Dealing with the Cast of Thousands

I’m pleased to announce that my fantasy series, the Jakirian Cycle is finished! All the last edits are done and it should be hitting both the real and electronic shelves around October.

Some of you who have checking into MGC for a while might recall the first novel in the series, The Calvanni, which made an appearance here in 2009.

It’s exciting to have completed the trilogy, and it will be great to end the wait for those who started the series with The Calvanni, either in its 2006 Australian print incarnation or its later 2009 electronic version.

One of the things I grappled with Jakirian Cycle (typical of fantasy series) was the considerably wide scope of the story. Without giving too much of the plot away, at the start of The Calvanni the Eathal – the cavern dwelling cousin-species to humans – are launching a major offensive on the remnants of a once vast human Empire. But this is very much in the background.

In the first book the central characters are struggling to survive amid civil strife and assassination attempts (Ellen), while dealing with the emergence of their own unique magical powers (Cedrin).

In the second book, the first major engagements are taking place between the Eathal and the last few human Legions, but the focus is still on the characters and their personal journeys and the mystery of the Scion (the lost heir to the fallen Empire).

In Sorcerer – third book of the trilogy – the clash of human and Eathal occurs on a massive scale. Tens of thousands of human and Eathal troops are fighting across two major fronts. From the PoV of the central characters, they are being drawn more and more into the centre of power in Yos. Both Cedrin and Ellen find themselves right at the core of the reestablished Bulvuran Empire. Amidst all this are the various Warlords who divided up the fallen Empire. The most powerful of whom is facing the Eathal in southern Yos while being heavily outnumbered and under strength in the magical department. To do justice to this, I needed to make that Warlord a PoV character, and needed to portray these major engagements.

Various subplots that have been in the background since the first book all come to the fore in Sorcerer. All of this led to the introduction of a lot of new characters. Each is important to the story in some way, but most are not central or point-of-view characters. Trying to control this crowd, and do them justice was certainly a challenge!

Numerous times I’ve had to scramble back through the book and insert a few key paragraphs. ‘Oh, Damn! Such-and-such was still with Cedrin in that scene.’  or ‘Oh, crap. Where were they when that combat was happening?’ I need to keep them in the picture, but without diluting the thread of the main character too much. There were so many of these minor characters it really proved a teeth-grinding experience. Oh for a simple story! I am my own worst enemy with this. Yet with book three  I also tried to lay the foundation for the ultimate conclusion of what might extend to a possible six books series. Don’t worry – Sorcerer ends with a great climax and the first three books stand as a trilogy.

If you love battle scenes, Sorcerer will definitely be your sort of thing. In that regard it is my homage to David Gemmell:) Using the unique magic of Yos, including the glowmetals, on that scale was a real buzz.

Back to dealing with multiple characters: I always try to maintain the focus of the story through a small number of key point-of-view characters. There may be many other characters introduced to support the story, or to give the setting the feel of the political landscape, but I try to have these experienced through the viewpoint of the key characters. I think it can even aid the tension in the story to have the motivations of these characters unclear – and that’s hard to pull off if they are the narrator. It’s also surprising how much you can convey objectively, without having to make them a PoV character.

It is a tricky balance though. It’s hard to do them all justice, to convey their motivations and to give the reader a sense that these minor characters are moving through the story not just being present as a background cut-out. More than once I shook my head writing Sorcerer and said ‘What the Hell have I got myself into?’

Still, I think it’s worth it to see the various sub-plots come into effect. It gives the whole thing a depth and complexity.

Have you ever been frustrated by the Cast of Thousands? How do you deal with it? Kill them off? Limit their appearances? Tear up your draft?

Cross-posted at chrismcmahons blog.

14 comments

  1. I use the minor characters, slightly developed, to reflect the major character and help to make him real. And when the story is about danger, expect that one or more of them are going to get killed. How else do you convince a reader that the danger is real?
    I recently finished Hard Country, by Michael McGarrity. Excellent book; I recommend all of his books! But he kills off the MAIN characters. Just as soon as you identify with them…chop! The story isn’t so much about a character as it is about an extended family line living in dangerous times. He makes it work.
    I’m not that bold. Yet.

    1. Oh. That’s harsh. I must admit I get a little outraged when the main PoV character is cut, especially when I’ve really hooked into them. Not to say it’s not a valid approach to storytelling – I just like the hero to win.

  2. In a crowd scene, I narrow the focus down to what the POV character sees.
    But with multiple POVs all off running their own subplots? AAAAAHHHHHH!!!!!!

    Actually a couple of times I’ve had to step back and look at the whole thing. “Whose story is this?” And uprooted whole threads. However painful, that can make the book much more readable.

    Mind you, like uprooted weeds, the literary compost pile can come back to haunt you. They sprout demands for their own stories, properly rounded and concluded.

    1. Which is a good thing. I take all my weeds that seem promising and turn them into short stories in the series world. That gives me something to publish every month (yet another more fodder for a newsletter – they get a blog version for free), something to collect into 5-story ebooks and publish in that form, and finally, when I’m done with the series, something to publish into an ebook/print story collection.

      Among other things, it’s like really inexpensive advertising, since each one includes Chapter 1 of the first book of the series. All it costs me is $20 for the cover photos and $3 for ISBNs in 3 formats for each story. As an added bonus, they can inhabit different book categories, e.g., my series is fantasy, not romance, but an individual short story might really be romance in a fantasy setting. Or adventure. Or murder mystery. More routes for discoverability…

      1. I like this. I was planning to pull out a major flashback from my WIP, and put it up as a short story for free. Putting in the first chapter of the novel is pretty much brilliant. Will do.

  3. My sister was having this problem in finishing up the last chapters of her novel — the climax just had too many people and she didn’t know what to do with them all.

    My suggestion — which she liked — was to get a piece of poster board. Put all the characters who have to do something down the side, and put the climatic events along the top. Then fill in the chart of where they have to be and what they have to do. Even if you don’t include what they’re doing in the narrative, or if you just gloss over it with passive text, it helps you figure out how the events will go down.

    1. Hi, Amy. That’s a great suggestion. When I am doing a big plot, I usually get down to the old pencil and paper – usually a big sheet of joined-up A3s with the characters listed in rows and the chapters in rough columns. I then write summaries of each chapter (no more than two sentences) in each box for that character etc. It really helps me to look at the presence of each character in the plot and balance this out by moving things around. It also helps me focus on the character arc of each character and look at how they will appear to the reader – i.e. how much of break between appearances.

  4. I haven’t figured that out.

    One thought is project management software, like Microsoft Project, or one of the open source alternatives. (This is more a brain storming for here thing then something I’m planning to try. I ought to work with the programs more someday, but for other purposes.)

    Really, my issues with large casts most likely come from defining the story vaguely or not at all. (Step one of any project: define the problem.) That and the fact that I’m still far from having a handle on creative writing in general.

    1. When it comes to story creation I’m pretty instinctive. I usually leap from one thing to another filling in the blanks i.e. characterisation, setting, conflict etc. I try to tick all the boxes but it certainly doesn’t happen in the straight line!

      I find it really helpful to get down to pen and paper and sketch out the plot appearances and scenes (see the reply above to Amy). But that’s just me, there are many approaches as writers.

  5. I haven’t had a cast of thousands, yet. [knock, knock, knock] But I tend to make lists of characters, their descriptions, and a quick bit of info, so I can keep offspring, property, and military rank straight. (There’s a reason why I’ve been introduced as “Our section’s OCD.”) With the Azdhagi it became critical to have a list of markings sitting on my desk, otherwise a dark brown individual turned light green in the third chapter and worse.

    1. That’s for sure. After years of scrabbling for pieces of paper I do it all electronic these days – I usually have a word file that lists all the character descriptions, glossary etc – then I can just search for what I need using Ctrl
      F!

  6. Congratulations on finishing, Chris! It sounds like a huge endeavor.
    I don’t have a cast of thousands in Sky Suspended, but what I thought was “quite a few” turned out to be “a large number of named characters” according to the Createspace editor. She recommended a list of them all and their affiliations at the front of the book, which I dutifully created. I’m not sure how helpful that is in an electronic book, because my father said he wished he’d known about it. Oh, well.

    As a reader, I have often wished for little tags to remind me who a particular supporting character is. Especially at the beginning of the book, it’s very helpful. I like it when the writer off-handedly refers to the dude’s Hyperborean accent, and I can say, oh, yeah, him.

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