Tips for Creating an Ensemble Cast of Characters
One of my favorite movies is The Breakfast Club, John Hughes’s 1980s classic that imagines a day in the life of five students from various cliques within an American high school who are forced to spend a Saturday suffering through detention together. The film’s message centers on the superficial differences between the characters, and how those differences mask the fact that the kids have more in common than they think. The film succeeds because it manages to portray five fully-realized and distinct characters.
In my personal reading, I enjoy books with large and varied casts of characters. However, from time to time I discover a book that aspires to include a wide array of characters, but by the second or third chapter I can’t keep them all straight anymore. I find myself distracted by the need to remember who’s who: Is this the friend who the main character grew up with or the new girl who just moved to town? Is this the boy the MC trusts or the one she suspects?
Writing a book with a large cast of characters presents some unique challenges. Here are some tips to help you ensure that each character makes a clear and distinct impression on your reader:
Give your characters passions. Many people have an interest or passion that influences the way they interpret the world. For me, it’s writing—almost everything that I encounter gets filtered through the lens of writing. My husband is a musician and songwriter, and the world gets filtered through that lens for him. If we were to become stuck in an elevator together, (once we both got over the initial panic!) our passions would influence how we reacted. I might try to memorize how I’m feeling so I could use it later in my writing, while my husband might drum his fingers to a beat to ground himself in music. If you give your characters passions—poetry, football, astrology—those interests will influence their reactions and distinguish them from each other.
Pay attention to your characters’ speech. Real people have unique styles of speech. Some use words sparingly while others are verbose. Some use nicknames. Some elaborate with figures of speech while others add sound effects to their speech. Your characters need to have unique speaking styles as well—so unique that a reader could identify the speaker without dialogue tags. If you think this can’t be done, think of the characters in Charlie Brown. Here is an ensemble cast of simple, two-dimensional cartoon characters, but only Lucy sounds like Lucy. Only Linus sounds like Linus. And no one else sounds like Charlie Brown.
Let clothing reveal character. Many people express their individuality through the clothes they choose to wear. Even someone who has never seen the movie could identify from the poster which of the characters in The Breakfast Club is "the princess,” which is “the basket case," which is “the athlete,” and which is “the criminal.” Even when dressed in school or work uniforms, clothing can reveal the details of a person’s life. Is the nurse’s uniform neatly pressed or wrinkled? Does the businessman have a stain on his tie? Is the teacher wearing designer shoes? Sometimes the smallest deviation from the norm can make a character distinct and memorable. In Every Day by David Levithan, the character of Rhiannon is described as having drawn a city skyline onto her Converse sneakers. This detail stuck in my mind and helped define the character of Rhiannon for me.
Name your characters with care. A reader might find it difficult to remember which character is Joe and which is Josh, and characters named Kelly and Kira might overlap in a reader’s mind. Once I inadvertently had a character named Mack and another named Max in the same story. It seems obvious, but because they never appeared in a scene together, I overlooked it until a beta-reader pointed it out. Of course, character names can go beyond mere clarity and uniqueness; they can help convey a character’s personality. Returning to my Breakfast Club example, the boy who is “the brain” is named Brian, and the boy who bends the rules is called by his last name—“Bender.” These characters’ names help convey who they are.
Creating distinct characters is always essential to strong writing, but when your story involves a large ensemble cast it cannot be neglected.
What other techniques do you use to emphasize the unique qualities of your characters? Do you have any favorite books that contain strong examples of distinct and varied characters? Please share your thoughts in the comments!