Individual characters are important, but it’s a rare story that relies on a single character for everything. As such, cohesion among the cast of characters is incredibly important. Below are some tips for thinking about your characters as a cast, and using this to create a stronger story overall.
There are a few major benefits to considering the cast of your story as a whole:
- It cuts down on character repetition. A common problem is when the writer creates one great character and end up using three or four different versions in the same story. Since most writers tend to have certain types of characters that appeal to them, this is a common pitfall when developing characters in isolation.
- It increases cohesion and group chemistry, since you can design personalities that will compliment each other.
- It lets you get the most out of your characters, and stops you from having more characters (or significantly fewer) than there are things for them to do. Considering the entire cast makes it easier to give each character a unique role, to figure out how to fill the openings, and to identify when you have enough characters.
- It gives each character a chance to shine, since it helps you get them into a role where they belong, puts them around other characters who bring out their most interesting traits, and stops other characters from stealing their thunder.
There are two ways of approaching your cast. They absolutely can–and should–be combined.
Think about the plot
When too many characters try to do the same thing, it generally results in all of them getting less screen time. This is especially true if they’re filling a supporting role. That means that instead of one memorable character, you may have three characters with bit parts..
Look at the characters that you have so far. Determine what each one’s role in the story is, and what they do that no other character does. Then identify characters who are trying to fill the same role. If you notice a lot of characters who all serve the same function, this may be a sign that something is amiss, and that you need to condense characters. This can refer to social, occupational, and plot functions: a main character with five best friends, three stern and unyielding captains of the guard, or seven antagonists will all create a similar brand of trouble.
Note that whether or not the story can accommodate multiple characters in similar roles depends a lot on scope: a fleet of spaceships needs three navigators. A single crew probably doesn’t.
Thinking about roles is also useful for generating new characters. If you’re still in the process of building your story, identify where the openings are and what characters you need. Then design characters to fill those needs. This makes it so that any new characters have a distinct purpose, which stops the story from feeling cluttered and contributes to its forward momentum. It also provides a solid jumping off point. Rather than “I need more characters,” you can start building from “I need a linguist,” “My main character needs a rival,” or, “I need a jerkass linguist to rival my MC.”
Think about personality
Similar roles are more likely to trip over each other, and to result in vagrant characters who have nothing to do. Similar personalities are more likely to make the cast appear indistinct. Ideally, you want your characters to have personalities that complement one another, and that highlight the most interesting aspects of each other’s personalities. One of the most straightforward ways of ensuring that this happens is to design the characters around each other.
As above, it’s good to start by thinking about what you already have. If there are a lot of overlapping personalities—sarcastic geniuses, clever chess masters, stern fighters—there’s a chance that these characters start to blend together. Figure out what makes them different, and whether or not they can be condensed (if you notice them constantly stealing each other’s thunder and/or if you mix them up frequently, the answer is probably yes).
Bear in mind that the similarities may be on the surface, like too many shared quirks, or may run deeper. Address the similarities where they take place. If you’re dealing with two characters who have tragic backstories and a penchant for mint ice cream, altering a few surface details may be enough. If you’re dealing with the aforementioned sarcastic geniuses and both characters act the same, reskinning isn’t enough.
While you’re at it, it helps to figure out what your type is—the sort of character that you find yourself writing multiple versions.
Don’t stop writing them. After all, you probably like these character for a reason, and odds are that you have an excellent feel for how they tick. But do be cognizant of when you create them and how many similar characters there are in the story. More so, use your knowledge of this character type to your advantage by experimenting and seeing what kind of spin you can put on it to make each iteration different.
Then consider what personalities fit in with the characters that you have. Look at the temperament of the main cast, and which attributes are present. From this, you can fill in personalities that pick up the slack and compliment the rest of the group. So if the first four members of your five man band are short-tempered, high energy, and used to living by their own rules, the fifth member can be built to anchor them by being serious, even-tempered, or lawful. Having them oppose the other personalities while keeping them aligned with each other creates a productive tension that encourages characters to act in interesting ways.
Writing like a boss: The dialogue test
One of the best ways to test whether or not your characters are distinct is to black out the names and then read through your dialogue. If you can identify who said what, odds are that the characters have reasonably distinct voices. A handful of characters who always get mixed up may be something worth going in and tweaking. General difficulty picking them apart might indicate some issues with characterization (or at least with character voice). This is doubly true for multiple POVs with first person narrators.