Three's a Crowd, Dozens are a Statistic (Or, Bigger Casts, Secondary Characters and How to Avoid a Backdrop of Cardboard)

Teams and larger casts are set to boom, methinks, especially if these team-based casts (a la Hourglass) and YA sci-fi, what with the starship crews and armies and expeditions to desolate planets, etc., continue to increase. But the problem with this is that YA is so used to focusing on a trio, with a couple memorable secondaries whose appearances are based purely on comic relief or plot, that some of these larger casts are having trouble growing from this trio.

A book I recently read had this problem. Fluid, fast-paced writing, enjoyable. I hadn't felt any criticism itch until we got to introducing the "team" and what it is they could do/why they were there in the first place. Admittedly, introducing people with a focus on their abilities has the potential to be clunky, and a lot of writers take the easy way out with a dollop of didacticism. 

This is Jack. Jack is sheepolopath. That means that he can read the minds of sheep, and it also means that he can control them and gather all the world's sheep into an unstoppable wool army. He also likes long walks on the beach and strawberry daiquiris. 


Another problem we have is that we have the main narrative, and our trio/couple, and then, when we come to secondaries, they are placed into their own narrative, a second world, and a third world, and so on, until we forcibly extricate them from their own - and unknown - activities and lives so that we can use them for plot advancement/comedic timing/sloppy reveal.

In simpler terms, we get two wunderkind who are apart of the team, but you see them once, and they go about their business. They essentially run the whole team, but only when your mains need someone to order to do something/something dramatic happens, do they become active. Sort of like androids. 

So, here is where I ask you:

If they're a team, why don't they behave like it? Your mains don't need to do absolutely everything. Why not send one of your mains out with a secondary, or two? Teams mean equality. Teams don't mean Cullen families or Tributes in an arena - It means that there are four+ people who are equal under a leader, and who should get more face time than your average secondaries.

Why not split your POV, (if you're not first-person) and complicate and expand your narrative? Up above, I've got a picture of the Game of Thrones cast, or a tiny, tiny portion of it. It is a flawless TV show, (Go and watch it! Now.) and handles a large and intricate cast incredibly. And I know you may turn your nose up at me, but another more-YA-geared show is Vampire Diaries. 

Here's the doozy about large casts and people. They have free will. They are not bound to your little town, or your MC, or the single direction you have on your first draft, or second draft, or third. Why not treat your secondaries (the ones who are important) like new mains? Introduce them like you'd introduce a MC - show, don't tell us about them. 

Think about Game of Thrones. We have the links between the Lannisters, Starks and Targaryens - the conflict/war/revolution that resulted in where they are now. We see their paths will cross indubitably in the future. How? Well that's what we want to know. 

Vampire Diaries' third season begins with a number of narratives - we have Stephen and Klaus galavanting around in the hybrid-adventure-climbing-Mt.-Doom suchness, and we have Elena and Damon and their search. Then we have Caroline and Tyler and the familial complexities there, as well as Jeremy and Matt and the ghost debacle. Big cast, big fat narrative because guess what? It all comes together.

In Hourglass (and I'm not saying this is how it should've gone, because it kind of wouldn't make sense, just using it as an example for what I'm trying to tell you), the MC - Emerson - has her trio problem, as well as the fact that she's been seeing this semi-solid apparition called Jack who says that he's only around for her. There's a reveal where she realises that Jack is really the antagonist they're looking for, and says something like "he's been living in my bedroom". Now, imagine if one of the secondaries took this second narrative away from Emerson. We have the MC's problems escalating, but punctuated with this other POV and the Jack-ness. Now, we have the two characters meet - sweet! We've interwoven a larger cast in a more fluid manner - and then one predominant narrative where the action occurs, etc., and then the reveal where Emerson describes the antagonist she saw - not knowing who Jack is - and our secondary goes "Whoa! Hold up. He's been living in my bedroom."  

Extra characters means extra plots, extra problems, more responsibility. Do not just sweep these secondaries under the rug because it looks sloppy. Don't introduce them all within a span of two pages with a lot of infodump. Give us time to get to know them, to determine how we feel about them and how we perceive them.

With your trios/couples, less is always more. Use that interaction time to flesh out your secondary cast, who, in turn, will reflect your MC's personality. Allow your audience to co-create, to consider what could happen, how things could connect, and then surprise them with what really happens.

Bigger casts make for bigger possibilities and bigger plots. Remember that. Everyone has flaws, they have motives and a line they will/will not cross. They have their reasons and their aggressors. Challenge every character just like you're challenging your MC. But then again, don't flesh out the postman's backstory because he makes an appearance - Trust your gut. If you have an important secondary, show us they're important.

Now, to you. Comment below - I love hearing what you guys think! What bigger casts have you come across lately? Any classics that you'd always look to for inspiration? Do you think it's harder to handle bigger casts in fiction? Have you got any advice for introducing secondaries and teams? Any other thoughts?


Connie at: March 15, 2012 at 2:57 PM said...

I LOVE LOVE LOVE LOVE Game of Thrones!

I write High Fantasy and I love the attention it's getting from people my age (not technically teens) but the ultimate big cast for me as an inspiration has to be the Fellowship. <3 Boromir

I think you're right about the current mould. But if larger casts boom, will YA as readers be overwhelmed? Cause they've got used to the triangle and stuff.

Liv at: March 20, 2012 at 10:43 AM said...

I love all of this! (Except maybe flawless GoT, but not talking about that.)

I'm commenting to let you know that I've linked your post to one of mine. I do enjoy your blog and I'm having fun checking it out.

@Connie I don't think YA readers would be overwhelmed. I'm under the impression that a lot of them have watched/read GoT or read/watched HP, both of which have huge casts. I think they can handle it. They might even want it. :)

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