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.

Breakfast-Club-movie-posterLet 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!

              

13 Responses to Tips for Creating an Ensemble Cast of Characters

  1. Carrie-Anne Feb 17 2014 at 10:52 am #

    I almost always write with an ensemble cast. It’s just what I’m used to reading, since that’s the traditional standard in the historical and literary genres. Every character has his or her own personality, even if not every always carries his or her own storylines.

    Since I have so many characters, though, and there are only so many letters in an alphabet, I sometimes do have characters whose names start with the same letters. It’s never been hard for me to tell characters with the same letters apart, either in my own work or other people’s.

    In the book I’m doing final edits on now, for a 20 June release, each of my six sisters, their three brothers, their parents, and their friends have their own personalities and characteristics. Even though one character in particular is the protagonist, everyone else around her is just as important in the family saga.

    • Julie
      Julie Feb 17 2014 at 8:07 pm #

      Hi Carrie-Anne! I must admit, my current WIP has two female characters whose names start with the same letter. I agree with you that it is possible to distinguish them in other ways. (I do think the ‘different first letter’ rule helps, but it shouldn’t be too rigid.) Thanks for commenting! Your stories sound very intricate. Best of luck with your June 20 release!

  2. louisa Feb 17 2014 at 7:25 pm #

    Great article Julie. You’ve made me see the breakfast club in a whole new light (only because I watched it when I was young, not as a writer). This example is great for defining characters and their roles. I have already used some of these tips without knowing (like clothes and speech), but the name example is new. Thank you!

    • Julie
      Julie Feb 17 2014 at 8:09 pm #

      Hi Louisa! I’m so glad you found the post helpful! And of course I’m always happy to spread The Breakfast Club love. 🙂 Thanks for commenting!

  3. Patrick Stahl Feb 17 2014 at 9:04 pm #

    Weapon of choice is helpful (in the genres I write most). A distinct way of speaking and varying level of participation in group discussion is important as well. I’m writing an epic/heroic fantasy with a cast as large as that of The Hobbit, so I need to use plenty of tricks.

    • Julie
      Julie Feb 17 2014 at 9:11 pm #

      Weapon of choice is a great one! And yes – level of participation is probably just as important as the way they speak. Great additions to the discussion! Thanks for commenting!

  4. Alexa S. Feb 19 2014 at 4:25 pm #

    I love reading books with ensemble casts in them! There’s something wonderful about meeting a diverse cast of characters that you can fall in love with and enjoy. I don’t normally write them, however, only because I worry that I will never be able to fully flesh them out. I’m encouraged by your post to give it a try though!

    • Julie
      Julie Feb 19 2014 at 4:32 pm #

      Hey Alexa! I love to read books with ensemble casts, too, and I think you’re onto something – having so many characters to care about makes a story all the more engrossing! I hope you’ll take a chance and try to write an ensembe cast, even if just for the sake of an exercise. 🙂

  5. Myron Feb 21 2014 at 12:14 pm #

    This post was extremely helpful. I never really thought about the clothing and name details as deeply as I should have for The Breakfast Club. Now I’m going to have to watch this again tonight with a sharper eye. Thank you for this post. Please keep them coming.

    • Julie
      Julie Feb 21 2014 at 1:05 pm #

      Glad I can spread The Breakfast Club love. 🙂 It was definitely one of John Hughes’s best. Thanks for the comment – so glad you liked the post, Myron!

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