother

Unferth even has his own character arc.
Banned entirely for telling FE that he was being rude and not contributing to the discussion.
I shall watch down from the goon heavens.
17 SilentReverence11th May 2011 01:01:23 PM from 3 tiles right 1 tile up
adopting kitteh
It goes hard and harder with time.

  • Three main characters (Matj'a, Adanei and Thom) for the first work, and five for the second, and their Pokémon (up to six per trainer, perhaps more) (I'm writing both works in the same 'verse)
  • Eight Gym Leaders per region, for two regions, each with two or three sattelite trainers, and their Pokémon.
  • Team Evil's leader, commanders and ten or twenty relatively important personnel, and their Pokémon (well at least this time is four Pokémon tops).
  • Ten, fifteen tops, members of law enforcement, and their Growlithe.
  • Four important, plot-driving secondary characters, and their Pokémon.
  • One, two, perhaps three of each of the above character's families (not as strong or notorious for the Mooks but still leaving enough room for development)... and their Pokémon.
  • A mysterious hunter, a mysterious industrial spy, and a mysterious assassin, and their Pokémon.
  • One or two Rangers, and the partner Pokémon for each (phew!).
  • The Elite Four and The Champion, and their Pokémon.
  • Heck, the big city's library and personnel, and its Pokémon.
  • A relatively large amount of Characters Of The Day and pseudo-rivals for each episode.
  • One or two O.C. Stand-in, and their Pokémon.
  • Several random Pokémon who serve as characters of their own.
  • A Genius Loci. With its own Pokémon, yeah.

I've not checked my database to count how many defined characters do I already have, but it sounds like I'm bordering 200, with ~20 recurring ones in the first work and ~50 recurring ones in the second.

The most problematic thing I've found when maintaining so many characters, so far, has been to make sure that all of their characterizations are consistent with the setting. I have to be careful ro avoid Expansion Pack Past, for example, and check that villainous and freudian excuses are either convergent motivations for a group of people, or a divergent motivation for a very particular singular case. It is also more difficult for the Pokémon, since I need to ensure that their motivations not only are beyond merely "serving a Trainer", but that they are stable and consistent given the changing setting and how much the different Pokémon can understand of it.

Setting up a database and a wiki has helped with the most obvious stuff (like avoid plot holes and glaring "Ford first, Toyota next" continuity mistakes); it has also helped plan better how and when give screentime to certain people or peoplemons, since I'm sure I won't have the time to fit every showcase of personality in the story. Settning up a timeline and screenwriting software has also helped, too. Just in case, I have each minor character have a certain unexplored quirk from which I can build upon if I ever need to buy time or make the story backtrack. That way I can avoid pointless Filler and keep the stories operating in a way similar to Two Lines, No Waiting.

edited 11th May '11 1:06:40 PM by SilentReverence

I, too, am guilty of this, for the same reason as much of you (it's fun!). I have a word document listing all of my characters by birth date, regardless of how well developed they are, and as of right now, this list contains 172 characters, all of whom are part of the same world, despite varying levels of reality for different stories. (When characters who interact with the supernatural interact with characters who don't - and there's plenty of overlap - the mention of otherworldly things is simply avoided, unless it's relevant to the story.)

Since only a fraction of the characters are main characters, with a slightly larger percentage consisting of supporting characters, most of these characters are only developed at a basic level, as needed for the storyline of the protagonists where they have small parts. However, I'm a strong advocate for the idea that everyone is the Hero of Another Story, as in real life, even if the chances of actually sharing that story are unlikely. Thus, I do my best to think up life histories for everyone, which can be difficult to make unique time and time again, but it's worth it in the end.

edited 11th May '11 1:51:05 PM by shrikecatcher

19 MrAHR11th May 2011 01:54:58 PM from ಠ_ಠ , Relationship Status: A cockroach, nothing can kill it.
Ahr river
I don't have many characters. They're just kind of a pain because it takes a while to draw them all.

I have for the first arc, including extras:

  • The 5 person cast.
  • 3 people in town, with about 30 extras
  • 12 member troupe
  • 10 backstory-ers
  • 6 castle members
  • A fencing school with 3 named students, 1 principal and 1 teacher.
  • A merchant family with about 4 other named people, and extras
  • A slaving clan with 1 specifically named person, and about 20 extras
  • A shaman hive with 2-3 named, and 50 extras
  • A monastary with 3 named, and 12 or so extras
  • A gypsy family with parents, grandparents, 4 kids.
  • Another gypsy family with parents, and 2 kids. They are accompanied by 200-300 extras
  • Nomadic characters, 2 named, 70 or so extras.
  • A hospital with about 6 named characters and 20 or so extras
  • Oh, and a town populated by about 30 unique minor characters all with their own developed quirks.

edited 11th May '11 1:57:35 PM by MrAHR

20 nrjxll11th May 2011 01:58:19 PM , Relationship Status: Not war
[up]If that's not many characters, what would you define as "many"?
21 MrAHR11th May 2011 01:59:00 PM from ಠ_ಠ , Relationship Status: A cockroach, nothing can kill it.
Ahr river
Any one above, I suppose.
22 chihuahua011th May 2011 02:24:17 PM from Standoff, USA , Relationship Status: I LOVE THIS DOCTOR!
Writer's Welcome Wagon
I'm looking wimpy already. Since most of my ideas are stored in my head, I rarely get it down on paper. The closest I got to it was I recorded a family tree for a Reunions: Dark Summer inspired story. There's about thirty characters on that tree, all but a handful recurring. And I think it's not enough. Sad, isn't it?

The Loads and Loads of Characters mostly applies to my 'verse, which I define as a series of works that usually can cross-over due to sharing at least a few basic traits. Those traits are: having a teen protagonist or at least lots of young characters, straddling the idealism and cylicalism scale, lampshades, Fanservice, and many pokes at the Fourth Wall. The other two 'verses (one for more adult and down-to-earth works and one for children books) are relevitely tiny.

Is there a thread for the second paragraph?

edited 11th May '11 2:26:04 PM by chihuahua0

In my current story I have,

1 main character, 6 other central characters. (I define central as having a section that's their POV.), 8 named high school students with varying degrees of importance from Chekhov'sGunman to "said something one time.", 7 government workers, 5 parents of central characters, 2 ghosts, and 11 minor characters that either don't fit into any of the previous categories or are only mentioned once.

35 total.

The sequel has a lower number with 27 and you already know a few of them so that arguably makes it better. ...Except if you get a name than you have some sort of plot importance. And there's more people narrating.

Oh boy.

edited 11th May '11 2:46:31 PM by Hermiethefrog

24 dRoy11th May 2011 03:11:29 PM from The Happy Place , Relationship Status: A cockroach, nothing can kill it.
Perpetually clueless
[up][up] Hey, at least you wrote something, one that got a trope page even. Irrelevant, I know, but hey, at least you are in better track than me...
Mother of god...You turned one of the hardest and best Champions into an absolute joke. - Zelenal
Responsible adult
Hoo boy. What's Wordkeepers look like?

  • 4 primary protagonists, plus their in-house Mentor
  • 3 other mentor characters who live off-campus
  • 8 important, named school staff members, plus Alicia in Book 2 and beyond
  • 10 or so students of varying level of import (not counting named extras, of which there are too dang many
  • 20-odd backstory-relevant characters to the main characters (including 1 Posthumus Character and Nick's 9 siblings)
  • 5 assistants to the Big Bad
  • A completely different group of big bads who form a 7 Bad Band
  • And 30+ others who fill minor roles or who are too difficult to categorize (like Blinky).

Not as many as some other people, but still substantial.
"Proto-Indo-European makes the damnedest words related. It's great. It's the Kevin Bacon of etymology." ~Madrugada

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