Writing a large cast of characters – with Black Sails

Hello gentle reader,

Fantasy and Historical novels have something in common: they often have a large ensemble cast of at least a dozen main characters, with up to hundreds of secondary characters. Writing a large cast of characters presents some specific challenges: how can the writer make sure each character is distinct from the others and fully realized?

(Please note I’m not talking about the use of multiple points of view here: I’m only discussing managing a big ensemble cast).

With the fourth season of Game of Thrones being aired this month, you may be surprised that I haven’t chosen it as an example to support my argument. Although GoT does have a large ensemble cast, it circumnavigates some of the challenges of writing a large cast because all the main characters are in separate places.

Today I’d like to give a few pointers about writing a large cast of characters who are all in the same place and are forced to constantly interact. I wanted to use HBO’s Deadwood (aka My Favourite Show of All Time) but I realize this show was cancelled in 2006 and you may not have seen it. Therefore I’m going to use a far more recent example: Starz’ Black Sails, whose first season aired in January (side note: this show isn’t censored and the viewer discretion is advised). It’s a prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel Treasure Island. I’ve been careful not to include spoilers here.

Black Sails introduces us to a cast of 11 main characters and more than 30 (named) secondary characters. They are all in one place: New Providence Island (West Indies) in 1715.

black-sails-cast-starz
How do the writers of the show manage to make us recognise each character and care for their fate? And how can you do the same in your Work In Progress?

1) Create distinct characters

The key here is to give each main character his own name, his own way of speaking, his own look (clothes), his own motivations (reasons to be in the story) and his own plotline or “story arc”.

What can be helpful is writing an “ID card” for each character before or while you’re drafting: that way you can keep track of each detail and refer to the character’s card for consistency.

Black-Sails-Episode-1x07
In Black Sails, Eleanor Guthrie is one of the key characters, and she ticks all the above boxes: her speech, her clothes, her hairdos, her goals and her story arc are completely specific to her and she can’t be confused with any other character.

2) Organize your key characters in groups and don’t introduce them all at once.

Black Sails 2
The characters in Black Sails can roughly be put into 3 groups: one led by Captain James Flint, one led by Eleanor Guthrie and one led by Captain Charles Vane.

Of course, these groups aren’t set in stone: as the story develops, people mingle, allegiances shift, etc. But these groups are a great way to introduce all the characters at the beginning: a reader or viewer can’t memorize the names of 20 characters in one chapter or one episode. However, what they can do is identify a few main characters and the group around them.

At the end of the first episode of Black Sails, I couldn’t tell you more than a couple of characters’ names. I could, however, tell you that Captain Flint was the main lead character, that his goal was to find a Spanish treasure galleon, and that his crew consisted of a nice and wise quartermaster, a handsome first mate, and a clever cook with a secret.

3) An opportunity for diversity

Having a large cast of characters is a golden opportunity to introduce characters with diverse cultural, religious and ethnic backgrounds, from different age groups, with various sexual orientations or with disabilities.

Black Sails makes quite an effort to introduce diversity in its cast of characters. In 8 episodes, these topics weren’t fully developed, but there’s room for some interesting characters’ development in the seasons to come.

Black Sails 3
4) Make us care: create complex characters

With a large cast of characters, it’s important that each one is fully fleshed out, with qualities and flaws. To make them as human as possible, it’s necessary to have them make good AND bad decisions, experience a wide range of emotions and be both strong and fragile.

If you check out Black Sails on Tumblr, you’ll see the premise of a fandom taking form. And among all the people who watched the first season of the show, you’ll see there are people who love Flint. Other people who hate Flint. People who love Vane. Other people who hate Vane with a fiery passion. People who love Max. People who can’t see why Max is even in the show. Etc. Etc. The reason all these people can’t seem to agree or make up their mind is because these characters are complex enough that you can’t really love them or hate them. There are no heroes and no bad guys.

black-sails-faces-an-uncertain-future
Let’s take Charles Vane as an example. This character is introduced as a villain. In the first couple of episodes he manages to kill a nice (elderly) secondary character, to punch Eleanor in the face and to beat up Max. So what writing device turns this cruel, murdering pirate into a complex character we actually care about? First, he has friends. Well, one friend, at least. This shows us others do see more in him than what he appears to be. Secondly, he rarely gets his way. For someone who’s willing to do anything to get what he wants, he actually rarely gets what he wants. That makes us sympathize with him, somehow. Finally, he’s in love with a girl who doesn’t love him. That’s always relatable. As a result, by Episode 6, you sort of like Charles Vane, with his flaws and his “no one understands me” attitude. Right? But he wouldn’t be a complex character if he was just this misunderstood guy. So in Episode 8 (the last in the season), the writers have him back to his old ways and you’re back to shouting at your TV screen and wondering if he’s-going-to-kill-everyone-oh-my-I-can’t-even.

Please note I could have written almost the same paragraph about James Flint, except that he starts out as the “hero” and ends up being not that hero-like…

5) Show, don’t tell

My final advice when writing a large cast of characters is to remember to show them to the reader, not tell the reader about them. We need to understand who these characters are and to make up our mind about them through their actions, not because we’re told about them.

Black Sails John Silver
In Black Sails, Long John Silver is a good example of a character we aren’t told much about. We don’t really know who he is, where he came from and what his backstory is. We do, however, get a really clear idea of what kind of person he is through his actions. By the end of the season, we know he’s an opportunist, a liar, a thief, a terrible cook, a very clever man and the Most Likely To Make It Out Alive of the show. That’s characterization well done.

So tell me: have you included a large set of characters in your manuscript? How did you go about it? Most importantly, have you watched Black Sails? Feel free to leave me a comment below!

On Writing Unforgettable Secondary Characters – With Ianto Jones

Hello gentle reader,

Today I’d like to talk about how to write unforgettable secondary characters. To do so I will use the example of Ianto Jones, a supporting character in the British Science-Fiction Drama Torchwood (played by Gareth David-Lloyd). Fair warning: here there’ll be spoilers, so stop reading now if you haven’t watched this great show which ended in 2010.

Ianto Jones Portrait

Why Ianto Jones, you ask? Because when Ianto died in the fourth episode of the series’ third season in July 2009, fans were so overwhelmed with shock and grief they created a shrine for him in Cardiff. Yes, a shrine.

Ianto's Shrine - Cardiff

Photo by crimson_bride from Save Ianto.Com

So how did the writers of the show made us care for Ianto so much that his fictional death broke our hearts, and what can we learn from this for our own writing?

1-      The audience can relate to him

The Torchwood Institute is a small team of alien-hunters in Cardiff, Wales. All the main characters are clever and charismatic heroes who are excellent at saving the world and the day. And then you have Ianto.

Ianto Jones - Gwen's wedding dress

“And this is Ianto Jones. Ianto cleans up after us and gets us everywhere on time.”

Ianto is not a hero. He makes coffee, sweeps the floor, drives the car, gets takeout food and occasionally helps the heroine buy her wedding dress. He is stuck in a dead-end job and feels inadequate. And yet, in this part-of-the-background kind of way, the audience gets used to him. And starts to wonder why he’s here…

2-       He has a personality

From the start of the series, Ianto has defining characteristics that make him real and present in the audience’s subconscious. These are details, but they help flesh him out: his clothes (a three-piece suit, his earpiece), the stiffness in his posture, his dry sense of humor… Ianto is a 3D character.

Ianto Jones Official Promo

3-      Somebody loves him

The best way to make the reader/audience care about a character is to show him loved by another beloved character. In this case, it becomes clear in the 2d season of the show that the hero Jack is falling for Ianto. And the fact that Ianto means something to the other protagonists makes it easier for the audience to love him too.

Ianto Jones - Jack Harkness

4-      His actions are motivated (even if it’s not clear at first)

Ianto’s presence in the Torchwood’s team is not accidental. The audience doesn’t know it at first, and finds out about it as the series progresses. And looking back, you’re able to understand why Ianto accepted this dead-end job, why he acted the way he did in each episode, and why his death is simply a tragedy.

5-      He is flawed

Ianto Jones is not a hero. He is a normal bloke who makes bad decisions, can be a coward in the face of danger and has dubious judgment. He has layers. And you can only love him for it.

So next time you’re creating a secondary character, ask you yourself how you can make him so real, so mutli-layered and so easy to identify with your readers will build him a shrine when you kill him off.

How do you make secondary characters unforgettable? Share your tips in the comment section below!

And here are a few links you may find useful:

On Writing Memorable (Minor) Characters
Creating Memorable Secondary Characters
10 Secrets to Creating Unforgettable Supporting Characters

On characters : whose story is this anyway ?

Hello gentle reader,

Today is Sunday, so here is my weekly post about the writing process. Hope you all had a lovely week. If you’re here to enter my Stuck In A Good Book Giveaway, click here.

As you may know, I’m currently revising my WIP The Last Queen, and this week I have been thinking a lot about characters and points of view. In most stories, the viewpoint character and the main character are the same person. But it doesn’t have to be. In my WIP, my main character is not the hero of the story. And it’s perfectly fine to write your story this way, as long as you know what you’re doing.

In The Writer’s Digest Guide to Science Fiction and Fantasy, Hugo Award winner Orson Scott Card explains:

“When you’re deciding whom the story is about, remember that the “hero”, the main character, and viewpoint character don’t have to be the same person. Most of us use the term hero as an informal synonym for “main character”. But in our day (…) it’s useful to keep a distinction in mind.

The hero is the character that the audience hopes will achieve his goals and desires – the character we are rooting for. There’s a moral judgment involved here. (…) We want him to win.

But the hero isn’t always the main character. Sometimes the most important character in a story, the one who makes everything happen, the one whose choices and struggles the story is about, [is another character].”

One of the best examples of this duality in a story is the movie Sucker Punch by Zack Snyder (2011). In this story, the main character is a girl named Sweet Pea.

She is the narrator of the story and the leader of the group of characters. She makes the decisions, and the story revolves around her choices and future.

But she is not the heroine of the movie. The heroine is another girl, named Baby Doll. She is the one the audience connects with and cares about. She is the one we follow to find out if her hopes and desires will be fulfilled. And it so happens that her desires and hopes involve giving Sweet Pea a bright future.

So how do you go about choosing your main character?

1)      You decide what you want to write about. What you want to say through your story.

2)      You decide whose story you want to tell. You choose your main character,  a voice to speak throughout the story, a character who connects with the reader.

3)      You decide if this main character is the hero of your story. Most of the times, the answer will be yes. But sometimes, it might worth considering the answer no.

 Then you write.

“And finally this question, the mystery of whose story it will be. Of who draws the curtain. Who is it that chooses our steps in the dance? Who drives us mad? Lashes us with whips and crowns us with victory when we survive the impossible? Who is it, that does all of these things?

Who honors those we love for the very life we live? Who sends monsters to kill us, and at the same time sings that we will never die? Who teaches us what’s real and how to laugh at lies? Who decides why we live and what we’ll die to defend? Who chains us? And Who holds the key that can set us free…

It’s You.

You have all the weapons you need.

Now Fight!”

Sweet Pea in Sucker Punch

So how do you go about choosing your main character? Is your main character always the hero in your stories? I’d love the read your input below!