Writing Corner: Your Cast of Characters

It’s been a long time since I’ve blogged about writing, so I’ve decided it’s time to get back into the swing of sharing my thoughts. I’ve been writing for around 13 years now, and have completed four novels and one novella. I’ve learnt a lot over the years, and hope someone will find these posts useful. It is always important to remember though, that writing is a constant learning process! No matter how long you have been writing for, there is always more to learn and discover about the craft, and your own processes.

The cast of characters in your books includes all of the named characters. The protagonist is the focus of your story, but the other characters, and the overall cast, are also really important.

The type of characters you have can broadly be grouped as follows (I’ll be using characters from Harry Potter as examples, as most people are familiar with them):

Protagonist – The character that the novel focuses on, whom drives the story. You can sometimes have two protagonists (e.g. in dual narrative stories). (e.g. Harry Potter)

Antagonist – The opposing force to your protagonist. There are usually one or two main antagonists. (e.g. Lord Voldemort)

Main characters – These are often the protagonists’ friends, companions or love interest. (e.g. Ron and Hermione)

Secondary characters – These characters are important to the novel but don’t feature as much as the main characters. There can also be secondary antagonists, such as the main antagonist’s evil henchman. (e.g. Hagrid, Malfoy)

Side characters – And finally, the side characters, who pop up from time to time. (e.g. Filch)

It’s important to make sure you don’t have too many characters. I had this problem with one of my books, and found critique partners felt that because there were too many secondary characters, they were all blurring together. If you have too many, there isn’t enough time in the space of a novel to flesh them all out. Even characters who don’t pop up very often need to have personality.

Make a list of all your characters, starting with the central ones and working down to those who pop up only once or twice. First things first, make sure their names aren’t too similar, and that you don’t have ten characters whose names all start with the letter A. Readers don’t know your characters inside out like you do, so it can be confusing to have lots of characters with names starting with the same letter, or that sound too similar. I’d suggest bearing this in mind when you are naming your characters right at the start, so you don’t get attached to names then have to change them later.

Take a look at your list of characters and think whether you have a balanced cast. It can be really easy to give them similar personalities. I once looked back at a cast of characters for one of my books and realised they were all basically the same. Having a mix of characters is more interesting for the reader and produces more conflict.

Also think about how those characters will interact with each other and where you may produce conflict from those relationships. There is, especially in fantasy and sci-fi, a main external plot produced by the world issues and/or villain, but internal conflict of individuals, and the conflict between people, is also important for driving a book of any genre. Do the characters agree or disagree on issues prevalent to the plot? Did they know each other before the start of the book? If so, what was their relationship before? If not, what are their first impressions of each other? How is are their relationships and attitudes going to change over the course of the book?

There are a lot of things to consider when building your cast of characters. All the details and ideas you come up with won’t make it into the book, but if you know your characters and their relationships inside out, they will come across strongly to the reader.

Are there any topics you’d like me to cover in my Writing Corner posts? Let me know in the comments if there’s anything in particular you’d be interested in.

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